The Velvet Revolution had its roots in the underground rock clubs that kept the youth tuned into something more than the monotones of the Communist Party during the gray 1970s and 1980s period known as "normalization." The Communists' persecution of the Czech garage band Plastic People of the Universe, named for a Frank Zappa refrain, motivated playwright Václav Havel and his friends to keep the human rights heat on the Politburo. As president, Havel paid homage to rock's part in the revolution and kept company with the likes of Zappa, Springsteen, Dylan, and the Stones -- all of whom paid tribute to him as "the rock-'n'-roll president."
Almost universally, the amps in clubs are turned up to absurd distortion. But while most wannabe bands playing Prague today lack the political edge of the pre-revolution days, some have kept their unique Slavic passion without slavishly copying international trends. Some bands to watch out for include hard rockers Kabát, the trendy folk band Cechomor, or pop acts like Krystof, Chinaski, and Support Lesbiens.
Jazz -- While Dixieland swing was huge in Prague during the 1920s and '30s, urban jazz really made its mark here during the 1960s, when those testing Communist authority flocked to the smoky caves and wore dark glasses. The chubby Czech songstress Vlasta Pruchová grabbed a few hints from Ella Fitzgerald with her throaty voice and set the standard for Czech be-bop wannabes in the postwar period leading up to the Prague Spring. After defecting, her son Jan Hammer made it big in the United States with his computerized scores, among them the theme for the classic '80s TV hit Miami Vice.
Luckily, most of Prague's ensembles follow Vlasta's lead and not Jan's. There are several good venues for a cool evening with a traditional upright bass, piano, sax, and drum group or occasional shots of fusion and acid jazz. Probably the most publicized local gig of all time happened at the Reduta Jazz Club in 1994, when Bill Clinton showed up to play "Summertime" and "My Funny Valentine" for then-President Havel during a state visit.
U Maleho Glena, also offers jazz, fusion, and sometimes funk on most nights in its cellar. Try to go on a Sunday night, when they have a kind of local open-mic night and you never know who's going to show up. Some nights the best jazzmen in town turn up for an impromptu gig.
Prague's Mysterious Nights
If you've never been here, Steven Soderbergh's 1991 film Kafka (widely available on DVD), starring Jeremy Irons, will give you a fine sense of the dark mystery trapped in the shadows cast over the palace walls and cobblestone streets throughout Old Town and Malá Strana. You'll never forget a slow stroll across Charles Bridge, with its dim lampposts (gas lamps are just being reinstalled here) cutting eerie silhouettes from the attendant statues. The artfully lit facades of Prague Castle hover above as if the whole massive complex is floating in the darkness. The domes and spires of the skyline leading up to Hradcany have more varied textures and contours than a Dutch master could ever have dreamed of painting. On warm evenings students singing with a guitar, or a violinist playing his heart out for a few koruny in his hat, create the bridge's ambient sound.
Evenings are also a fine time to walk through the castle courtyards; as the crowds disperse, a quiet solemnity falls over the city. From high atop the castle hill, you can see Prague sparkling below.
Across the river, the brightly lit belfries of Týn Church cast a spine-tingling glow on the rest of Old Town Square, and the mellow lamps around the Estates' Theater provide light for a memorable walk home after a performance.
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