Steels Strings and Iron Curtains
Steel Strings and Iron Curtains is a special project of Plamen Press—four years in the making and sponsored in part by the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences, Washington DC. Plamen Press’s mission to bring Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European culture to an English-speaking audience has been expanded to the iconic songwriting and musical stylings of Karel Kryl and Jaromir Nohavica.
In their native Czech Republic, Kryl and Nohavica are known for powerful, politically-minded & existential lyrics that inspired generations living behind the Iron Curtain. And just in time for 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, we wanted to introduce the English-speaking community to Central Europe’s versions of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Ray LaMontagne and Elliot Smith. While Plamen Press is striving to present Kryl and Nohavica as literary artists, this project does not marginalize the significance of its music. Quite the opposite. Thanks to all the talented individuals who performed on these recordings, the beauty of Kryl and Nohavica’s songs are infused with elements of Gypsy Jazz played by guitarist Tomas Drgon and violinist Christina Kharazian. In addition, arrangements include traditional Slovakian and Moravian instruments, such as the fujara and the koncovka, masterfully played by Bob Rychlik.
All songs were translated and co-produced by Roman Kostovski of Plamen Press, and sung in English for the first time. We partnered with Sun King Records’ Producer Ian Jones, known for his production of Reggae master Claudius Linton’s album Sign Time, to produce the tracks. In addition to Ian’s talents, we were fortunate to have worked with The Yehla Collective, a truly international and talented group of musicians from the Baltimore/DC area: Anna Connolly (USA), Tomáš Drgoň (Slovakia), Ian Jones (USA), David Keplinger (USA), Christine Kharazian (Armenia), Reggie Love (USA), and Bohuslav Rychlik (Czech Republic).
The Angel, Morituri te Salutant, Salome, Habet, A Heart and a Cross (Karel Kryl)
The Comet, Magdalene, Sarajevo, The Wastrel, Petersburg (Jaromír Nohavica)
Review by Vladimir Merta
A well selected collection of songs by Karel Kryl and Jaromir Nohavica that have been wonderfully performed and mastered with almost identical lyrics translated into English from its original Czech. I am very pleased that someone has taken the initiative to bring a part of our world to the American music scene. In this era of insane electronic self-promotion, producing an album with recordings of Czech poet-bards translated into English would seem like commercial suicide for both Plamen Press and Sun King Records. It’s as if we were reaching back to a time when samizdat was significant again—even on the other side of the fence we can see movement where artistic content is the defining catalyst, and not its commercial outcome. It was through samizdat that recordings of our own concerts in Communist Czechoslovakia were attainable on illegally distributed cassette tapes, while official distribution was banned by the law.
The production and each musicians’ contribution to this album is remarkable. I always wondered how our music, limited by its language barrier, would be accepted by ordinary folk outside of our borders, when it was predominantly meant for those here at home.
Unless I am mistaken, this album is the first of its kind. Up until now our singer-songwriters have been appreciated and translated only in Polish and Slovak by other singers with guitars. Steel Strings and Iron Curtains offers a bit more: the accompaniment of the fujara and the koncovka give these songs a unique Slavic flavor that could possibly break all cultural and geographical barriers. Here, Nohavica’s tunes are infused with a touch of western swing which added new energy much needed to his Polish and Russian melodica. Back in the day when we were all looking for inspiration in Anglo-American traditions, it was Karel Kryl and Jaromir Nohavica who drew from the melodies and temperament of Slavic roots, Romany songs from Odessa, Polish tones around Cieszyn. These songs prove in today’s day and age that we (Czechs) have an ability to create traditional tunes embraced by a worldwide audience. Their quality encouraged Plamen Press and Sun King Records to break away from the limited and rigid charade of pop music culture, and as a result this album is the first sparrow flying from the opposite direction —from East to West. The translation of the songs do not always seem as aggressive as their Czech originals, however, the English lyrics are as faithful as they can be to those words bellowed by the two greatest poet-bards our harshly tested homeland ever bore. The attention and care by those who participated in its creation will never be forgotten. Congratulations!