Making music behind the Iron Curtain in the mid ’80s was no small feat. After all, artistic expression was severely hampered by the authorities. That was the challenge faced by the Czech bluegrass band Notabene when they began their collective career in 1985. The current members of the band — Blanka Surkova (lead vocal), Radek Starosta (lead vocal, guitar), Otakar Zelenka (banjo, vocals), Milos Sommer (lead vocal, mandolin), Vladimir Vlk (harmonica, vocals), Petr Hatak Prokop (bass guitar, vocals), and Michal Zara (fiddle, vocals) — were veterans of previous outfits that were well known in Czechoslovakia, among them Chomouti, Globus, Domino, and Graf, but as Notabene continued to coalesce, they made remarkable progress all on their own.
“Behind the Iron Curtain, any music coming to us from the West was very warmly welcomed, and there was certainly a bit of defiance against the communist regime of the time,” Sommer recalls. “It’s hard to describe it in a few sentences, but many budding musicians found themselves in various rock, jazz, and country bands, which they began to listen to and imitate. In the Czech Republic, a community of people that played country and bluegrass, music for square dancing and line dancing, gradually built up. That’s more or less held up to this day.”
In their case, it seemed to work well. Between 1995 – 2010, the band performed with bluegrass and country singer Peter Vacek until he made the decision to return to the US. In the meantime, the group developed their own approach, one based on a contemporary bluegrass sound with harmonica as one of the main instruments.
“In the beginning, and in later years, we were interested in and inspired by many musicians, and various Czech and American bands that played country and bluegrass,” Sommer says.
Indeed, the various musicians make no secret of their admiration for others
Zelenka says he’s especially fond of the banjo playing produced by Bill Keith, Eric Weissberg, Steve Mandel, and especially Tony Trischka and Béla Fleck.
Sommer says he was influenced by David Grisman, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush, and Chris Thile in particular. “We have a lot of great mandolin players in the Czech Republic,” he notes.
For his part, Radek points to Tony Rice and Pat Flynn as being among the many guitars he admires.
“In general, we like Seldom Scene, New Grass Revival, Skyline, The Judds, Charlie McCoy, and many other bands from the realms of bluegrass, country music, and other musical genres,” Sommer notes. “We glean out material from their repertoire to choose songs, and then create our own covers, in English, but mainly with Czech lyrics.”
The band performs in a variety of venues, from smaller clubs and dance events, to a variety of festivals in the Czech Republic and throughout Europe.
“We performed at the biggest festival at one time, Porta in Czech Republic, where Tony Trischka & Skyline played in front of 20,000 people on the same night,” Sommer recalls. “We’ve also played at the Zahrada festival, the Banjo Jamboree, at the country festival in Oberosterreich, the Truck festival in Hoyeswerda, festivals in Berlin, at the Festiwomen in France, and at many others.”
In fact, they’ve demonstrated remarkable versatility with their live performances. “At the Guys venue in Paris, we presented both a concert and a live dance show with the leading Czech country dance group, Caramella,” Sommer continues. “We did the same thing at the French Country festival, and also at the beautiful Floralia Country festival in Holland. We also presented our music on a week-long tour from Frisland in northern Holland to Amsterdam, and played at dance events in Denmark. We especially enjoyed the wonderful country music festival in Silkeborg, where we were joined by country legend Don Williams.”
Asked about the popularity of bluegrass back at home, Sommers has a simple answer. “We can only judge it from our own Czech experience.”
Judging by the success Notabene’s attained thus far, one would guess it’s pretty popular indeed.