In this special program we speak to the singer and songwriter Marta Töpferová about her newest album Milokraj, her relationship to her home country and her love of Moravian folk music.
A versatile singer and musician, Marta is best known for albums such as 'Sueno Verde' or 'Flor Nocturna', featuring Latin music that she wrote and performed in Spanish. With her newest album that came out in the first half of 2013, Marta, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia in the late 1980’s at the age of 11, returns to her roots – singing and composing in Czech. A few months after the album Milokraj came out, I had a chance to speak to Marta Topferova in our studio.
The songs on the album were inspired by Moravian folk music, so I began my conversation with Marta by asking why the folk songs from the eastern part of the Czech Republic move her.
“I think it was because it was the first music that I heard. My mom was pregnant with me in Moravia, in the Beskydy mountains and my parents were members of the Ostrava theater in the 1970’s. I was born there and I think it was the music I heard in my early childhood. So even though I emigrated and have been living most of my life outside of the Czech Republic and Moravia, every time I hear the music it resonates with me very strongly. “What I love about this music, beside having this childhood connection to it, is that the songs are so specific. I love the Lydian modes that a lot of these Moravian ballads use, and they have these harmonic unexpected cadences. It would be going minor, minor and all of a sudden be this major for a second and then have this harmonic cadence at the end of the song, it would modulate to a whole new key. It’s fascinating, you don’t really find that in Latin songs, or songs from other places that I have done.
“And also the poetic aspect is important too. I feel connected to that landscape, it is so beautiful – the rolling hills, the vineyards, certain types of trees and birds and all of that. The Czech Republic is so beautiful. And when you live away for a long time, you realize that you don’t find that kind of landscape just anywhere. I think as I get older, I’ve come to value it more.”
The songs on your album, although they sound like they could be traditional folk songs, they are actually your own original texts. I wonder what it was like writing them, in this very specific genre.
“Well, I wrote some songs on the album, but I also want to mention some of the others who contributed. My grandmother contributed two texts – for the first song Selené and for the sixth song K ránu. And Tomáš Liška introduced me to an older poet Věra Provazníková, who writes beautiful poetry, and we used to of them. And then there is also a younger poet – Rita Eben. So it is a combination, but I did write some of the texts.
“It was the first time that I was writing in Czech. And I really wanted to pay attention to the Czech language, the pronunciation, and the lyricism that it carries. And the most amazing thing in Czech is that because of all the cases, when you tell a story, you find it rhyming naturally in certain ways. English doesn’t have that, Spanish has a bit of that too, but in Czech you have a lot of this. And I found it very easy to tell a story. Like…
Laštoveňko kam to letíš?
uspěchaně křídli máváš.
K tomu háji zelenému,
kde ty ráda posedáváš.
Do feel like there some similarities or crossovers between the music that you created for Milokraj and the music you recorded before that is Spanish or Latin?
“Yes, sure. I think partially because I have been able to delve into different genres, in part because of my immigration, I have been close to that music for a long time and it has certainly influenced me. It may not be that audible to someone who doesn’t know me, but I think there are some elements there of the drama or melancholy.
“There is one song that we recorded, which we didn’t include on the album, which we will put on the next one, it was kind of based on this Phrygian mode and the melody is very flamenco-esque. And I don’t sing it in that style, but it is loosely based on that rhythm. So, there are little elements and connections.”
I felt that there was a bit of that in Aby mě miloval. There was one moment when the rhythm departed a bit from the standard Moravian rhythm, but I don’t know if that was the intention.
“Yes, actually. The text for Aby mě miloval was written by Věra Provazníková and the music was written more by Tomáš Liška. We worked on a lot of the music together, but there are some songs that have more of his melody and some songs I wrote on my own. I have to say, when I read the text for the song…
Neřikej mi, Bože,
že to moje hoře
dělá těm tvým svtým
tam nahoře dobře.
“I thought that was brilliant. But I would have never thought of the way that Tomáš set that to music, with this up beat with a groove in seven. It creates this joyful exclamation, which is just brilliant. I actually think that these grooves of seven are more Balkan, maybe Bulgarian. And we have our Moldavian cimbalom player, Marcel Comendant, who comes a bit from that part of the world. He knows a lot of Romanian and Moldavian music, so it was also interesting to have that influence to the way that he plays the cimbalom on that song. The way he takes that solo is amazing.”
