My Prague – Tonya Graves

Tonya Graves, photo: archive of Radio Prague

The US singer Tonya Graves is very well-known in the Czech Republic. A member of the popular funk group Monkey Business, she also performs solo and has been involved in various other musical projects since she first arrived here in the mid 1990s.

Stop One: The Vinohrady-Žižkov Border

Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad,  photo: CzechTourism

Our first destination when Tonya shows me around “her Prague” is náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad, a square that is very close to the border between the des res Vinohrady and the generally less salubrious Žižkov district.

“If asked, this is where I come from in Prague. Because the first place I ever lived was Žižkov. I know there’s a whole dispute, whether this is Žižkov or Vinohrady, but I always thought Žižkov.

“I have a really funny story. I remember speaking to someone, a Czech person, when I was first living here. She was, like, where do you live? And I said, Žižkov, it’s really cool. She said, how can you live there? There’s all those black people there [laughs].

“Obviously she meant Roma. But I was like, black people, where? I haven’t seen any, I’m the only one I know [laughs]. Where are these black people?!”

“But, yeah, if you ask me where I’m from, I’m from Žižkov. Now we’re standing at my very first tram station, and also metro station, Jiřího z Poděbrad, which even after 18 years I still haven’t learned how to properly pronounce, but it’s a lot better.”

You were saying you even had trouble getting home – it was hard to order a taxi.

“Yeah, it was really hard. Because my metro station was Jiřího z Poděbrad and I lived at Křížkovského, that was the name of my street. I just couldn’t pronounce anything. I’d get in a taxi and they’d be, like, where? And I’d be, like, krzrzrzrz…Where?! Žižkovského. Where?!

“So I’m, like, the TV Tower. Because I knew that if I could get to the television tower I could get home, because I just lived a block or so away.”

Žižkov,  photo: Kristýna Maková

For those who don’t know this part of the city, how would you describe it?

“Well, I think it’s changed a lot from when I first knew it. When I first moved to this part of the city, it was pretty rough. Not that someone would mug you, but it hadn’t gone through the gentrification process.

“Now it’s kind of a nice place, with young up and coming people, because it’s kind of cool – it’s got that aura or atmosphere about it.

“But when I lived here there was mainly a lot of kind of old places. I remember there was a place that sold grilled chicken, just regular kind of hospodas [pubs] where the regular local old guys would always go.

“Probably the most exciting place was Akropolis, which is where all the young, artsy people hung out. But they had also really good spinach palačinky [pancakes]. And it was also right around the corner from my house [laughs].”

Also this area is completely full of bars.

“It’s so full of bars. If you go down the hill, another one of my favourite bars at the time was The Shot Out Eye, U vystřelenýho oka. That place is good. I have a lot of good memories from there.

“It’s fun in the summer, because you can sit outside. Sometimes they manage to cram a band in there, even though it’s teeny-tiny and small. It’s an old punk kind of bar, but it’s a great place. And the people are good. They’re just regular Joes, and I like regular Joes.”

Also what’s a great resource in this area is the beer garden in Riegrovy sady.

“Yeah, that’s true. That’s a great park, you can see the Castle from there at some points, there’s a good view and everything.

Riegrovy sady beer garden,  photo: Kristýna Maková

“The beer garden there is great, because unlike a few of the other beer gardens in Prague, Riegrovy sady is covered. So if it rains…”

Part of it is covered.

“Well, part of it’s covered! That’s enough! The part with the big screen is, so you can watch the football and stuff like that. Important sporting events. That part’s covered.

“The only thing about it is they don’t have Plzeň [Pilsner Urquell] on tap. That is a problem with Riegrovy sady. So, if you’re listening, měli byste jako vyměnit pivo. Prosím. Dekuji! [you should change your beer. Please. Thank you!] [laughs].

They have total headache beer.

“I don’t even want to name the beer in there. You should get Plzeň. It’s a much better beer. No more headache beer [laughs].”

Stop Two: Olšanské hřbitovy

Olšanské hřbitovy,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

From Jiřího z Poděbrad it’s a short walk to our next stop on the “Tonya Graves’ tour of Prague”, Olšanské hřbitovy, a complex of cemeteries that has been the city’s main burial ground for several centuries. Known for its numerous art nouveau monuments, it is the last resting place of everyone from Josef Lada to Klement Gottwald. What’s the appeal of the place for Tonya?

“It probably seems a cliché that my name is Graves and I like cemeteries. But this particular cemetery – I lived just across the road from here and it was a great shortcut when I had to go to the Foreigners Police, back in the days when I had to go renew my visa every year.

“It’s a great place to walk on a beautiful sunny day. It’s really calm and is actually peaceful and nice. And it was also the only other place where I found other Antonias alive, well not alive [laughs], but in Prague!”

Because it’s an old-fashioned name among Czechs?

