Bluegrass in Bohemia
The Banjo Jamboree in Čáslav, Czech Republic, is Europe’s oldest bluegrass festival. It’s been on my bucket list for years and I finally had the chance to play there last summer on the occasion of its 44th anniversary. Even though I’ve met a lot of great Czech bluegrass musicians over the years, I was still unprepared for the sheer number of pickers gathered there among the trees. All afternoon and into the evening I heard one great banjo player after another, awestruck that such a uniquely American instrument had found so much love in a country half a world away.
The Czech passion for bluegrass began with the Tramp movement in post-World War I Czechoslovakia. An offshoot of the Boy Scouts, Tramps would go camping in the woods with guitars and tenor banjos and would sing campfire songs that had roots in American folk music. This Western derivative music subsequently became very popular in Czechoslovakia in the ’20s and ’30s. During and after World War II, American Armed Forces radio broadcast the sound of Earl Scruggs’ bluegrass banjo on Czech airwaves. But it wasn’t until Pete Seeger toured Czechoslovakia in 1964 that most people there saw a five-string banjo for the first time. Czech banjo players have described that as a true eureka moment; before Pete Seeger, most Czechs assumed that Earl Scruggs was somehow flatpicking a tenor banjo.
Keeping the Fire Burning
There have been several important names in the history of Czech bluegrass, but in my opinion, one of the most important these days is Jaroslav Průcha. Jaroslav (he goes by Jarda – the J sounds like a Y) is a master banjo builder, one of the most gifted of his generation, turning out 50 exquisitely made banjos each year from a small workshop nestled in the suburbs of Prague. He grew up in the ’60s and ’70s against the backdrop of communism and the Russian occupation, and his journey to becoming one of the world’s greatest contemporary banjo makers seems to have happened in spite of such odds. It almost reads like a fairy tale.
After the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, American bluegrass, folk, and country music were forbidden as symbols of Western culture. But that oppression made the Czech passion for bluegrass burn even brighter. Families that could no longer vacation outside of the country would spend their holidays at campgrounds, keeping the spirit of the Tramp movement alive as they sang American bluegrass songs around the campfire.
In a fascinating twist, while bluegrass music in America and its nostalgia for the past could be considered conservative, the same music took on a revolutionary meaning in the hearts of the Czech people.
“When the Russians came, my father was very upset,” Jarda recalls. “But for me, scouting, music, and freedom were in my heart anyway. Once we were camping in the trees and a band came to visit us. Four musicians — guitar, bass, fiddle and … banjo … four string, but banjo! They brought this nice music, bluegrass, which helped people here to feel freedom in their hearts, even if it was only for the weekend while they were sitting by the fire, singing, playing guitars and banjos. This music brought people together. It made a protest to the government and let people say through the words of the songs what they loved and wanted, and to show the government we can be happy. From that time I had the sound of the banjo [in] my mind all the time.”
When Jarda was 14, he bought a black market copy of Earl Scruggs’ instructional book from a classified ad in the back of a newspaper. The book had been translated into the Czech language and had no photos, just tablature and text. Jarda worked his way through it using a set of picks that he hand cut from a tin can, boiling them with chemicals from a hardware store to nickel plate the raw stainless steel.
“Every afternoon when I came home from school, I would practice the tunes in my Scruggs book,” he says. “Every day, all weekend, again and again. … The only thing that could stop me from playing my banjo was when my father would turn the electricity off in my room at night so he could go to sleep!”
Luboš Malina, a Czech banjo virtuoso, told me that in the 1970s it was nearly impossible to buy a good five-string banjo. Luboš is a founding member of Druhá Tráva. Their progressive bluegrass sound, fueled by lead singer/poet Robert Křesťan, became the soundtrack for the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The group achieved the popularity of rock stars in the Czech Republic and built an international reputation through relentless worldwide touring once the border to the West opened.
“The only way to get a five-string banjo,” says Luboš, “was to buy it in West Germany and bring it home — which was very difficult and dangerous too — or [you could] build it yourself. So some musicians started building banjos.”
