Czech dechovka in crisis?

13-11-2003

Brass-band music has a long history in the Czech Republic. In fact, some of the world's best known marching songs were first written and played in this country. Today, however, brass-band music or "dechovka", as it is known here, is apparently facing something of a crisis.

For well over a century, dechovka has been a common feature of Czech life. Originating in Turkey in the 17th century, it first became established in this country during the 1800s via the army marching bands of the Habsburg Empire. However, it soon spread beyond the military to become "the music of the people". By the early 1900s, almost every town and village in Bohemia and Moravia had its own brass band, and the genre flourished. It was to remain highly prominent in the turbulent century that followed. In the run up to the First World War it had close ties with the Sokol movement and other Czech nationalist groups. Later, it was even popular with the communist elite who made regular use of it for their May-day parades and other socialist celebrations.

Nevertheless, dechovka has never quite regained the popularity it enjoyed in its golden era during the 1920s and 30s. A recent report by the weekly magazine Tyden went so far as to suggest that the music was actually in inexorable decline. The publication claimed that Czech brass-band music was too conservative. As a result it lagged behind more innovative and inventive strains of the genre, which were coming out of places like the Balkans. In addition to dechovka's somewhat old-fashioned image, the sheer logistics involved in putting together large ten-man orchestras playing difficult instruments meant that young Czechs today were ignoring the delights of the polka for less demanding genres such as rock or electronic dance music.

I asked Stanislav Horak, a former bandleader and now an expert on dechovka music at the Czech Information Centre for Local Culture, whether he also felt that this music was in crisis:

"If it's a question of whether dechovka is alive or not, I have to say categorically that dechovka is alive and well. A renowned expert said the same thing at the end of the 1950s - that dechovka was on its way out, but it didn't turn out like that. The music has deep roots in this country"

Although he agreed that many young Czech musicians were pointing their talent in different directions, there was still plenty of young blood coming through to keep the tradition going:

"When you compare it to other instruments you can see why people prefer the piano and so on. There's a lot of work and effort goes into playing dechovka. It's much easier to play an electronic instrument. That's true, but still there are a lot of young orchestras about."

Horak went on to say that although dechovka was strong on the ground, its top-level administration was not as well organised as it could be. He said he hoped that a unified umbrella group would be established for dechovka in the future This, he argued, would give it a stronger voice when appealing to politicians for more funding. He also hoped it would act as a focal point for dechovka musicians to interact and share ideas. This would help revitalise a proud tradition, which gave us world-famous songs such as the timeless "Skoda lasky" or "Beer Barrel Polka", as it is known in English.

13-11-2003