THE YEHLA COLLECTIVE – Steel Strings And Iron Curtains – Songs that Ignited The Downfall of Communism (Sun King Records)

Steel Strings And Iron CurtainsIt’s just 30 years on from the Czech Velvet Revolution (more commonly known in Slovakia as the Gentle Revolution) that marked the transition from one-party Communist rule to a parliamentary republic. Plamen Press is an independent press specializing in Central, Eastern and Southeastern European literature, translated into English, and – in partnership with Sun King Records and a group of musicians known as the Yehla Collective – on the 17th November it published the CD Steel Strings And Iron Curtains.

The Yehla Collective is an international group of musicians from the area around Washington, D.C. that includes Czech musician Bohuslav Rychlík and Slovak guitarist Tomáš Drgoň. America, Moravia and Armenia are also represented in the group by other members of the collective – including Anna Connolly, Ian Jones, David Keplinger, Christine Kharazian and Reggie Love – who have a range of musical experience from punk to folk, from rock to jazz and classical music, and the range of settings here reflects that wide spectrum. While some tracks lean towards gypsy jazz, the CD is nudged towards Central/Eastern Europe tradition by the use of the Slovak fujara (a contrabass fipple flute) and koncovka overtone flutes.

The record comprises ten ‘protest’ songs with political undertones by Czech songwriters Karel Kryl and Jaromir Novahica. These poetic yet subtly subversive lyrics – not so subtle as to escape the attention of the Communist authorities, though, since Kryl’s songs were officially banned before the revolution – have been translated into English by Plamen founder and publishing director Roman Kostovski.

My extraordinarily limited knowledge of Slovak doesn’t run to assessing the accuracy of these translations from the Czech, but they do seem to me to work very well indeed in English. Comparisons have been drawn with Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits: certainly I can understand comparisons with Cohen, especially, not only lyrically but in terms of the eclectic musical styles and arrangements. You might even see occasional similarities of expression with Brel or even Brecht.  Here’s the track listing: songs marked with a single asterisk are credited to Karel Kryl and Roman Kostovski while songs by Jaromir Novahica and Roman Kostovski are marked with a double asterisk.

  1. ‘The Angel’* is said to be Kryl’s most popular song. With its acoustic guitars and flute, it’s quite folky.
  2. ‘The Comet’** is apparently Novahica’s most popular song and perhaps refers to Halley’s Comet, which last visited the Solar System in 1986. The comet is often seen as presaging major changes/events (the Norman invasion of 1066, the Great War, the Velvet Revolution…). Given the present state of the world, perhaps it’s a matter for regret that it isn’t due back till 2061. But given the present state of society, perhaps he’s correct in believing that we won’t be around by the. Structurally, the song reminds me of some of Brel’s songs such as ‘Port Of Amsterdam’.
  3. ‘Morituri Te Salutant’* (“We who are about to die salute you”) seems to compare the mandatory acquiescence of the gladiator to that of the soldier. It’s a very powerful song with echoes of both Cohen and Brel.
  4. ‘Magdalene’** seems deeply pessimistic on a more personal level.
  5. The arrangement of ‘Sarajevo’** puts a slightly gypsy jazz framework around a Balkan theme. I guess back in the day the very mention of a church wedding might have worried the authorities.
  6. Though ‘Salome’* has a distinctly Eastern European setting, the melody actually reminds me somewhat of the Scottish song/lullaby ‘Chì Mi Na Mòrbheanna’, better known as the tune used by Jim McLean for ‘Smile In Your Sleep’. In combination with the harsh, unsettling lyric, it makes for a powerful musical statement.
  7. ‘The Wastrel’** has a particularly interesting and poetic lyric, in a disturbing sort of way.
  8. ‘Habet’*, like ‘Salome’, borrows imagery and even the name of Herod from the Christian mythos as a metaphor for a cruel 20th-century modernity.
  9. ‘Petersburg’** has a distinctly uptempo gypsy jazz feel set against a slightly Pushkinesque story. I’d rather like to hear Daria Kulesh sing this, but this is a good version. The trumpet gives it a slightly jokey dimension, but perhaps that’s meant as a counterweight to the exaggeratedly suicidal lyric.
  10. ‘A Heart And A Cross’*: yes, I can certainly see why songs like this would have been banned. A dramatic and satisfying end to the CD.

While the publisher’s claim that these songs “ignited the downfall of Communism” might be a little overblown, there’s no doubt that these “powerful and existential lyrics” were and still are immensely important to those who survived the Communist era, and Steel Strings And Iron Curtains would be an important social and historical artefact irrespective of its literary and musical merit in terms of high culture. However, Plamen quite rightly regards this as literary project as well as a music project. While some of the vocals are a little patchy, the music is engagingly presented, and to me the lyrics are worth the price of the CD. It would be well worth your taking a look at the promotional video to get more idea of what the music is like. (More information and the promotional video are here.)

David Harley

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Karel Kryl sings ‘Habet’ in the original Czech: