Virtuoso pianist Tomáš Kačo: When I tell somebody I’m a Gypsy in the US, they’re excited about it

Tomáš Kačo, photo: archive of Tomáš Kačo

Earlier this year the young piano virtuoso Tomáš Kačo performed for the first time at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall. It was the fulfilment of a long-held dream for the 31-year-old, who comes from a large Romany family in a small Czech town and was a youth prodigy before seizing a life-changing chance to study in the US. I caught up with Tomáš Kačo when he was visiting Prague last week from his home in LA. My first question: When was he first exposed to music in a meaningful way?

Tomáš Kačo,  photo: archive of Tomáš Kačo
“I started playing piano when I was five, actually because my dad forced me to.

“At the time I just hated it. Like every kid, I wanted to go out and play soccer or stuff.

“And being forced was actually very important, but of course at the time I didn’t realise that, right?

“Then 12 years later, when I was 17 or 18, I heard the music of Frederic Chopin for the first time and I fell in love with music and the piano with all of my being.”

Was your dad a skilled teacher? Could he train you in piano?

“No, he wasn’t. He’s not a musician, he’s not a pianist.

“He just knows how to play a few chords on the piano, which is A minor, G major, F major and E major.

“He just had, I don’t know why, some kind of dream, that one of his kids would be a musician or a pianist.”

You come from a small town, Nový Jičín in Moravia. Were there many good teachers around? Was it possible to get good training in piano when you were a teenager, say?

“Officially I started to get real music training when I was, I guess, 11 or 12, but by that time my technique was already pretty good.

“I was kind of a rebellious guy, because I had freedom – until that time I was self-taught and I didn’t have any rules, any borders.

“But when I started to learn classical music, meaning notes and sheet music, they tried to put me in a box, in a sense.

“At music school I switched between three different teachers, because none of them knew how to handle me. I was always changing the music of Mozart.”

“I remember at music school I switched between three different teachers, because none of them knew how to handle me.

“I was always changing the music of Mozart or whatever.”

Were they trying to kind of re-educate you, telling you were doing everything wrong?

“Yes, exactly. That’s what they tried to do. Like, You can’t play this note there – it’s not written in the score, right?

“But I said, Wouldn’t this be better? It just sounds better to me.

“It was more about focus and trying to respect the traditions of classical music.”

I guess piano isn’t an instrument that’s commonly used in gypsy music. Do you take any influences from Romany culture into your work, do you feel?

“That’s a subject I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Like, what does gypsy music even mean?

“Because gypsy music is different in every country. That’s why you can’t generalise.

“But of course the biggest influence for people from the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, I mean Gypsies, is actually music from Hungary.

“The traditional instruments in gypsy music in Hungary are violin, viola, bass and the traditional Hungarian instrument called the dulcimer.

“Those people can play really fast on this instrument and I think pianists, when they try to play gypsy music, the tradition is kind of copying, or trying to copy, the sound of the dulcimer.”

The biggest turning point in your career must have been when you were accepted into the Berklee of School of Music in Boston. What did studying there give you?

“Studying at Berklee was a very important part of my life.

“I would say more than musically, I think I grew personally – my personality grew more than my musical education.

“Of course, my musical education developed as well.

“But I think just seeing and meeting different cultures and seeing the diversity at school and generally in the US, that just generally helped me a lot.

“It completely transported me to a different level at the human, personality level.”

Obviously in the US there is racism, but also there are a lot of multicultural areas or cities. In this country, everyone knows, there is racism towards Romanies. As a Romany person, how do you find living there compared to being here?

Tomáš Kačo,  photo: archive of Tomáš Kačo
“Basically when I’m in the US and I say to somebody I’m a Gypsy, or a Romany or whatever the correct word is, they are excited about it.

“They are, like, so interested and they want to know what it’s all about and about the traditions.

“Because they think that Gypsies are only in the movies kind of thing, that they don’t really exist. They’ve never met anyone who’s a real Gypsy.

“So it’s kind of like an advantage. I think in the US, the more different you are, the more interesting you are.

“And here if I meet new people, let’s say you grab a coffee with them, or they’re friends of your friends or something, it’s not easy to say that you’re a Gypsy or that there’s something different in your family tradition.

“Because you don’t know if they’re going to judge you right away. Mostly, like 90 percent, they have bad experiences of Gypsies and the judgment is there, right away.”

I saw you playing one time, I think about four years ago, at a wedding and you were absolutely fabulous. Did you often have to do that kind of work to make a bit of money in those days?

“Really, four years ago at a wedding?”

Around four years ago.

“Oh man. I used to do those kinds of gigs you know.

“It was pretty good, a pretty easy job, pretty easy like side money, you know.

