Does mandolin music evoke images of American southerners in suits and shiny shoes wailing bluegrass tunes into a mike?
It won’t after you meet Radim Zenkl, a 40-year-old Czechoslovakian defector who is revolutionizing the image of the modern mandolin player.
You can meet Zenkl at Steve’s Music on August 30, when he will share his combined passions for bluegrass and Czechoslovakian tramp music.
Combine all that with an innovative ear tuned to an eclectic range of musical genres and you have one of the brightest stars in the constellation of mandolin composers.
But it wasn’t always so.
His father, a classical music professor in Ostrava (about 320 kilometres east of Prague), was not pleased when his son picked up the mandolin at age 13.
The professor claimed the instrument had no “real” repertoire.
“He saw things from the classical music perspective. He was worried about my future,” said Zenkl.
His father’s criticism didn’t dampen the youth’s enthusiasm for the mandolin, or the smuggled American bluegrass music he heard being played on reel-to-reel machines.
“It was that high energy. I was a young teenager.”
He wasn’t the only Czechoslovakian in love with the genre. By the time Zenkl was 16, there were more than 100 bluegrass bands in a country about one-third of the size of California.
Czechoslovakia still has the highest number of bluegrass bands per capital anywhere in the world outside of the United States.
“Anything coming from the West was always more popular than anything coming from the East … our country was oppressed. The whole underground was connected to Western culture.”
Pete Seeger started the bluegrass craze in the communist country. The five-string banjo entered Czechoslovakia for the first time in 1964, when Seeger performed at an outdoor concert in Prague.
“He was very well received. People would take pictures of his instruments and construct banjos from them.”
As Zenkl’s skill developed, he also played an important role in propagating bluegrass’ popularity in Czechoslovakia.
Besides performing with several bands, Zenkl appeared as a soloist with the State Orchestra of Ostrava, and the Janacek Philharmonic Symphony of Ostrava.
In 1987, he won the Czechoslovak Mandolin Championship. The next year his Newgrass band, Tyrkys, won the national band contest, Porta.
As the 1980s drew to a close, communism began to crumble and Western culture won another coup in Czechoslovakia.
In the spring of 1989, Zenkl recorded the first mandolin album ever made in his homeland, Mandolin Parade.
But Zenkl would not stay in Czechoslovakia long enough to see communism completely overthrown by the massive protests and strikes of the Velvet Revolution that November.
In the summer of 1989, Zenkl defected to the United States to be closer to his musical influences.
“It (the mandolin) changed my life. It was a call for freedom.”
But Zenkl’s life was not easy after he moved to the San Francisco Bay area of California.
He didn’t know many musicians, and he had no car to travel to rehearsals. His isolation turned out to be a blessing for the mandolin world, however.
“I had the time and energy and excitement, so I started composing solo music for mandolin.”
Zenkl’s father had been partially right in his criticism of mandolin. There wasn’t an extensive solo repertoire for instrument.
Zenkl set about to change that. He started exploring the tonal colours of the mandolin, and roaming far up its fret board.
Expanding the instrument’s repertoire, as well as developing its solo capabilities, has been a liberating experience, said Zenkl.
“I don’t have to depend on what’s been written before. I can create my own style, and my own life.”
It wasn’t long before other performers started paying attention to the Zenkl’s music.
Soon, he was playing at major festivals, and sharing the spotlight with the likes of Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Bela Fleck and Peter Rowan.
In 1992, he won the prestigious US Mandolin Championship playing his own composition.
Zenkl’s music career continues to flourish stateside. He recorded two albums under David Grisman’s label before signing with Shanachie in 1995.
His attachment to the traditional music and instruments of his homeland has not faded from living in North America, however.
In 1994, he recorded Czech It Out, a compilation of original and traditional Czech and Slovak tunes on solo mandolin, mandocello and mandolin banjo.
“As time goes by I’m finding myself more and more connected with it (traditional Czech music), especially living in another country.”
While there will be plenty of mandolin music at his Whitehorse concert, several other instruments — including the traditional Czechoslovakian wooden flute, Koncovka — will also make an appearance.
Zenkl performs at Steve’s Music on August 30 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15.