Waldemar Matuska - Czech pop legend turns 70

Waldemar Matuska, photo: CTK

One of the biggest Czech pop stars of the sixties, Waldemar Matuska, is turning 70 in a few weeks. In this week's Profile Pavla Horakova looks at the life of this famous Czech singer after four decades spent at the forefront of the Czech pop-music scene.

Waldemar Matuska,  photo: CTK
It's the year 1960. A dark, bearded young man with black bewitching eyes is standing astride on the stage of Prague's popular Semafor theatre. His name is Waldemar Matuska. With a banjo over his shoulder he's singing in a clear tenor from the top of his lungs.

Young girls were screaming and communist officials were feeling uneasy because there was something western or cosmopolitan about this exceptionally talented singer and also an entertainer and actor. Waldemar Matuska was one of those Czech artists about whom people used to say: His talents are wasted in this small country behind the iron curtain. If he were living in America he would be a world-famous superstar. Maybe he thought that himself, too - but made up his mind too late. Here is what a leading Czech music critic Jiri Cerny told Radio Prague's Rob Cameron in a recent interview.

RC: What about the Czech music scene, looking back maybe to the 60s? Who do you think was the biggest single talent, the most talented Czech pop artist of that time?

"Waldemar Matuska as a singer because he was partly a folk singer, partly a country singer. He was a very fine tenor but very mannish."

One of four sons of a Viennese operetta singer, Mia Malinova, and a Czech soldier from the Russian legion in the First World War, Waldemar Matuska was born in 1932 in the Slovak town of Kosice. He spent his childhood in Prague and later he became an apprentice glass blower in the west Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary. But soon he gave up the job and turned to music. Almost overnight he became a national icon for the young generation in the 60s.

It was unusual for a pop star to wear a beard. Waldemar Matuska grew his unmistakable black beard as far back as 1955 and with one short exception during a film shooting, never shaved it off. His talent for acting was discovered very soon and during the 1960's, Matuska played in a number of films including for example "Vsichni dobri rodaci" or "All My Good Countrymen". The director Vojtech Jasny received the Best Director prize at the 1969 Cannes film festival. But the film - just like many other Czech films at that time - was banned soon after its release as part of the process of communist "normalisation" after 1968.

While in the 60's Waldemar Matuska was enjoying the status of a star in Czechoslovakia, in the grim years after the Russian-led occupation, he seemed to lose some of his vigour although he still had a faithful audience. Over time he changed his repertoire to country and western, a turn for the worse for a singer who was used to songs tailor-made to his voice and personality.

In the autumn of 1986 the Czechoslovak public was shaken by an article entitled "The moral fall of a singer" published in the communist party's daily Rude pravo. Their revered and cherished star, a singing legend Waldemar Matuska has emigrated to the United States. For all generations of Matuska's fans his departure came as a great shock. These young people I stopped in the street were schoolchildren at the time Matuska left Czechoslovakia.

What comes to your mind when I say the name Waldemar Matuska?

"Well, that's a pop star of all my life. I remember seeing him in concert when I was about six years old. My parents took me to see him when we lived in Hranice na Morave and that was my first encounter with someone of that status and I remember it to this day."

"Well, I remember that he emigrated in the 80s. He was a very popular figure back then. I remember his songs. They had a strong patriotic accent. Of course, I was a child when he was popular in this country but then for many people it was a great disappointment when he left."

"There were some films I saw when I was a child. When he was young I really liked him because he was beautiful. Now he's an old man and I read an interview with him in one Czech magazine and I didn't really like it. I liked him when he was young and I liked his songs but I don't like his actual image."

After Matuska left in 1986 the communist authorities immediately took away all his honours saying he betrayed his homeland and the mission of an artist in the socialist society. At once all Matuska's songs - once ubiquitous - were banned from the radio and television. The album he recorded shortly before his departure was never released, all the films in which he played were withdrawn from distribution and condemned to rot away in the archives forever.

Two years after Matuska left Czechoslovakia, the communist daily Rude pravo published an article written by its Washington correspondent. It gave a sad account of Matuska's concert in the US capital. Only a hundred people turned up - a sharp contrast to the sold-out stadiums back home. At 54 Matuska was too old to start a new career in a foreign country without even knowing the language. But touring the States and Canada and singing for faithful ex-pats from a makeshift stage in pubs and schools he was able to earn a living.

Czech and Slovak fans of Waldemar Matuska did not have to wait long before they could see their star singing live again. In November 1989 the Velvet Revolution brought down the communist regime and in March 1990 Matuska was back in Prague.

When asked why he left Czechoslovakia Matuska says he couldn't breathe there. That is not only a metaphor. Waldemar Matuska has long been suffering from asthma and the polluted air of the Czech capital only aggravates his condition. That's why he now divides his time between Prague and the Southern state of Florida where he has a home and the climate is favourable to his health.

Waldemar Matuska is certainly not planning to retire. He will celebrate his 70th birthday on a tour around the Czech Republic and he's releasing a new greatest hits album. Here's another of his songs, which the Czech public will probably never get tired of.