Josephine Baker - one of the great performers of all time - a 1970 interview with Radio Prague's Olga Szantova

When Josephine Baker died in Paris in 1975, over twenty thousand people lined the city streets to watch her funeral procession. She is remembered as one of the great performers of all time, overcoming poverty and racial discrimination in the American south to become a legend in her lifetime. In the 1920s her shows in her adopted Paris combined song, dance and humour and took the city by storm, with an overt sensuality that for the time was almost revolutionary. During the Second World War she worked with the French Resistance, proving that her driving principles of freedom and tolerance were a great deal more than skin-deep.

In 1970 Josephine Baker performed in Czechoslovakia, at the time still reeling from the Soviet invasion two years before, at a music festival in Bratislava. She was in her mid-60s, bringing up her famous "Rainbow Tribe", twelve children of different races and nationalities, who she had adopted over the previous eighteen years.

Olga SzantovaOlga Szantova During the festival Radio Prague's Olga Szantova recorded an interview with her amid the crowds. We're now going to hear the interview again, not just as a tribute to Josephine Baker, but also as a tribute to Olga herself, who died earlier this year at the age of 72.

Just three months after she recorded the interview Olga was thrown out of Czechoslovak Radio. The new management, installed after the Soviet invasion, sacked many of Czechoslovakia's most accomplished journalists and Olga was one of them. It was not until twenty years later, in 1990, that she was once again allowed to do the job she knew and loved, and when she returned to Radio Prague, she had lost none of her energy and enthusiasm, recording her last programme just weeks before she died of cancer.

But let's go back now to 1970. I think it's apt that one of Olga's last interviews before the radio purges was with someone with whom she shared many of her basic principles. So we'll go over now to Olga Szantova, with her programme from August 1970, devoted to the legendary Josephine Baker.

Olga Szantova: an interview with Josephine Baker at the 1970 "Bratislava Lyre" music festival.

An undated photo of Josephine Baker, photo: CTKAn undated photo of Josephine Baker, photo: CTK She walked into the hall with a group of people. She came in black trousers and a sleeveless top with a big red-and-white scarf, a tall, slim figure, moving gracefully to her seat. You could not help noticing her, and within a minute or two there were cameramen, reporters and organizers all around her. Watching her throughout the day at the rehearsal, during her press conference, at the performance, I could not help feeling that she was just the same, no matter whether she was on the stage or off it. Her entrance into the press-conference room was that of a great lady coming in for her performance. The press conference was held in French, Miss Baker speaking the language like her second mother-tongue after all these years. And the topic? Well, just about everything, including Miss Baker's ideas on peaceful coexistence, on the brotherhood of man, on the future of the world, into which she is bringing up the twelve children from various parts of the world that she has adopted, adopted in order to bring them up as an example of the coexistence of various races and nationalities. Miss Baker's grandparents, as she stressed, had been slaves in the United States.

After the press conference was over I took my tape-recorder and literally pushed my way through the autograph-seekers crowding around Miss Baker.

Miss Baker?...

"Yes."

You've been speaking French, now a few words in English. May I?

"Sure, why not?"

How many times have you signed your name? Have you ever counted?

"I've never counted."

Do you mind signing?

"Of course not. It makes people happy."

I think making people happy is your work.

"Yes, it is my main aim in life, to try to make people happy. But I'm being happy at the same time."

That's a very unselfish thing to say.

"Maybe I am selfish, if I want to make other people happy so that I will be happy making them happy!"

As we were talking, Miss Baker was signing her name on programme after programme. Standing next to her as she sat there, I felt we were going to be trampled all over, but Miss Baker kept her smile and graceful air throughout. Finally she started making a stop to the seemingly endless flow [of autographs].

Is it difficult to say no to people who want signatures?

"I don't like to say no if it makes them happy."

What is the secret of keeping as young as you have?

"Well I don't know. Many people have said it's because of having so many children and young people around me that has made me more energetic, not young, because life goes on and so do the years, but maybe I am a little less sluggish by having to run after my children, because I have to run after them. You know, when you have twelve children you can't stay in one place for a long time."

