were called “Tramps,” but you could say the post-WWI Czechoslovakian
back-to-nature movement was somewhat Bohemian. In some ways, they were early
outdoorsmen-environmentalists, but they also had an affinity for Americana
culture. They were the closest things to cowboys in Eastern Europe, who formed
the original nucleus of the most significant Bluegrass scene outside of the
United States. Ethnomusicologist Lee Bidgood & director Shara K. Lange
explore the continuing Czech Bluegrass tradition in Banjo Romantika: American Bluegrass Music & the Czech Imagination (trailer here), which screens
during the 2015 Kingston (NY) Film Festival.
Bluegrass was definitely associated with America—and yes, that was a little
awkward during the Communist era. Nevertheless, local musicians and fans
managed to hold the nation’s first international Bluegrass festival in 1972.
These were hearty, hardy folks who often embraced American music and drove U.S.
Army jeeps to express defiance. Not surprisingly, Bluegrass often accompanied
the Velvet Revolution protests, particularly the music of Robert Křest’an, whom
Lange films recording his latest album.
to American Armed Forces Radio, pioneers like Marko Čermák heard all the
American greats. While they can do their share of fleet Scruggs-inspired picking,
they processed the music into something very Czech, yet the affinity for the
country hills remains. Frankly, there is an unexpected soulfulness to the music
performed in Romantika that sounds
a documentary, Romantika offers a
good balance of performance and cultural context. Lange’s interview subjects
clearly establish Bluegrass’s Cold War significance as a symbol of freedom,
without belaboring the point. East Tennessee State Prof. Bidgood serves as our
guide through the history of Czech/Czechoslovakian Bluegrass, but he does all
his talking on the bandstand, leading his combo through a set of the music
under discussion. They sound great too.
If you have ever spent time in the Czech
Republic, especially in the countryside, Romantika
will bring back happy memories and make wish for a return trip, which is
not something you would expect from a Bluegrass documentary. This is just a
terrific, terrific film. Clocking in just under seventy minutes, it is on the
short side but it is well worth every minute spent. Hopefully, it will
eventually find a further audience on PBS (or somewhere), because it deserves a
chance to be seen widely. Very highly recommended, Banjo Romantika screens this Friday afternoon (8/14) as part of the
2015 Kingston Film Festival in Ulster County.
Labels: Bluegrass, Czech Bluegrass, Documentary, Kingston Film Festival '15