Let’s talk a little about Tomáš Liška. You have worked with him before for some time. How did you decide to come together for this album and create it as a duo?
“It’s interesting the way I met Tomáš. He actually wrote me an email in 2006 telling me ‘I found you record Flor Nocturna here in Prague in a record store, and I keep listening to it, and I’m really touch, I think it’s amazing. And if you ever come to Prague and need any help, I’m a bass player, I would love to play with you, just let me know.’ And I answered him months later when I was coming to Prague and we did our first session together. And I said to myself ‘he’s a great bass player, now I have a bass player in Prague, this is great, I don’t have to fly my bass player from New York.’
“So he started performing my Latin American repertoire with me, which was a chamber, sometimes a quartet, sometimes a trio with bass, violin, quarto, percussion, etc. And we toured Europe a lot, doing basically my original songs in Spanish with some Latin American folk songs. And then I arranged a couple of Moravian songs for voice, bass and violin. “And it’s funny, we didn’t talk about it much, but we both just knew…both of us are Czech, we love playing together, we have to create a project where we would draw from Czech and Moravian music, write some songs. I even thought we could include some folk songs in the beginning, do a combination.
“But then Tomáš said that if we’re gonna do this, let’s just try to write and create something new, create a sound that would be very much based on folklore, but include some new elements, that would push it a little bit into a new context with some guitar, you know some non-traditional elements. We didn’t want to just create a standard cimbalom band with that super folkloric sound. We wanted it to have a bit of a contemporary sound, but in a very subtle way, of course.
“And Tomáš, he is a great bass player, a great composer. The fact that we were working on this together was so significant, because the collaboration brought it to another level.”
Your previous albums, in part because of the language of the songs they featured, I would guess they had a much wider audience. Do you think this album will find fans around the globe, or do you think it will be more for a local audience?
“Well, I would really like for this album to get some exposure and for people around Europe and elsewhere to hear it, because a lot of people don’t even know the difference between Czech [Bohemian] and Moravian music, it is all very mysterious for them. Through the work that we are doing, I want to shed a light on the fact that there is a lot of music in Moravia. In this small area there is a huge tradition. And the lyrics might seem a little distant to people, they may not understand them, but that’s why we worked very hard on the translations that are inside the album booklet.
“And when we perform abroad I am able to translate some things during the concert or I talk a bit about the background of the music or something, just to bring it a little closer to people.
“The response has been really great so far. We played in Germany just ten days ago and people came up to us and said ‘we don’t understand Czech, but the sound the compositions were just beautiful’. They do sense that there is a lot of folklore, but they also hear the chamber and the improvisational elements in the music. And I am also working on bringing this band to the US. That’s hopefully a project for next year.
“On the one hand, when I’m singing in Spanish there is a wider audience, because there are many more Spanish-speaking people, but on the other hand doing music of my own culture and continuing the artistic lineage of my own family – there is a certain kind of strength in that. And I feel that even though I’ve had some success singing music that is rooted in Latin American music, I feel that the world was asking me to do this.”
We could maybe end by talking about the name of the album – Milokraj. Which I interpret to mean a country or a place that you love or that is dear to you. And you’ve said that you are fascinated by this country – a country where you come from, but also one that you were away from for a long time. So, can we interpret this album as a kind of a love song to Moravia or the Czech Republic?
“Well, we really looked for the title for a long time. It was kind of a struggle. In the beginning we were even wondering if we should have a Czech title at all, because we were thinking that we want to play around the world, and you know how Czech is difficult, and if we have a difficult name we don’t know how that would go over.
“But after meditating on it for a while we decided that we need a Czech title. And then we tried to find something that would be relatively simple to pronounce, but that would carry a serious meaning. And we searched and searched. And I kept coming back to the word ‘kraj’, land, landscape, I knew it had to do something with that. I then I realized, why not add ‘milo’, as in ‘milost’, like something you love. And there is that possibility in Czech to create a new word out of two words that people understand. So, we finally settled on it, and I’m really happy.
“For me, it really captures what this calling is about. Coming back here, wanting to speak Czech again, to understand where I come from and to celebrate the beauty that’s here, elevate all of these things that people take for granted, like Czech culture and all the beautiful music that we have here.”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on May 1, 2013.
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