Few Czech rock bands have gained such notoriety as the Prague-based group Jasná Páka. Founded at the beginning of the last decade of communism, their music was a beacon for a generation that grew up in a Soviet-occupied country. After it was banned by the Communists in a crusade against rock music, the band reformed as Hudba Praha. The man behind both bands, Michal Ambrož, is one of the last pioneers of Czech new wave of rock still around.
Fans of both bands – Jasná Páka and Hudba Praha – know that each year, some two weeks before Christmas, they should get ready for a ride. The traditional pre-Christmas Prague show this year was as packed as ever. After the concert in Žižkov’s Palác Akropolis, I asked Michal Ambrož how he felt about the performance.
“The gig was good. Jasná Páka played two days before, so we were well into it. Hudba Praha had last played a week before, but we give concerts much more often, so it was fine, too. The show was good – the only thing is that it’s difficult to play two gigs in a row, and even more so for our fans, who came on both nights and partied away.”
Michal Ambrož now appears in both bands – Hudba Praha and Jasná Páka, which was revived to commemorate its 25th anniversary and since then has been playing once again. Michal Ambrož explains.
“The main band now is Hudba Praha which gives concerts quite often, tours all kinds of places and that’s how we make our living. The other band, which was revived not long ago, does not play that much for a simple reason – it features David Koller, Petr Váša and me, so it’s really difficult to set up dates. So there are fewer gigs, but they are the better and more interesting for it.”
Jasná Páka’s best known hits include Špinavý záda (Dirty Back), Ryba Badys and Pal vodsuď hajzle, or Get out here, you bastard, was controversial as it attacked the police for bothering people with long hair and other unconventional characters. Michal Ambrož says, however, that this was an exception.
“Jasná Páka was never a political band. Except for some songs, such as Pal vodsuď, most of the songs were really playful, and we just thought we wouldn’t give a damn about the Bolsheviks. But after they banned us, Hudba Praha came to be against the regime. Of course you couldn’t be open about it, but the atmosphere was like, either the regime is going to come crashing down, or we’ll all end up in jail. There was no room for compromise.”
Founded in 1981, the band only lasted for two years before it was banned in the communist authorities’ campaign against rock music. The band soon reappeared as Hudba Praha which lasted until the regime’s end in 1989. Under communism, were there any lines the band chose not to cross to make sure they would be allowed to perform?
“I think the borderline was clear. Maybe we were lucky but since the beginning, Hudba Praha just wanted to play, and you had to pass tests to do that. I graduated from a music conservatory, so I had no problems with the musical stuff. So the only thing they could get me on was a political interview. We did this, and we could play, although by the late 1980s, the time was more relaxed and we did not bother with getting through these tests any more.”
When communism collapsed in Czechoslovakia, people no longer had to look to art for expressing their feelings. Many bands who were very popular before 1989 suddenly faced a new situation, but Michal Ambož says Hudba Praha survived just fine.
“I think we were lucky at that time, more than other bands that did not survive because many people started doing other things or people just stopped coming to their shows. This has not happened to us. The 1990s was a great party; I think many would agree with me on this. So while some people worked hard at that time on their careers and stuff, we had a party. But as I said, the party was really wild, some people had jobs on the side, and eventually we got all exhausted, so around 1996 we just had to take a break for a while.”
“Working in radio has become an important part of my life. I’ve doing it for several years now, I really enjoy it. It’s a show I work on myself – I talk to interesting people and ask them questions. In such shows, you’re not the star but the other guy is, and you are trying to get as much as you can from them. It’s fun.”
Michal Ambrož was born in Okrouhlice, a small town in eastern Bohemia. An ancient mill, where Michal Ambrož’s family lived for generations, was turned into a power plant before the war, but it was later confiscated by the communist regime. After the family got it back after 1989, Michal Ambrož began running the small hydro power plant, unusually perhaps for someone who’s been a rock musician for almost 30 years.
“We got some property back that had been confiscated by the communists. It happened to be the house where I was born, my father was living there, we had rehearsals there with the band. So when we got it back, we decided to restore the power plant that was there since the 1930s. It’s working now, we get by, and it has taught me many things. For instance, I know about money now, I know how much I have. Before that, I was only guessing.”
At its recent concerts, Jasná Páka introduced several new songs, first after many years. Michal Ambož says that more new stuff is on the way so that the celebrations of the band’s 30th anniversary will be something to remember.
“In 2010, we’ll have the 30th anniversary of Jasná Páka, and it would be great if we could put out a new recording. I don’t know yet if it’s going to be a live or studio album, or a maxi single. We’ll see. But people are really busy, so this is just an idea right now.”