“Of course, it wasn’t my main focus.

“Young Romany kids have pretty low self-confidence. Their talent can be high, but their confidence is low.”

“It’s pretty dangerous area, because once you get good at these kinds of gigs, it’s quite easy to fall into it and stay doing it.

“You can make good money and everything, but you stay at the level of being a pub or wedding gigs musician.”

Now obviously you’re at a very different level. You played at Carnegie Hall in New York in February of this year for the first time. What did it mean to you to play at a venue that everyone in the world who knows anything about music has heard of?

“It was such an honour, you know, and such a responsibility.

“I felt great responsibility and at a certain time I just felt, Do I deserve it? Why me? I know I’m probably not the best pianist in the world, I know there are tonnes of better pianists.

“I was kind of playing with the idea in my head. I was like, Man, shouldn’t I just call some of my friends from the Czech Republic who play much better and probably deserve it.

“But after a while I realised it is what it is, you know, and I’ve just got to take advantage of it and do my best.”

Were you more nervous than usual or anything like that?

“Yes, I was pretty nervous when I was backstage, in the green room.

“Because I had a lady there taking care of me and I started to talk to her and asked her how long she’d been working there.

“She told me she was working there for 40 years and she said, All the big artists started right here, like [Vladimir] Horowitz and all these guys.

Tomáš Kačo,  photo: archive of Tomáš Kačo
“I was like, Oh, my goodness. It took my breath away completely.

“I was honoured that this lady was taking care of me, asking if I had water or needed something.

“So I was pretty nervous. But from the minute when I sat down at the piano and started to play everything fell away.”

There was a lot of coverage of that concert here in the Czech media. What was the response of your family or perhaps even the broader Romany community to your success?

“It was pretty positive. Everybody was happy for me.

“I think the Gypsy community were pretty proud and kind of showing off. They were like, We’re so proud that you’re a Gypsy and you’re doing so well.”

Also there probably aren’t that many role models for young Romany kids?

“Exactly. And I think that’s what’s needed.

“Young Romany kids have pretty low self-confidence. Just because they are Gypsies.

“Their skill is pretty high, their talent can be pretty high, but their confidence is pretty low.”

Did you ever get annoyed by the coverage of your concert? A lot of the headlines were along the lines of, Here’s this poor guy, he’s got 11 brothers and sisters, he’s come from nowhere, he’s a Romany and now he’s playing at Carnegie Hall.

“I know how the media works – and what they’re selling is the story.

“What I more felt sorry about was that people didn’t know what my music was about.

“Many people think I perform classical music only, strictly classical pieces. Or strictly jazz – many people think I’m a jazz pianist, you know.

“I definitely don’t want to be a Michael Jackson type star but more like the pianist who’s playing for Michael Jackson.”

“So people don’t know. But what they do know is the story.

“I think it will take more time before people know and appreciate what the music is about.”

As well as playing music, you also compose and improvise. Do you feel that you fit in comfortably to classical music or would you see yourself being more in the kind of crossover area, reaching out to audiences who usually wouldn’t go to classical concerts?

“Yes, I definitely feel I’m somebody who’s making bridges between nationalities and bridges between different music genres.

“So it’s definitely not going to be simply classical or simply jazz. It’s always going to be about trying to get people to learn about fusion.

“Because I grew up in a fusion. My tradition is fusion.

“It wasn’t only Gypsy, you know – it was Czech as well. I’m a Gypsy and I’m Czech.

“And the music’s like that as well – it’s fusion.”

Would you like to be a big pop classical musician? Like these guys who play in big arenas with big shows and all that kind of stuff.

“No, no. I was always an introvert type of guy and I’ve got a bit of a phobia of people – if there are many people around me, I don’t like.

“I don’t have a problem if I’m on the stage and there are like 6,000 people sitting and watching or whatever.

“I definitely don’t want to be a Michael Jackson type star but more like the pianist who’s playing for Michael Jackson, kind of thing [laughs].”

Tomáš Kačo | Photo: archive of Tomáš Kačo
My final question is where would you like to be, or what would you like to be doing in terms of your career, in let’s say 10 years from today?

“Ten years from today I would love to have at least one Grammy nomination [laughs]…”

Not just a nomination – you must want the award as well.

“Yes, maybe the award.

“And probably later touring the world, of course, performing and sharing my music.

“Trying to do as many collaborations as possible with many different artists in different genres.

“And just to try to connect people, connect genres, and inspire more and more people with my story.”

Tomáš Kačo is currently preparing his debut LP My Home. He is performing at Prague’s Convent of St. Agnes on November 11 and will play at Carnegie Hall again on February 22.