Pavel Bobek – Part 1

Pavel Bobek

Pavel Bobek is one of the greats of Czech popular music, best known for his Czech versions of songs by American artists like Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and his long-time hero Johnny Cash. A trained architect, he started out in the Czechoslovak bigbít (rock’n’roll) scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s, singing with an early version of the band Olympic before becoming a member of the Semafor theatre, one of the country’s most vibrant cultural institutions in the Communist era.

Pavel Bobek
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Pavel Bobek, who is now 73, at his home in a leafy corner of the Prague suburb of Břevnov. Our first topic: his beginnings in music.

“During the years when I was studying architecture I was listening to American music on a radio station that was audible here even through those rough Communist times. The name of the station was American Forces Network and it came from Munich, Germany.

“I started to play these songs on the piano. I started to catch the lyrics of the songs. There were no tape recorders, so I had to do it many times, many times. After listening to a beautiful song let’s say 50 times I had the lyrics and I was able to sing these songs. I sang them to my classmates at architecture.

“We made a small rock’n’roll group at the school of architecture here in Prague and I was the singer. So my first audience were my classmates.”

I know you were in an early version of the group Olympic, who later became a kind of Czech Beatles. Did you ever regret leaving Olympic?

“No, I never regretted it, because it was simply natural. Janda, Petr Janda, the leader of the group, who came into Olympic later than me…We were three or four years apart in age but still our musical taste was different. That difference in age meant a lot.

Semafor compilation
“The first time I heard the early recordings of The Beatles in the early ‘60s I was not…it was no rock’n’roll. The Beatles of course were geniuses, but they were no rock’n’roll. They were completely lost in rock’n’roll, and I like people who are at home with rock’n’roll.”

You yourself are also at home with country and you joined a group called Country Beat who performed at the Semafor theatre, and then you became a member of the theatre. One thing I can’t understand about the Semafor theatre is that it’s associated with many musicians, but generally when I think of a theatre I don’t think of music. What kind of an institution was Semafor, that it was so connected with music?

“From the first days, when I was still only in the audience, it always had a lot to do with music. Maybe you know names like Jiří Šlitr? Jiří Šlitr and Jiří Suchý composed very, very good songs and performed them and were very, very popular. They were so popular that they didn’t have enough time to fill the theatre’s itinerary for the whole month.

“So once two young actors, Miloslav Šimek and Jiří Grossman, came to our small Country Beat show. They found it amusing and they said we have so much work, even abroad, so would you take part of the Semafor theatre programme with us, to do let’s say half of it? Of course – that was something for us. That was the day that country and rock’n’roll music was brought to the stage of the Semafor theatre.

Jiří Šlitr and Jiří Suchý
“The songs we did on the stage at Semafor with Country Beat and later with the genius Czech lyrics made up for original American English-language songs by Jiří Grossman started to be very, very popular. That was my start.”

I know you were a member of Semafor until 1990. What did you get out of the experience of being a member of the theatre for all those years?

“I think it was a big school for me. I’m no showman, you know, but those 23 years on the Semafor stage taught me to move on stage, to speak to the people with no trouble, and to have enough courage.

“I’m very, very thankful to Semafor. And when it all ended in 1990 – no regrets. The situation was completely different. I was on my own. I thought to myself, singing American songs now, when American songs are imported to this country, nobody would be interested. But somehow the interest stayed. After three, four, five years – I was back.”

You studied architecture. What did your parents or your family think about the fact that you were singing rock’n’roll and country?

“Nothing bad, nothing bad. Because I’ve never abandoned architecture. For example, where we are now sitting, it’s my work. My greatest friends are not among musicians but among architects and builders.

“My father died when I was 18, before I started with music. I don’t know what he would say, but I’m quite sure he would agree. My mother said from time to time, you’re a young boy, you studied and studied and now you’re travelling with a crazy band [laughs] through the country, drinking – you should have stayed with what you studied.

“That was her opinion for the first few years. But when it became something more serious and less crazy, she agreed with it.”

You started singing in English, but later switched to Czech. Was that because of some political pressure from the regime?

“Not at all. Not at all. First, I never stopped singing in English. I still sing in English, many songs. There was no pressure from the regime on me. They didn’t say, he’s the guy who sings in English…

“I don’t know how, but my personal suspicion is that somebody from the top of the Communist Party simply liked the songs and was in my audience. Because it was nothing wild, nothing against the regime – simply good songs.

“With Jiří Grossman we found the solution – to sing these American songs in Czech. Country music especially depends on the lyrics, because many times they are stories. So I had to stand on stage and say, the next song is about a man who came home from the war and he didn’t find his girl, and so on.

“Jiří Grossman stood behind the curtain and he said, boy, 16 minutes you are speaking about what the song is about. Sing it in Czech simply, and in two minutes they will know everything.”