Noel O'Brien - an Irish musician and photographer in Prague

27-10-2003

My guest today is Noel O'Brien, an Irish photographer and musician who has been living in Prague on and off for the last 12 years. Welcome to the programme, Noel - could you first tell little bout background, what first brought you to Prague?

"I was born in the west of Ireland and spent nearly all my early life in Limerick and Galway. What brought me to Czechoslovakia, as it was then, was really a desire to come here and take photographs. I had been working at home with photography and I felt it would be nice to travel somewhere exotic, so I chose Prague, and I think it was a pretty good choice, actually. Partly because of the way circumstances came about that put me in touch with very interesting people. When I came here first I really had only one contact in the country; I had been in touch with a Czech woman who lived in Dublin and she had given me the name of a Czech man that she said I really should contact when I got here. So she gave me his name over the telephone, I wrote it down, and it seemed like some really strange name that I couldn't pronounce. She said it quite clearly for me, it was Zdenek Urbanek. So Zdenek, when I met him here, was really just like an open sesame for the country, because he introduced me to so many interesting people."

Who is Zdenek Urbanek?

"Zdenek Urbanek is a writer, translator, he's now 86, I think, when I met him he was about 74. At that time he was the rector of AMU????? He had been one of the senior, shall we say, dissidents, a leader of the dissident community, if you want to call it that. But his dissidence, if you like, went back to the time of the Nazis, so he had lived a very interesting life, right from the First Republic. Like I say, he was really the right person for me to meet, partly because he had a very strong love of Ireland, and that really opened him up to meeting me, which wa very good."

Is it the case also that you, as a musician, met Czech musicians from the underground?

"Yeah, in a strange sort of a way. I was interested in finding some people here who were playing Irish music, and through some friend I was told that there was going to be some Irish music in a particular pub one evening, so I went along. One of the guys who was there was a chap who's become a really, really good friend of mine - Pepa Janacek, who played with the Plastic People of the Universe. And he and I kept in contact and later on when I began to play music with some others we needed somebody to play guitar and banjo, and so I asked Pepa if he would be interested. Pepa and I began to play with a group originally called Celtic Ray and then later called Puca Rua. We travelled around a lot of the country and, of course, everywhere we went people knew Pepa. We used to have very strange audiences. Young people would come, people in their teens would come to hear us play because they were interested in Irish music. People from the older generation would come because they knew of Pepa and the Plastic People, so sometimes people would come to the gigs and find that their parents were already there."

What do you play yourself?

"I was singing with the band and playing the bodhran: it's a traditional Irish drum, a frame drum that you find in many different cultures."

What do you think it is about Irish music that Czech people seem to like so much?

"I think maybe the rhythm, the rhythm is really important because it's a dance rhythm. The melodies are a bit strange for people. When people leave a concert I'm fairly sure they cannot remember the melodies and they don't go down the street humming the melodies, but at the time when they're at the concert the rhythm really grabs hold of them and gets them to dance, and that's what they enjoy."

Can Czechs play Irish music right?

"Yeah, they can. In fact some of the finest players of Irish music are not Irish. I think that the difficulty for Czechs playing Irish music is that there just isn't enough of it yet. There are a few people here who are really amazing, they seem to really understand the rhythm of it and the accent of the music. To me that's phenomenal, because I can't imagine Irish people playing Czech or Moravian music."

One Irish friend of mine gets wound up by the idea of Czechs thinking that they're Celts - do you think a lot of Czechs would like to see themselves as Celts?

"I think this idea of the Czechs being Celts is...there's some truth in it, but then of course in Bavaria there are Celts, in Bologna there are Celts, in fact those names come from Boji, which were the Celtic group that lived in this part of the world. So in that sense of course there is a Celtic background here but I think that the importance of the Celtic identity for Czechs really is an attempt to find a tag for an identity...because very often they don't want to be considered Germans, obviously, and the connection with other Slav nations is not as strong as it was, because of historical events. They don't feel so comfortable with that. So being Celtic actually is another identity, it's a more neutral identity, politically."

There's a saying here which basically means every Czech is a musician. But you don't hear music on the streets, say, or in bars, I mean live music - what do you think of that saying, coming from Ireland, where there is more music to be heard?

"I think that in Prague you certainly have a problem with regards to that kind of statement, because you just don't see it everywhere. But you go out into the countryside, you go to Moravia...you will find in the country that there is a lot of music in the towns and villages and that people are much more...open about their connection with music. I think here in Prague it's kind of hidden. Also the thing is that the music industry here is awful, it really is terrible. If you look at the people whose faces appear on television, or on the front of magazines, or who are on the radio, its basically the same people since before '89..."

Like Karel Gott and Helena Vondrackova?

"Yeah, exactly. I think that this is something which is really an awful pity, especially for younger musicians who are trying to make their way in the world."

Do you enjoy Czech music? Would you listen to CDs of Czech folk music, say?

"Not an awful lot, but then I don't listen to an awful lot of music on CD, I tend to listen to live music. I actually like to go out into the countryside, I used to do that a lot when I was playing with our own band here. We would go to festivals and do concerts in different towns around the country, and there we would here incredible music. I remember one night in Kyjov being very embarrassed because we had a concert and the concert went very well. And I was very happy with the concert and I was happy with the way I sang, everything was great. Then we went up to the town centre and all the young people were having a little festival of their own, and, by golly, could those people sing. That really taught me a lesson - they were so good."

You're also a photographer - is Prague a city where you could take a photo on every street, so to speak?

"The problem for me here is that it's so easy to photograph clichés, that's really the difficult part. It's so easy to go out and take photographs that look like postcards, that really presents a problem to somebody who wants to go out and try to capture the city on film. But there are certain things here which...for example, there was a time in the 90s when people's dress sense made very interesting photographs..."

Or haircuts.

"Or haircuts, or make-up, or whatever it was. There was a time when people used to wear the most outlandish colours of sports jackets and trousers, that sort of stuff. To me that was really interesting because it was an attempt in a sense to modernise, to move into capitalism. There was a visual expression of that in the way people dressed, and photographically, for me, that was really interesting."

27-10-2003