LONDON, UK—It’s been 20 years since Druha Trava first played the US and the Czech bluegrass/folk band are getting antsy to return there this autumn, in part to play songs from their 2011 English-language album “Shuttle to Bethlehem.” The band, formed in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, was started in 1991 by two musicians Robert Krestan and Lubos Malina; the two had been members of the popular Czechoslovakian band Poutnici. They recorded their first album that year and have since released over 20 albums. Last year the band received an Andel Award (the Czech equivalent of a Grammy) for their country album “Marcipan z Toleda.” They have been named group of the year—twice—by the Bluegrass Association of the Czech Republic. The band recently recorded a live DVD that they plan to put out in the spring and will do a little promotional tour around the Czech Republic. After playing the festival circuit this summer (with some studio time to record another album), they plan to head back to the US in the autumn. Malina, who plays a menagerie of instruments including the banjo and fiddle, spoke with me about their history and future.
Tell me a bit about the background of the band.
I met Robert 29 years ago when I joined Poutnici. It was a Czech group in the 1970s, 1980s and Robert was the lead singer. We spent seven years with that group in the 1980s. Then after Revolution in 1989 we started thinking of a new project and in 1991 we start Druha Trava. Progressive American musicians from the bluegrass scene were our heroes. So we wanted to create something similar here but with our own music, we did not want to do covers. Robert is a great songwriter, so he wanted to do original stuff.
Bluegrass has been popular in central Europe—specifically in the Czech Republic—for over five decades, which might surprise people.
It was popular in 70s and 80s but it’s not so popular anymore. But there are still lots of banjos, guitar, and fiddle players here. They are very good, especially young people. They are much further than we were when we started. But we were pioneers.
What was it about bluegrass music that struck such a chord with Czechs?
At the time, we did not know it was called bluegrass. We were fascinated by the sound of the banjo and the musical configuration. I think it is similar situation in US in the 1950s or 1960s when Bill Monroe and others came. It was fresh and new and rhythmic and melodic. Songs were romantic, about the Wild West and John Henry and John Wesley Hardin. Songs were very popular and people would go out and do campfires and sing with the guitar. This music was new and fresh and we were young. It touched us.
How did you personally get involved in music?
My parents had tapes of country music and they were compilations of country music, where I first heard the banjo. I liked it and so my parents told me that there was Western music band in the town and they are looking for a fiddle player. I played so the band leader came, checked me out and said, “Why don’t you play with us?” I was just 13. So I came, he showed me a few licks on the fiddle and I used them all. There was a five string banjo in the band, and I was fascinated. I played with them for two years before I left my hometown for high school. I was really interested in five string banjos. But at that time, it was not possible to buy a five string in this country. So I tuned my guitar to sound like one. I cut finger picks from a lunch meat cans. (laughs)
So how old were you when you actually got to play your first real banjo?
I was about 16. I went to army music school, which was military school but equal to Czech conservatory but they focused on wind instruments, so I started to learn clarinet. And there was a banjo at the school. So I could borrow that. At 19, I got my own one.
But bluegrass is not so popular as it used to be, is it?
Well, I think the main problem is there is no strong personality/singer songwriter or extremely interesting person who would make people to pay attention. I think most of the band cover American bluegrass and if they write their own stuff, it is still so similar to American bluegrass. It is not too original. Robert is not just a bluegrass songwriter, he was interested in different kinds of music. I would not even say we are a bluegrass band. We only play two bluegrass songs. We are more folk, rock. We play Dylan.
Tell me about “Shuttle to Bethlehem.” Why did you decide to finally record in English?
We had tried a few times, we recorded three English-language albums but none of them had good translation of Robert’s original stuff. And it was the idea of Ruth Ellen Gruber [an American journalist based in Italy]. She came and pushed us to do this. She asked someone to translate the songs word by word and then she re-wrote it to a singing poetic way and then they finished it with Robert. So they both agreed on final versions of the songs and both were happy. On previous records, Robert translated himself and got some help but they had no sense for the poetics.
Do you feel like it works with English language audiences?
We have only been to the US once since we recorded it. When we sang in Czech, no one could understand but now they get it all, music, words and meanings. So I guess they should appreciate more and enjoy it more. And seems like it works.
What are the band’s plans for this year?
Well as you know, summer is festival season, so we play them every year. During summer we would like to record a studio album, maybe older songs by Robert that were not recorded or the recording were lost over time. And of course, we look forward to hopefully going to the US in the fall. We have been there every year since we first started going back in 1993.
First photo courtesy Universal Music, Second photo Rock For Czech