Many of you are probably familiar with the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual contest in which European countries compete for the best pop song. It has been taking place since 1956, and hundreds of millions of people all around the world now tune into it each year. But those hundreds of millions do not include the Czechs.
Europeans from Ireland to Greece know Marc Antoine Carpentier's piece "Te Deum" as the theme of the Eurovision Song Contest, but lots of Czechs have never even heard it. The Czech Republic has never entered the Eurovision Song Contest, and this year's Eurovision - which will be held in the Latvian capital Riga on Saturday, May 24 - won't even be shown on Czech television. I asked Tomas Simerda, the chief editor of Czech Television's theatre and music department, why the Czech Republic does not participate in the Eurovision Song Contest:
"Czech Television currently finds itself in a very unfavourable financial situation. We have to consider carefully every endeavour we embark on, every programme that we record. And the Eurovision Song Contest is something that is, unfortunately, currently outside of our possibilities. To send a quality Czech song to that contest involves organising first of all some sort of Czech national song contest, inviting lyricists to write the songs, singers to sing them, recording the songs, organising a concert and setting up a jury to choose the winner - simply making a big event out of all of that. And Czech Television just doesn't have resources for that right now."
This puts the Czech Republic in a rare position in Europe, as most European countries are keen to enter Eurovision every year. This year twenty six countries will participate in the contest, and the Czech Republic's neighbours Austria, Germany and Poland will all be there. Slovakia entered in 1994, 1996 and 1998 - although it didn't do so well, coming in at nineteenth, eighteenth and twenty first place respectively. But other Central and East European entrants have been more successful and have actually even won the contest: Marija N won it for Latvia last year with the song "I Wanna," while Estonia's Tanel Padar, Dave Benton and 2XL won in 2001 with the song "Everybody."
Another Latvian entry - the group Brainstorm - was also relatively successful at the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm in 2000. As Iveta Sulca, the Latvian ambassador in Prague, tells us, Eurovision made the group popular all over Europe:
"Intellectuals would say that there are no strong musical criteria set for the selection of the musicians. But I would disagree with that position, and say that the criteria are clear. And, actually, the situation that Latvia's pop group Brainstorm now finds itself in indicates that this contest also offers quality music as well. It is now a European-known pop group, which is popular here in the Czech Republic as well. And actually they were here, they performed here last year together with the very well-known Czech group Krystof."
Brainstorm came a very respectable third place at Eurovision with the song "My Star." But, as I mentioned, Latvia did even better in 2002 when it came first. I asked Ms Sulca how Latvians felt when their country won last year:
"Well, it was a wonderful feeling for a small nation to be present in front of an audience of some three hundred million. So, of course, it was a wonderful feeling for every Latvian sitting and watching the TV, and suddenly finding out that the Latvian singer got the grand prix."
After Latvia actually won, then I suppose Latvian television and the authorities in Latvia really came to realise how much work goes into hosting a Eurovision Song Contest. Can you tell me how much planning and effort has gone into this, and how much of a heavy load it is for a small country such as Latvia?
"We have a tradition: we are a singing nation, and we put on our posters that Latvia is a land that sings. And, traditionally, we are used to organising singing festivals. Just some examples: this year there will be a folklore festival called Baltica, which is the biggest in northern Europe. And each year we have opera festivals, and every four years we have a big public event called Latvia's Singing and Dancing Festival. So we were not scared at all. We have this experience, we have a tradition. Even our revolution in 1991 was called the Singing Revolution, while the Czechs had the Velvet Revolution."
Ms Ambassador, are you a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest?
"Well, I'm a diplomat. I'm an experienced diplomat, and I regard the Eurovision festival as a great opportunity to promote our nation and culture, and to draw attention positively. You know that journalists used to say bad news is good news, and it is quite difficult for a good country to be in the headlines of the newspapers. So I'm pleased that this is a very positive event in which Latvia will be visible."
The Eurovision Song Contest does give smaller countries the opportunity to promote themselves and their cultures alongside bigger European countries. And if a country actually wins Eurovision, then it also wins the right to host the contest the following year - and each Eurovision Song Contest attracts a lot of international media attention, tourists and television viewers. Considering this, would the Czech Republic like to enter the Eurovision Song Contest in future years? Tomas Simerda from Czech Television again:
"I hope so. I hope that the situation can be changed, and that in the future the Czech Republic will be able to participate in the contest. I could imagine that, and I think that it could be interesting for Czech viewers, including the Czech national selection for the Eurovision entry. But, as I say, it is a big undertaking, for which we don't have resources at the moment."
But while the Czech Republic has never entered the Eurovision Song Contest, there has been one Czech contribution to Eurovision: in 1968, during the Prague Spring, legendary Czech singer Karel Gott performed for Austria. That contest was held in London, and Karel Gott came twelfth out of seventeen singers. Eurovision rules permit a singer to represent a country that they are not a citizen of, and during the relatively liberal period of the Prague Spring the Czechoslovak communist authorities didn't seem to mind Karel Gott singing at a Western pop song contest. Popular British singer Cliff Richard also performed at Eurovision in 1968, and Spanish singer Massiel won it with the song "La la la."
Enjoy this year's Eurovision, and for more information about the Eurovision Song Contest, take a look at the website www.eurovision.tv.
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