The New York Times
PRAGUE – When the Czech Republic celebrated its equivalent of the annual Grammy Awards, the winner of the top award for a male singer was all too predictable: the crooner Karel Gott, for the 42nd time.
More so than any of his contemporaries, this 78-year-old performer known as the “Golden Voice of Prague,” who first took the prize in 1964, has outlived epochs and transcended politics. Today, Mr. Gott garners appreciation from all generations while also serving as a source of nostalgia for those who lived under communism in Czechoslovakia, where he made his name.
It is a feat all the more impressive as widespread nationalism and a lurch to the right are finding a voice not only in the republic’s politics but also in its music. Indeed, Mr. Gott had to share the spotlight of the 52nd Czech Nightingale awards in late November with a band that has risen to local fame for its nativist and often violent anti-Muslim lyrics. The far-right heavy metal band Ortel won second place in the best band category, and while its style could hardly be less like Mr. Gott’s, both have shown a strong appeal to a population struggling to define and assert its national identity.
In national elections in October, an extreme-right party, Freedom & Direct Democracy, won more than 10 percent of the vote.
“There is definitely an undercurrent of a national identity crisis,” said Pavel Turek, a music journalist with the Czech magazine Respekt.
“It says a lot that almost everyone in the Czech Republic loves Karel Gott,” he said. “His popularity is exceptional and it is really interesting that all generations appreciate him. In a way, it represents living under communism without thinking about politics, while Ortel is only known for their politics.”
Mr. Gott is the first to acknowledge that although his music is not political, part of its appeal is its strong association with the communist era. “It is a combination of things, but there is of course nostalgia,” he said.
While many suffered under communism, Mr. Gott experienced an improbable rise in the 1960s that took him from being an electrical engineer in a factory to being a national icon who was allowed to travel and perform outside the country.
Fifty years later, “Sinatra of the East,” as Mr. Gott became known, has sold tens of millions of records internationally from a catalog of nearly 300 albums and compilations with offerings in several languages including German, Russian and English. He is arguably the Czech Republic’s most successful singer.
While his work is celebrated today as having represented a form of expressive freedom in an otherwise repressive society, there are others who stood more firmly against the communists. Mr. Gott worked within the system, but others like the singer and activist Marta Kubisova fought against it and were banned from performing. After finding prominence with the pop group the Golden Kids in the 1960s, she took off as a solo pop and ballad singer with the song “Prayer for Marta,” which became an anthem against communist aggression.
At this year’s Czech Nightingale ceremony, Mr. Gott presented Ms. Kubisova, who retired from singing earlier this year, with a special award for her activism against communism.
The work of both Mr. Gott and Ms. Kubisova stands in contrast to the highly controversial music of Ortel, which is known for disparaging Muslims in a country where xenophobic ideals are taking root in politics.
“Under communism, we had quite a few folk singers who were against communism, and now we have these new phenomena in bands like Ortel,” Jiri Pehe, a writer and political analyst who is the director of New York University’s center in Prague.
“In Czech society, there is obviously a current of people who are afraid of Muslims so would follow anything these groups sing about,” he said.
The award for Ortel prompted several artists to return their prizes in protest. “The organizers made a big mistake,” Mr. Gott said. “They should have made a rule that you cannot mix politics and music.”
During a concert by the band in the industrial outskirts of the southern city of Ceske Budejovice on Saturday, leather-clad fans pumped their fists and sang along with one of the band’s most contentious songs, “Mosque,” which disparages Muslims with lyrics such as “They will cut off your head, for Allah’s greater glory.” There were around 200 people in attendance, including small children.
Speaking to The New York Times after the concert, the band’s lead singer, Tomas Ortel, said the group had the right message at the right time.
“I think people like our music because they see what is happening in the world and are tired of how the media falsely reports terrorist incidents in Europe,” Mr. Ortel said. He added that the band’s music “represents how they feel things really are.”
“I like that they are not afraid to say what they think,” Jan Vacha, a 46-year-old local mechanic, said before the concert. He said Muslims in the Czech Republic were “a problem and should not be here. I would like to help them in their countries, but not here.”
Mr. Vacha and his wife, Zuzana, said they had been outraged that Ortel did not win the award for best band. Nevertheless, they said, they were pleased to see one of the favorite singers of their childhoods win again.
“We love Karel Gott,” Ms. Vacha said. “We were born and bred on him.”
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