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Czech Folk Ensemble Taps Into Pittsburgh's Past

Margaret J. Krauss / 90.5 WESA

Making music is to Czechs what barbecueing is to Americans, a means of coming together.

This week a traditional Czech folk ensemble is performing throughout Pittsburgh and tapping into the region’s past.

If your idea of folk music is a particularly soulful rendition of “Oh, Susanna,” or perhaps the “Wabash Cannonball,” prepare yourself for a paradigm shift.

Muzicka, a traditional Czech folk music ensemble plays songs that sound — necessarily — distinct from American folk tunes. They're more lively, somehow, and have more substance. Though of course, not speaking Czech added a perceived level of complexity.

The Prague-based band is in the United States for a three-week tour using Pittsburgh as a home base.

Pittsburgh might seem like an odd choice, but the city has a historically Czech population. During the latter half of the 1800s, some 500,000 Slovak and Czech immigrants settled here.

Carol Hochman is the president of Friends of Via, an organization in Pittsburgh that seeks, in part, to preserve Czech cultural heritage. Friends of Via helped fund Muzicka’s tour.

Hochman said the ensemble represents a different kind of cultural preservation.

“Children are brought up and they’re exposed to music, and they play musical instruments and many people just keep that skill going to adulthood,” she said. “Music is such an important part of Czech culture.”

The band arrived in Pittsburgh on Tuesday at 4 a.m. after collecting a hammered dulcimer and a double bass from Boston and hauling them nearly 600 miles in the back of a passenger van.

It’s important to note that Muzicka’s members are all between the ages of 17 and 28, and that their passion for their country’s folk music is not out of the ordinary.

“The people know the same songs and they like to sing together," said Muzicka member Tereza Palasová. "It’s not prepared and this is a challenge.” 

Palasová currently studies both economics and viola.

Another Muzicka member — a future doctor — jokes that he plays folk music for the girls.

But it’s not a joke, really. Apparently, in the Czech Republic, being part of a folk jam band is roughly akin to being an American rock star.

Elizabeth Shribman, Muzicka’s only American and a Pittsburgher, traveled to the Czech Republic on a Rotary Scholarship and joined the ensemble after seeing photos of the group on a friend’s Facebook page.

“I saw that she was dressed up in an interesting costume and that she was playing the viola in a field somewhere,” she laughed, “and it looked interesting and appealing to me.”

Shribman says the idea of folk music being not only acceptable but cool was an alien concept to her at first.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it in the United States where so many people know so many songs and you can go anywhere and literally pick up an instrument and start joining in,” she said. “In the U.S., the concept of folk music being, like, a rager doesn’t exist, but it’s true, it really is.”

The group’s musicianship is clear. But the band has an appeal that has nothing to do with ability. They take their music seriously, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, swinging as handily through a rendition of “Memory” from "Cats" as an arrangement of “Steelers, here we go.” (Put together especially for this trip).

Unlike American performers, who sometimes seem to exist only for the stage, Muzicka plays in a way that makes the music feel like a communication instead of a product, a means instead of an end.

When asked if they had a favorite song, Muzicka didn’t bother to name it, or describe it, they just sat forward a bit.

“We can sing it,” the director offered and sang a pitch, everyone finding their note before launching into a short ditty that dissolved into laughter.  

For more information, visit Muzicka's Facebook page.