Satellite Review / Central & Eastern Europe / Music / Popular Culture / History

Power Ballads: Marta Kubišová and the Velvet Revolution

The story of Marta Kubišová’s song A Prayer for Marta reveals much about the power of popular culture - and the desire of those in government to place it under control.

Marta Kubišová was so closely associated with the Prague Spring that the country’s new masters simply couldn’t stand the sound of her voice.

One of the iconic moments of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution came when long-censored popular singer Marta Kubišová emerged onto a balcony above Vaclavské náměstí square to sing a hymn-like ballad known as A Prayer For Marta (Modlitba pro Martu). Not only had the song itself been banned in the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968, Kubišová herself had been silent for the best part of twenty years. Her performance had an electrifying effect on the crowds below; if Kubišová’s voice could be heard again, then anything was possible.

Popular songs and revolutions go together far more frequently than mainstream historians might think. Indeed it’s in the banning of things like pop songs that repressive regimes reveal the true extent of their totalitarian ambitions.

“A Prayer for Marta wasn’t written with the intention of being a political song” says Dr Jitka Gelnarová, curator of the exhibition Music and Politicsheld recently at the National Memorial on Prague’s Vitkov Hill. “The song had a simplicity about it – a simple message, a simply melody, and a magic voice. The song helped Czechoslovaks to celebrate a sense of what you might call moral victory over the occupying armies. All this was enhanced by the fact that Kubišová was, at that time, an enormously popular singer.”

Born in České Budějovice in 1942, Marta Kubišová was synonymous with the Czech pop boom of the 1960s. According to legend, she got her first job singing with a local dance-band orchestra after someone passed her house and heard her singing through an open window. She went on to become the dream girl of the Prague pop scene. Not only did she have the most distinctive voice of her generation, she had the look and the attitude to go with it. With a strident vocal style that could handle pretty much everything in the pop, jazz and soul repertoire, she was the missing link between the variety-show culture of Eastern Europe and the counter-culture of the west.

New-Wave film director Jan Němec asked her to play a cameo in his 1966 film Martyrs of Love, and went on to make several promotional clips for her songs, bestowing her with an aura of cinematic cool that few other performers of her generation could match. Němec and Kubišová married in 1969.

A Prayer for Marta began life as one of many songs written for A Song For Rudolf III, a totally unique TV series that mixed comedy, costume drama and the pop hits of the day. Based on the everyday life and private fantasies of a Prague butcher called Rudolf, the series represented everything that was good about Czech popular culture in the Sixties, but had absolutely nothing to do with politics. Prayer was intended as the rousing finale to episode seven of the series, and had more to do with Rudolf’s obsession with the Count of Monte Cristo than with current events in Czechoslovakia.

Penned by veteran pop lyricist Petr Rada, the words to Prayer were thrown together at the last moment and dictated to the TV producer over the telephone – Rada couldn’t get to the studio because the streets were full of Soviet tanks.

Taiga Blues

The episode featuring Prayer wasn’t shown on TV until early 1969, and the song quite spontaneously became a hymn of national defiance. However unintentional the effect may have been, the lyrics seemed to refer directly to the country’s plight: “Let peace settle on this land/Anger, envy, resentment, fear and strife/Will pass away, pass away” Kubišová intoned. “You have lost your government/When it is given back, the people will return”.

Prayer was played endlessly on the radio until new party secretary Gustav Husák began his drive to re-Sovietize Czechoslovakia under the banner of Normalizace or ‘Normalization’. Both the song and its performer were to disappear for almost 20 years.

For several months following the Warsaw Pact invasion however, cultural life in Czechoslovakia carried on as normal. The reform communist Aleksander Dubček remained in power, and the media retained a degree of freedom. For Marta Kubišová, the year following the invasion was a time of great success. She recorded her first (and greatest) solo record, Songy a Balady, which mixed local pop with funk, psychedelia and a Czech-language version of The Beatles’ Hey Jude. She also became part of Czechoslovakia’s first pop supergroup, The Golden Kids, together with vivacious blonde Helena Vondráčková and impishly handsome Václav Neckář – the latter famous for playing the lead role in Jiři Menzel’s Oscar-winning film Closely Observed Trains.

Kubišová herself was becoming the public face of cultural opposition to Soviet occupation. A now famous newsreel clip showed her greeting Dubček with flowers and a kiss as the beleaguered leader arrived at a political meeting. She recorded an explicitly anti-Soviet song for Czech TV entitled Tajga Blues, dedicated to the eight Moscow University teachers who had protested against the Warsaw Pact invasion by holding a demonstration on Moscow’s Red Square in August 1968. Six of the teachers were sent to labour camps, the other two ended up in closed psychiatric wards.

Gustav Husák replaced Alexander Dubček as first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in April 1969. Hardline communism was slowly re-imposed. Marta Kubišová was so closely associated with the Prague Spring that the country’s new masters quite simply couldn’t stand the sound of her voice.

Hot Cats, Plastic People

Kubišová’s carefully engineered downfall came in February 1970, when state booking agency Pragokoncert started circulating copies of a Danish pornographic magazine called Hot Cats. Inside was a series of pictures that appeared to show Kubišová in the nude. It was clearly a photomontage put together by the StB or secret police, but the underlying message – that the StB had the power to stich up anyone they pleased - struck fear into the hearts of Kubišová’s colleagues.

