Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Radim Zenkel and Ondra Kozak go East

It always seems somewhat surprising when folks of different descent find such irresistible appeal in music that’s so closely associated with inherent Americana. And yet, on their new album, Eastern Grass, Radim Zenkel and Ondra Kozák found a common connection through their shared love of bluegrass tradition.

Radim Zenkl was born in Opava, Czech Republic and grew up in the town of Ostrava, roughly 200 miles east of Prague. It was there, at the University of Ostrava, where his father taught classical music. Zenkl himself began his musical studies by taking up piano, and then later went on to excel at classical guitar. He then added mandolin to his musical arsenal at the age of thirteen.

His initial introduction to bluegrass came from listening to records that had been smuggled into Czechoslovakia. “Since I was born in the former Czechoslovakia, the first time I heard bluegrass music was by Czech groups who copied American bluegrass bands,” he recalls. “Later on, when I was 17, I joined my first bluegrass band, which played the music of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, The Osborne Brothers, Seldom Scene, and others. It was the drive, the fast tempos, the sound of the five-string banjo, and the harmony vocals that initially inspired me.”

In addition, between 1984 and 1989, Zenkl played in several bluegrass bands while also performing as a soloist on various occasions with the State Opera Orchestra of Ostrava and the Janacek Philharmonic Symphony of Ostrava.

In 1987 Zenkl won the Czechoslovak Mandolin Championship. His bluegrass/newgrass band, Tyrkys, won the national band contest in 1988. He also performed with his own acoustic duo called Mondo Mando — which he says was inspired by the music of David Grisman — throughout the country as well as in Poland, Germany and Hungary.

Zenkl pursued his passion by making a visit to the United States in the summer of 1989, four months before the fall of communism in his native Czechoslovakia. His first port of call was the San Francisco Bay Area. “I knew that it was home to many great progressive mandolin players back then, such as David Grisman, Mike Marshall, John Reischman, Dix Bruce, Bob Alekno, and others,” he recalls.

“Meeting David Grisman was sort of symbolic. I met him at a Bill Monroe concert. I introduced myself, told him that I just arrived from Czechoslovakia, and that I play mandolin. David then invited me to visit him at his home and recording studio. It was a great visit! We played some tunes, listened to various recordings, talked, and he invited me to join him as a guest at his workshop at the upcoming Strawberry Music Festival. That’s where I met many great  musicians. David also introduced me over the phone to other players and he gave me a contact for the Berkeley Mandolin Ensemble, in which he used to play the mandocello. The next week, I joined the ensemble and eventually started teaching the mandolin and guitar to some of the players.”

It was only a matter of time before Zenkl was performing at major music festivals and sharing the stage with other artists as well, including Jerry Garcia, Tuck & Patti, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan, John McCutcheon, and Dan Hicks, among them. In October 1991 Zenkl played for the newly-elected president of Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, at a reception held on the UCLA campus. A year later, Zenkl won the prestigious US Mandolin Championship in Winfield, Kansas.

Zenkl was clearly inspired. These days, he splits his time between the Czech Republic and the Bay Area.

Nevertheless, it was the reception he received even earlier that convinced him he was pursuing the right path to begin with. “Before my arrival in the USA, I recorded my first album on a cassette tape,” Zenkl explains. “It was called Mandolin Parade, and it was a sort of a sampler of the styles and techniques that I was playing then. It featured some instrumental bluegrass, Czech folk music, blues, classical music, and even some rock. That tape served as my ‘musical business card.’ I was playing bluegrass tunes, swing standards, and a variety of music from more modern players in my live performances. David Grisman liked it, but encouraged me to also focus on my original music and ideas, which eventually led to a series of CD releases on his then-new recording label, Acoustic Disc. Galactic Mandolin had thirteen original compositions, each in a different tuning. Czech It Out featured my newly-invented technique, in which a single mandolin sounds like two mandolins by using two finger-picks. I refer to it as the ‘Zenkl style'”

His first concert in the Czech Republic after his initial departure for the States came four years later. “The reaction was great,” he remembers. “All of my former musical colleagues were there, along with my family members, and many friends. It was a very special occasion, and very emotional for me. I’ve performed there regularly ever since.”

His list of accomplishments and achievements don’t end there. In 1995, he sat in for Mike Marshall in the Modern Mandolin Quartet. He subsequently signed a recording contract with Shanachie Records and recorded Strings and Things, a 1996 effort that included improvised duets with 20 different artists — among them, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, David Grisman, Tony Rice, and Rob Wasserman, all of whom played, between them, 20 different acoustic string instruments. That was followed by 1999’s Restless Joy. Then, in 2003 Radim joined an all star flamenco/classical/world music quartet, Festival of Four, which led to the release of a collaborative effort titled A World of Music in 2005. 

Eventually, he met Ondra Kozák, a native of Silesia, a part of Poland located near the Czech Republic. “It was at a bluegrass festival about 12 years ago,” Zenkl said. “We both play a variety of instruments and musical styles, but it was bluegrass that had influenced both of us the most, especially at early stages of our respective musical journeys. Therefore, we wanted to have it as the main theme of our first joint recording.”

The album they made together, Eastern Grass, offers a unique synthesis of styles, sounds that incorporate European folk tradition along with those of America’s heartland. “We selected the songs and tunes that have some connection to bluegrass, as well as the music of our roots in Eastern Europe,” Zenkle notes. “A couple of the tunes were recorded previously, but these are  new arrangements, with different solos, different instruments, etcetera. The project features a variety of our instruments, with me on mandolin, mandola, whistle, fujara flute, didgeridoo, and vocals, and Ondra on guitar, violin, dobro, bass guitar, and vocals.”

Given their versatility and multi-instrumental abilities, they decided to limit the musical contributions to only the two of them, with no outside contributions. “Both of us have experience in leading a bluegrass band and playing solo,” Zenkle says. “The concept of a duo was appealing to us because it offered aspects of both. For the CD, we wanted to record what we play live, the way we play it.”

Asked why he thinks bluegrass enjoys such international popularity, he took a moment to consider his response. “This a complex question, but in my humble opinion, I think it is because it is well rooted in several musical traditions,” he replied. “It is honest, challenging, and it just sounds great!

Eastern Grass can be found online.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.