Under Soviet control, Prague saw a strong movement of protest bands standing up to oppressive government restrictions on artists. Czech musician Jakub Nožička of the up-and-coming band Ponk, explains, “There was no freedom to do the western style of music, but the traditional music was very supported and musicians could travel with this music [more than] ordinary people who couldn’t cross borders.” Nožička describes what it was like to be a musician during the Soviet era. “You had to pass exams… You played in front of the committee of important [members of the communist party], and they [would assign] your level. Those levels [determined] how much money each of the band members received in every concert. [There] was no difference if you played for ten people or ten thousand. You got [same amount of] money. It was terrible system. Thank God for the reasonable system now! ”
Some musicians during the communist era were content to be restricted. Roman Pokorny, today a well-known name in the Czech Republic for blues and rock, played primarily jazz in unprofessional or educational settings prior to the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. In his words, “I was just in school.” There was no avenue to play the music he would later be famous for locally.
There were examples of musicians who fought the system, the most notable being the Plastic People of the Universe. According to Rob Cameron, a resident journalist in Prague, Plastic People claimed they only wanted to play the style music they liked, rather than stir up rebellion. Their insistence on playing their music even after several arrests, Cameron said, nevertheless represented a musical protest movement in Prague and the Czech Republic.
Today, those restrictions are gone and musicians are free to perform any music they please. If one comes to Prague today and walks into a store or live music club, they will see a music scene now unlimited by governmental interference, but the first steps of cultural change are slow. “You can hear old American blues mixed with hip hop, traditional polish music mixed with electronic, but in Czech [Republic] it is not like this,” says Nožička. “[Traditional] folklore music stopped its evolution. [It was as though] people around [the] middle of [the] 20th century said: This is traditional music. No evolution any more. And it is the same now. Like this music was sacred. Like [we weren’t] allowed to do it differently.”
Today, younger artists like Nožička and the other members of Ponk are beginning to grow restless for experimentation. No genre existed for Czech experimental music, so artists like Nožička created one. “We wanted to do it differently. We have modern feeling, we like modern music, so we invented the Post folklore [genre].” Their instrumentation consists of a lineup very familiar to Czech listeners: violin, cimbalom, stand-up bass. The music being made by this three-part act, however, is brand new.
Musicians in Prague today are innovating, and unlike Plastic People of the Universe they have no one stopping them.