Prague’s Respect festival offers cream of world music – but how popular is genre with Czechs?

Orchestra Baobab

The Czech Republic’s biggest festival of world music, Respect, is taking place in Prague on Friday and Saturday. In this week’s edition of the Arts, we learn about the event’s past and present, who is headlining this year, and the popularity (or otherwise) of world music in this country.

Trio Kazanchis,  who is playing at Respect this weekend.
Markéta Švecová is from Rachot, the company that promotes the annual festival, and also runs individual shows under the Respect title at Prague venues at other times of the year. She outlines the history of the festival, which this year is taking place for the 13th time.

“1998 was the first year of the festival. In the first years it took place in the area of Prague Castle, in the era when Václav Havel was president. Later it had to be moved, for example to Stromovka [park], and now this is the fourth time the festival will be at Štvanice Island.”

Where does the name come from?

“It’s connected with the idea of the festival, which is to contribute to respect to ethnic groups, different races, other cultures and religious backgrounds.”

There are many festivals every summer in the Czech Republic. What’s different about Respect?

“The Respect festival was the first event that was focused on the phenomenon of world music, and I think it is still quite a unique event in the Czech Republic, because there are not many festivals that would be focused on this kind of music…”

Generally speaking, is there a great deal of interest in the Czech Republic in world music?

“Well, to be honest, not too much. I think the Czech audience is oriented most to rock and other mainstream genres. I think also our programme is called ‘alternative’ or ‘ethno’. They are not the right words, and they could maybe cause some misunderstanding or something like that. I think the music we bring is really for a broad public, but the group that we can address is quite small.”

Jerzy Podulka runs Pohodlí, one of the Czech Republic’s leading distributors of world music. He confirms that there is not a great deal of interest in the genre in this country.

“I started in 1992, then in 1994 I opened a small shop near [Prague’s] Old Town Square, and interest has never been so big…”

Why do you think that is?

“It’s complicated. I don’t know exactly, but I feel that Czech people like Czech music. That’s the first thing, in my opinion. Second, there has never been any good promotion of world music in this time. The apogee of world music in the world was in the 1990s, especially, but in the Czech Republic it never became very popular.”

Yat Kha
You distribute world music. Are there any particular kinds of world music that are popular with Czech fans?

“I distribute many, many labels in the Czech Republic. And also I buy from big wholesalers, so I can offer everything that is on the world music market in the world. And interest here is changing all the time. In the 1990s there was some interest in let’s say gypsy music. Then came some interest in klezmer music, then came interest in belly dancing music…But I think all of these interests are finished, and now there is only an interest in good music.”

What do you think is the value of an event like the Respect festival?

“It’s very important. It’s the main festival in Prague, because many important groups play there. But interest in this festival is, in my opinion, very small. I see how many people come to listen to the music, the biggest bands. Is it a question of the price of tickets? I don’t think so, because the price is compatible to the situation here. It’s a two-day festival with many groups. And if Respect was in another city, let’s say Warsaw for example, because I am Polish and I can compare – a thousand people would come to the festival if it was held there. Here it’s a few hundred.”

Are there any particular groups you’re looking forward to seeing at Respect this weekend?

Anthony Joseph and Spasm Band
“I am very happy that I can listen to Trio Jourban, because I know their CDs and I like them very much.”

Among the other highlights should be Friday’s headliners, Anthony Joseph and Spasm Band, who Markéta Švecová says are not to be missed.

“Anthony Joseph comes from Trinidad but he has been living in the UK since 1989. His style is often described as slam poetry…or Caribbean voodoo. I think they are definitely worth seeing. They are here in the Czech Republic for the first time, and I can recommend their performance.”

I myself can recommend Saturday’s headliners Orchestra Baobab, a band from Senegal whose Pirates Choice is regarded as one of the all-time classic albums of world music. The group, who are now in middle age, were simply phenomenal when they played at Prague’s Lucerna Music Bar two years ago. Orchestra Baobab have an interesting biography, says Švecová.

Orchestra Baobab
“They started in the ‘70s and were very popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They are said to be a symbol of independent Africa. They had been playing for 17 years [the first time around], and then they reunited in 2001. Their music is a mixture of Cuban rhythms and Senegalese soul.”