Jarda spent the equivalent of half a month’s salary to buy his first five-string banjo. It was a homemade affair with a modified guitar neck and a rim made out of stainless steel sheet metal. A year later, he was able to upgrade to a Marma banjo from East Germany, but he could tell from photos that it wasn’t made to the same specs as the banjos that the American players used. Thus, he was driven to make his first banjo. That was in 1974 and he remembers clearly how excited he felt as he built it — he knew he was on to something very special.
Jarda finished school a few years later, having studied precision machinery. His trade, coupled with his passion for the banjo, found a perfect marriage in the launch of Průcha Banjos.
He explains that instrument making and machining trades both have a long tradition in the Czech Republic, so, in his mind, the existence of a world-class banjo workshop in Prague is more than a happy accident.
Putting his professional training to work, Jarda began making all the metal parts for his banjos. He’s unique in that way; no other banjo maker in the world also manufactures all the metal components. So it was natural that, over time, Průcha Banjos’ business has expanded to supplying parts for many American banjo makers as well.
In 1989, after the Velvet Revolution and with the fall of communism, Jarda visited the US for the first time. He and a friend arrived in New York with just $350 in their pockets and two banjos to sell to underwrite their six-week visit. Some American friends took pity on them and bought month-long Greyhound passes for the pair. They immediately headed to Owensboro, Kentucky, for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass convention.
Jarda remembers that trip as like being in heaven. It was there that he met Geoff Stelling, founder of Stelling Banjos, for the first time. Before he left the Czech Republic, Jarda had made a replica of a Stelling Staghorn banjo, going only by the knowledge that the banjo head was 11 inches in diameter and from looking at the photos in their catalog. When Geoff examined the banjo Jarda created, he was amazed to see that the only variance in the dimensions was a one-millimeter difference in the size of the headstock. When Jarda explained that he had cut all the shell inlays from a raw shell by hand, Geoff was even more amazed — so much so that he offered Jarda a job working at Stelling Banjos. Though Jarda was interested, the opportunity was ultimately sidelined when the American Embassy refused to grant Jarda a work visa. That was a big disappointment, but it kept Jarda focused on building his business in Prague.
Partnering with two other machinists, he developed and built tone rings (which Jarda describes as the soul of the banjo) as well as tension hoops and flanges. This expertise positioned Průcha to become a worldwide supplier of banjo parts and, in 2000, he won a huge contract to supply all the banjo and mandolin parts for Gibson. Other banjo makers followed Gibson’s lead, and Průcha Banjos’ growing business supported the acquisition of a CAD design system. That 3D modeling technology has enabled Jarda to build some of the best-playing banjo necks being made today.
No Translation Needed
More than 40 years since Jarda made his first banjo, he continues to dig deep into his craft, looking for ways to improve his instruments and make a contribution to the global banjo community. On a recent trip to North Carolina, he purchased the flange and tension hoop from a prewar Gibson banjo – a very expensive bit of R&D. He studied the pot’s metal composition and invested in the machinery to recreate the one-piece flange. The initial reaction of the banjo obsessives to his latest innovation is one of amazement.
I asked Jarda if he ever looks back on the path his life has taken and wonders how it might have all worked out differently if it hadn’t been for the banjo. He told me: “When I hear that instrument, banjo — which is still out of tune, makes very loud noise, is very heavy, … I love it, play it, it is my job. I can make a living from it knowing that I won’t be rich but it gives me enough. Through the banjo and this music, I meet so many good people who speak the same language and no one needs to translate it — nice music, coming from our hearts.”
How the song of the banjo can touch so many hearts, across so many continents, is something that will never cease to inspire wonder in me. Truly, all banjo players can celebrate the fact that America’s instrument has also inspired so many beyond our borders, and can be thankful that, against all odds, Jarda Průcha heeded the banjo’s call.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of No Depression in print. Subscribe now and never miss another issue.