How old are your children now?

"From six to eighteen."

The world press was quite worried about the troubles you were having, financial and otherwise, bringing them up.

"Yes, I know. They were. Many of them came to see me. It was awfully nice of them. They collaborated with me in such a friendly and affectionate way that I think they brought me good luck because things are getting better."

I'm very glad to hear that. Do you think that a mother bringing up a big family like you and a career woman, do the two go together?

"You can make it go together. You have to. Sometimes. I think there are more and more career women nowadays, more than in the olden days. Women have to work now, because their husbands are not able to - those who have husbands. Those like me, who haven't, we have to do something to give our children comfort in life, education and so on and so forth. Everything is very costly and nowadays most women work. They're not worse off because of that. On the contrary. Coming in contact with people who have to think about tomorrow is not a bad idea."

What about the children? Do you think they are neglected more this way?

"No, of course not. I child is not necessarily neglected because a mother works. If a mother is sometimes negligent, even if she has a thousand people around her, the child will be neglected."

Miss Baker, you love children very much. I have never heard you sing a lullaby. Do you?

"I don't sing lullabies because I don't have to. First of all I brought my children up not having to be sung to. I've always arranged things in a way that gave them the possibility of getting a little tired physically in some way before going to sleep. If a child is a little tiny bit tired, he goes to sleep. A child is in good health if a mother arranges and organizes his life in a healthy way. He doesn't have to hear a lullaby to be able to go to sleep. There are many mothers who can't even do that."

And in your programme?

"No, I don't sing lullabies in my programmes."

Which is your favourite song?

"I have a lot of songs I like a lot and I know they're all my favourites because I do it with my heart."

 

Magic Carpet - world music in the heart of Europe

Magic Carpet is Radio Prague's monthly music magazine that looks at music from Czech, Moravian and Silesian towns and villages. The programme covers a wide selection of genres, from traditional folk to the exotic and experimental.

Petr DoruzkaPetr Doruzka It is presented by Petr Doruzka, one of the Czech Republic's foremost music journalists.

COMING UP

4.1.2004: Petr looks at some new releases by Czech independent labels. Well be hearing the Czech guitarist Pavel Richter as well as the amazing Romany musician Iva Bittova, with the re-release of a fantastic recording from 15 years ago with her half-sister, Ida Kellarova. Listen out as well for the new album of the band Gothart, entitled "Rakija 'n' Roll". Gothart are a group of Czech musicians who've become enamoured of the Balkans and draw from Serbian, Greek, Macedonian, Bulgarian, and Armenian tradition.

ARCHIVE

For copyright reasons we are unable to archive the programmes in audio, but here at least are a few words about some of the recordings featured recently in the programme

7.12.2003: Petr Doruzka introduces us to Tarafuki a very unusual band, made up of two young women cellists who sing their own songs ranging from quiet intimacy to load ecstasy. Dorota Barova and Andrea Konstankiewicz are of mixed Czech-Polish ancestry and sing in both languages. They have just released their second CD Kapka meaning a drop - and are rapidly becoming well known, throughout Europe and especially in France. At the end of the programme, listen out from the most unusual song on the CD Quiet Weeping.

12.10.2003: Katka Sarkozi, singer, songwriter and guitarist started her career almost ten years ago, but her latest CD seems to be a breakthrough.  It is titled "Magorie", translated as Insanity, Rage or Ferocity, and its impact is like that of a hushed scream that keeps haunting you for the rest of the day.
Link:www.sarkozi.cz

09.11.2003: To this day in Moravia you still come across traditional cimbalom-and-fiddle village wedding bands. In the last ten years this music has enjoyed a revival. Established artists like Iva Bittova now compete with a new generation of young, fresh and creative musicians. In Magic Carpet we hear music from the CD sampler "Magic Playing Moravian Roots", introducing new discoveries and featuring a rare recording of Iva Bittova and her sister Ida Kellarova.
Link: www.indies.cz

 

See also The History of Music.