“Yes. It’s slowly starting to come into fashion. There’s one in my son’s class and a few others in the school. But for years nobody was called Antonia.

“So I’d take a shortcut to the Foreigners Police and stop in and visit a few friends with the same name. Have a nice walk [laughs].”

If you go to the TV Tower you see from there how huge it is. At street level that’s not really apparent. From there, it looks like Central Park – it’s gigantic.

“It’s huge. From street level you’d think it’s maybe about a block long, but it’s really big. And it continues across the road and behind that is the Jewish cemetery. Not the old one, but the new one, which is still pretty old [laughs].”

Olšanské hřbitovy,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

That’s where Kafka is.

“Yes, he’s in the new cemetery. But, I mean, the place is huge…But I have to say, I just found out the whole thing about renting your grave, I only recently found that out and it totally bums me out…”

What you mean is, here when you die, you don’t have a plot forever, you get it by the year, or by the decade?

“Yeah, every 10 years you have to pay for another 10 years. It’s like, I’m dead. Didn’t the state get enough money out of me when I was alive? OK. Whatever. Let’s not get all political. But, I mean, come on. But you’re dead. You should be able to rest in peace, not rest in pay [laughs].”

One thing I like about this graveyard is if you compare it to Vyšehrad, there it’s only for the great and the good…here you also find the great and the good – you have Jan Palach, Voskovec and Werich – but you mainly have ordinary people.

“Yes. And, back to the Antonias, that’s what I really liked. Because you do see these fabulous graves, or plots of well-to-do families or people who actually put the time in and really keep up the graves.

“And then you see some of these old mausoleums that have been closed up and nobody’s been there for who knows how long.”

How does this compare to graveyards where you come from?

“Well, in the States the graveyards that I’ve been to…I don’t want to say they’re better, or they’re more well-kept, because that’s not the case.

Olšanské hřbitovy,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

“Here, which I think is kind of cool, you see lots of graves that are kind of grown over with ivy and stuff like that. It leads to a spooky, mysterious kind of feeling.

“You don’t really see that in America. Everything is completely mowed. At least, I’m from New York State and at the cemeteries I’ve been in, everything is just completely manicured perfectly.

“And here there’s a little bit of nature taking its course. Which I think is right for a cemetery.”

Stop Three: Kaaba

Tonya Graves’ first choice of bar or café, the neighbourhood cocktail bar Hapu, wasn’t yet open when we were out and about on a snowy afternoon, so in the end our final port of call was the café-bar Kaaba. At the city centre end of Mánesova St., its colourful, retro style makes it one of the most instantly recognizable spots in Prague. Tonya explains why she’s a fan.

“The first thing I like is the way it looks. It’s very retro. I like these old chairs that make me feel like I’m sitting in an episode of Mad Men [laughs].

“I like that they have breakfast all day. I like any place that has breakfast all day. If you’ve got breakfast all day, you’re a pretty good place!

Tonya Graves in Kaaba,  photo: archive of Radio Prague

“It’s comfy. You can just come by yourself and read a book – or a magazine. They’ve got great magazines. They have hard to find magazines that you’re not going to find at any regular trafika [newsagents].

“I know the difference between today and 1995 is that it’s not so hard to find an English copy of Time or Vanity Fair. But there are a lot of other magazines that you can’t find in English, or any other language than Czech, that you can find here. I like that. That’s a great thing.”

Apart from Kaaba here, what other bars or cafés do you like in Prague?

“One of my all-time favourites is Hapu, which is also in Žižkov, because it was one of the first cocktail bars that wasn’t snooty-tooty. Again it’s a regular Joe place, and I like those places best.

“And there was a time when I lived in a really, really small flat: one room. So I would just go to Hapu every day, because it was like my living room.

“And not to sound like an alcoholic – I wasn’t. I had my very own special, non-alcoholic cocktail that was called Tonička, named after me [laughs].”

Otherwise, you were telling me you’ve been living in Prague since 1995. How has Prague changed in terms of being a city to go out in, in those years?

“It’s a lot different. I never knew of any cafés in Žižkov in those days. There were no cafés. Everything was a hospoda, everything was a bar. Which I didn’t complain about, because I was much younger.

“But now…restaurants, there’s a big difference. When I came there were mainly Czech restaurants. There were a few vegetarian places, like the Hare Krishna restaurants and Radost, which was actually the first placed I worked in Prague.

Kaaba,  photo: Kaaba website

“Now, you throw a stone and you hit whatever kind of international food restaurant. It’s not just Czech and Italian restaurants any more. You’ve got Thai, you’ve got Vietnamese, you’ve got Japanese, you’ve got, of course, Italian, but much better Italian now. There’s not just some guy in the back making spaghetti with ketchup [laughs].

“The level and selection has greatly improved in the 18 years that I’ve been here.”