“The idea was so absurd that at first it made me laugh”, Kubišová said later. “And when I actually saw the photos, it was obvious straight away that they were pictures of a completely different woman; she didn’t even have that good a figure…”

Kubišová was simply dropped by everyone in the business. When former Golden Kids Neckář and Vondráčková decided to go solo, Kubišová graciously wrote them a letter assuring them of her understanding and support.

Kubišová took Pragokoncert to court for defamation and won, but this small victory didn’t save her career. She and husband Jan Němec retreated to his home village of Slapy, where he got a job as a tractor driver, and Kubišová found employment in a chicken-packing factory.

The strains of the court case induced a miscarriage, the consequences of which were almost fatal for Kubišová herself – at one stage she was declared clinically dead. Němec was keen to emigrate in order to rekindle his directorial career; Kubišová chose to stay in Czechoslovakia, and the couple divorced.

Like most people in Czechoslovakia, Kubišová thought that the Husák regime would last for a couple of years at most, and that life would soon return to normal.

By the mid Seventies however it seemed that things were getting worse, not better. The imprisonment of musicians associated with psychedelic group Plastic People of the Universe provoked dissident and playwright Václav Havel to found reform movement Charta 77. As a family friend of Havel, Kubišová was among the first signatories. She volunteered to serve as a spokesperson for the Charta, giving secretly-filmed interviews to foreign TV crews.

Kubišová married again and had a daughter. Unlike many of the Charta signatories, she managed to find a reasonably secure job as clerk to a construction company. Singing, however, remained off the agenda.

In 1984 Havel suggested to Kubišová that she provide vocals to some new songs by his underground protégés Plastic People of the Universe. Rehearsals seemed to go well – until the StB warned Kubišová that they would make life very difficult for her if she collaborated with the Plastics any further.

Velvet Revolution

Change, when it came, was both unexpected and sudden. When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9 1989, Czech dissidents were cautiously optimistic that democratization would slowly get under way, but few expected the regime to collapse so quickly.

The political earthquake subsequently known as the Velvet Revolution began on November 17, when Prague students organized a march in honour of Jan Opletal, an anti-Nazi student shot by police in 1939. The organizers asked Kubišová to sing the national anthem at the end of the march, but she went home early because her daughter Kateřina was feeling tired.

Now her mother’s publicity manager, Kateřina Moravcova remembers the day well. “I was ten years old at the time. It was frightening being in such a big crowd of people, and I couldn’t see anything because I was too small. I was afraid of the candles they were carrying, and I was cold too. We were only there for a few moments before I persuaded my mother that it would be better to go home. The notorious beatings of students on Narodní Třida avenue happened just after we left.”

The march had been violently broken up by riot police. Many Czechs felt that such heavy-handed policing was an insult to the memory of Jan Opletal, sparking a wave of nightly protests on Prague’s Vaclavské naměstí. Kubišová herself took part in the demonstrations on November 20, but again went home early, this time because she was overloaded with shopping bags full of groceries.

The next day, Havel, now leader of the newly-formed Civic Forum (Občansky Forum), sent for Kubišová and asked her to sing beneath the statue of St Wenceslas in the middle of the square. With crowds swelling to an estimated quarter million, this plan proved impractical. Kubišová was instead taken to the nearby Melantrich Palace, where Civic Forum leaders were speaking to the masses through a window. “They simply pushed me out onto the balcony and said, give us a few verses of Prayer.” She told Czech radio in 2009. “I was overcome by the sight of the square jammed with people. I said to myself, no singer ever had a come back like this!”

“It was one of those moments that join people together” says Jitka Gelnarová. “It wasn’t just a song, it was a song that symbolized resistance, and it was probably because of this song that the Husák regime had tried to destroy Kubišová’s career. There are other songs connected with the events of 1989, but none of them carried the same symbolic power”.

Golden Kids

The communist party relinquished power on November 28. A month later Václav Havel, who had been a witness at Kubišová’s second wedding and was godfather to her daughter, was declared president.

For daughter Kateřina it was a time of great discovery. “Before the Velvet Revolution I had no idea that my mother had been a great singer twenty years earlier. She was just my mother. And then I got to hear her incredible story and saw some of her video clips. Wow, was I surprised!”

As well as returning to the concert stage with great success, Kubišová began a ne career as TV presenter, hosting a show about abandoned pets called “Chcete me”.

Kubišová’s former singing partner in the Golden Kids Helena Vondráčková had continued to be a major star throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The symbolic relationship between Kubišová and Vondráčková – the rebel and the conformist of Czech pop – has always fascinated observers, although there was initially no sign of any bad feeling between the two singers themselves. Indeed Kubišová, Vondračková and Neckář reunited for a series of Golden Kids concerts in the mid 1990s.

The trio were due to go on a 40th anniversary tour in 2008 until Kubišová pulled out, citing chaotic management by Helena Vondráčková’s husband and agent Martin Michal. Michal sued Kubišová for 1.3 million koruny, but the court decided in Kubišová’s favour. When Vondráčková and Michal appealed, a group of leading public figures - including Vávclav Havel and Václav Neckář - sent an open letter to Vondráčková advising her to drop the case.

Now 72 and still performing to packed houses at Prague’s intimate, subterranean Ungelt Theatre twice a month, Marta Kubišová remains the object of deep popular affection. “I suppose she is an iconic national figure” says daughter Kateřina. “But you can’t talk about things like that in front of her, because she doesn’t want to hear it. She has always been, at heart, a very humble person.”

© Jonathan Bousfield

An earlier version of this article appeared in Jutarnji list