How rock music freed the Czech Republic: Lecture demonstrates musical resistance to oppression

Czech conductor and teacher Michaela Kufová presented her lecture “War, Music, and Dissonance: A Czechoslovak Case Study,” Thursday afternoon in the Armstrong Browning Library. Kenneth Prabhakar | Photo Editor

By Emma Weidmann | Arts and Life Editor

When Jewish composer Gideon Klein was moved from Nazi-occupied Prague to the Terezín ghetto, it didn’t stop him from writing and performing his music. He and other musicians continued to provide music as a symbol of hope, performing in secret before it was eventually permitted in the camp.

“He utilized his talents, this pianist and composer, even in the darkest of times and left a lasting legacy — and we should never forget about him,” Czech conductor and teacher Michaela Kufová said.

Kufová told this story and others in her lecture titled “War, Music, and Dissonance: A Czechoslovak Case Study,” Thursday afternoon in Armstrong Browning Library. Kufová, a teacher and conductor at Ondrášek Nový Jičín Arts School in the Czech Republic, demonstrated how music had been a key factor in her home country’s liberation from Nazi occupation and later Soviet oppression.

Though Klein and others were killed at Auschwitz only a few months before the camp was liberated, his story fits into a legacy of Czech musicians who defied their governments and oppressors by continuing to make and perform art in dire situations.

Kufová’s lecture was hosted by Baylor’s Keston Center for Religion, Politics, and Society, which houses a collection of materials telling the story of religious persecution under communist regimes. When Kufová was a student for one semester at McLennan Community College in 2018, she became involved with the Keston Center’s mission to educate generations to come on the persecution which believers of all religions faced under totalitarian regimes.

The Czech Republic — then Czechoslovakia — was occupied by the USSR from 1945 to 1989. During that time, Kufová said censorship made it hard for those living in Czechoslovakia to listen to Western music or anything that contained lyrics unapproved by the government. Her parents lived through this period and told her what their childhood was like in Czechoslovakia.

“My parents told me stories how they were sitting next to the radio, trying to find the right radio station and just really bad quality sounds,” Kufová said. “But, you could hear some Belgian, maybe some radio through Europe, and that radio played a significant role.”

According to Kufová, there were three types of music in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War era: government-approved, “official music,” alternative music and underground music. The most popular genres of music at the time were disco, jazz and pop. Disco often didn’t contain lyrics, so it was safe for the public to hear, according to Kufová. Pop music was often about love — not politics — and was radio friendly in America, so it was acceptable in the USSR.

Lastly, Kufová said jazz prevailed in the communist regime because the government liked that the genre was pioneered by Black people, who were the victims of oppression in the West. The genre was used as a political tool to cast Americans in a bad light.

“So they really like that, that the West is now the bad guy, so they can really broadcast that to Czechoslovakian people,” Kufová said.

Other than the genres themselves, there were some ways in which Western influences touched the official music. Often, alternative Czech artists would cover Western songs but alter them in ways that were acceptable to the public.

“They Czech-ified and translated the lyrics, but they kept the music,” Kufová said. “And then the Czech singer really sang the song. We didn’t know it was from the U.S.A. or U.K. because the lyrics were Czech, and 20 years later, when we listened to the same song, we found out it originated in the United States or in the U.K.”

Dr. Steve Gardner, Keston Center advisory board chair and professor emeritus of economics at Baylor, said when he visited the Soviet Union for the first time in 1980, he was surprised by the “randomness” with which the media was censored.

“It was OK for movies with Jane Fonda to be shown, because Jane Fonda had been critical of the Vietnam War,” Gardner said. “And so the communist authorities thought that anything that Jane Fonda did must be OK, and so you get these goofy movies like ‘Barbarella’ in theaters.”

Some artists battled censorship in Czechoslovakia, and their struggles eventually led to the 1989 “Velvet Revolution,” a successful — and peaceful — push for a transition of power. The band Blue Effect had a sound similar to The Beatles or The Velvet Underground and took the inspiration for their name from the Blue Book, which exempted young men in the USSR from military service.

Blue Effect was banned for writing a song called “Sunny Grave,” which told the story of a young student who burned himself to death in protest of the government. The music censorship didn’t stop there. One of the events which led up to the Velvet Revolution was the imprisonment of members of the band the Plastic People of the Universe. For refusing to cut their long hair or change their lyrics, the members were incarcerated, lost their jobs or were socially outcast.

Rock music — and its censorship — planted the seed for the peaceful Velvet Revolution, and the Plastic People were only one out of a long list of musicians and artists who contributed their creation to the cause.

Kufová ended her lecture by playing “Prayer for Marta” by Marta Kubišová, which was sung in the streets by protestors. Kufová remarked that “those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.” She left the audience with one thought:

“[Czech youth] really paid attention to what has happened to us in the past [to] prevent that from happening again,” Kufová said.