Ondrej Hejma - Renaissance rocker


Ondrej Hejma studied English and Chinese before becoming Prague correspondent of Associated Press in 1987. He is also a musician, and has been leading the rock band Zluty Pes for almost 30 years. On top of that he has - among many other things - been a judge on a popular TV talent show. Like a number of prominent figures, he has also been accused of collaboration with the StB secret police during the 1980s - an allegation he denies. When I met Ondrej Hejma at AP's office on Narodni, the conversation began with his native Prague 6, which was a hotbed of rock music when he was growing up.

"Prague 6, Dejvice, was always a place where for some reason there were very talented people in all kinds of arts, including music. That helped me. But I started late in bands and active musicianship, in the early '70s."

You formed Zluty Pes in 1978, I believe. What was it like in those days getting gigs? Was it hard to go places?

"It was not terribly difficult to find a place to play. But play for free - that was the style of the era. If you wanted to play for money you would have to apply for a licence and that entailed various conditions and problems. So playing for money was difficult, but playing for free was easy - and it always is."

What did you do for money in those days - what was your day job?

"The convenient thing was that I had graduated from university. I spoke decent English, so I never had problems finding jobs translating. It was good that it was a freelance job. You could spend your free time with music, make a little money translating, so you were fairly independent and didn't have to push music for money."

And 20 years ago you started working here at the Associated Press news agency - how did that come about?

"I had a friend who worked, who still works I believe, for a Japanese daily. He was a classmate of mine - he studied Japanese when I was studying Chinese. He told me that AP was looking for somebody in the late '80s to work for them here. So I applied and that's how I got the job."

Was it common under communism for foreign agencies to have their own people on the ground here?

"It was not a common job, I must tell you that. But, yes, all the major agencies had their person here. Except I believe Reuters. But the French AFP, German DPA, AP always had a person here - since the '60s."

I don't like to be indelicate...

"But you will!"

But was it the case that the communist StB approached you to work with them?

"Of course. They first approached me in 1970, when I had nothing to do with the AP. This was a standard thing happening to everyone who spoke a different language. So it became a natural target."

What did they ask of you, what did you do for them, and how do you look back on those days?

"(laughs) I didn't do anything for them, really. We drank a lot of beer."

Back to journalism - was the 1989 Velvet Revolution a highlight of your career?

"A highlight? Yes, in many ways, especially from the professional point of view. Because as you can understand the late '80s were slow in terms of journalism, nothing really happening. The revolution was a huge story, a global story. And that's when you finally, eventually learn about journalism."

Is it the case that then nothing was happening, in the '80s, then in the early '90s lots of things were happening, and now Prague has again become less interesting for the world's media?

"Pretty much so, I must say. Although it's not quite the same, it's not comparable to the '80s. But you're right - this is not a front page story now, as it was during the time of the revolution. But there are nice little things like the Sudoku World Championships probably worth covering. And a big story is the financial story."

Moving on to some other of your activities, a couple of years ago you became a judge on the Czech version of Pop Idol [Cesko hleda SuperStar]. How did that come about and how did you enjoy the experience?

"I was approached by the television, which was looking for new faces. Paradoxically I was almost 50 when I was accepted as a new face. I accepted it right away because I knew about the English version of Pop Idol and I liked it very much. And it was a very, very exciting experience. I loved it."

What was so great about it?

"It was new. It was the first thing bordering on a reality show. It was about music, which I like. It was like a fascinating play in which the individual characters emerged from being nobodies to being actual stars. It was just magic."

Did you ever fear that your public profile might get too big and you might get some abuse on the street for giving some would-be pop star a hard time?

"(laughs) I never worried about my public profile too much. No, I must say from what people tell you in the street they loved the show, they were always very friendly. And in terms of losing credit as a rock musician, I never considered myself an orthodox this or that. I just like music, that's all."

You're also a passionate golfer - how did you get into that?

"My sports journalist friends picked up golf in the early '90s, like so many other Czechs, when it was actually possible. Because I like sports of all kinds, and ball games especially, golf was immediately attractive. And another reason is I actually live between two golf courses, so it's very conveniently located as well. I like it and that's what I do with my free time now."

Who plays golf in the Czech Republic? Is it preserve of the rich or is it more popular now?

"Of course you could say it's a sport for managers, for businessmen, professionals of all kinds. But it's increasingly becoming a sport for people who just like ball games, like me. It has a reputation of being a snobbish sport, an expensive sport - but I always argue that this is not so. The example I give is downhill skiing, which is a very popular sport here. Anybody can do it, it's not limited to a privileged part of society. And I believe that downhill skiing is just as expensive as golf these days...If you want it, you can do it."

I've got a list here of some of your activities. You're a band leader, journalist of course, TV and radio presenter, you've done advertising copyrighting, you've acted, you were a talent show judge, translator, interpreter...how do you find time for all of these things? And what would you define yourself as, if you had to put it in one word?

"Curious, I guess. And in spite of the huge number of things that I've done I would think of myself as a rather lazy person. The whole trick is that you take up different things. You don't stick with just one and you try new things in life - and then the list gets longer."