Free music festival brings party to Vltava’s islands as Czech EU presidency winds down

19-06-2009

Tens of bands and dozens of djs performed around Prague on Thursday evening to open this year’s United Islands Festival. The event, which is in its fifth year, is promising over 150 hours of free music to those who find themselves down by the banks of the Vltava River between Thursday evening and Saturday night. This year, the festival ties in with the Czech Republic’s EU presidency, which comes to an end in less than two weeks. David Gaydečka is the event’s organizer:

“Well, United Islands has been linked a little bit to the idea of the European Union since the beginning. In 2004, we were celebrating the biggest European enlargement to date. We played on ten different islands which symbolized ten different countries entering the EU.

“The idea of United Islands is to give a space to all these different minor genres, such as jazz, world music, such as electronic music, rock music, folk music. And because each island is hosting one of these different genres, we are uniting all of these genres. And this is kind of a similar idea to that of the European Union, in which small countries can get together and maybe become stronger in the global world.”

And what do you have at this year’s festival which is of particular interest to you, and perhaps, the listeners of Radio Prague?

“Well, I’m the one who was choosing the bands on the programme, so for me it is hard, I would choose almost everything. But maybe some recommendations: we are bring a band from the Faeroe Islands called Orka, which is a group getting some attention right now. They are a group who build all their instruments from industrial materials, and they are not playing classical industrial music. It is music with harmonies and melodies and it is a very interesting show. That’s on Kampa on Friday at 7pm.”

As well as a jazz stage on Kampa, there’s a special Czech stage further south down the river on Slovanský ostrov. Electronic music can be found in the pretty riverside exhibition space Mánes, while the main stage sits bang in the middle of the Vltava, on Střelecký ostrov:

“Our main headliner is Noise of Human Art (N.O.H.A.), which is totally typical for our festival. It is a band based on German, Spanish, American and Czech musicians billed together. And they are mixing break-beat music with all kinds of world music and roots. And this is very interesting – it’s on the main stage on Saturday.

“We have a big programme on the jazz stage – an interesting programme has been built around the young Czech jazz scene. Jazz was always strong in the Czech Republic, even during the old communist times, and now the young generation is making very interesting music, so…”

… And what about the Czech bands who will be performing here, because you have a special Czech stage this year, don’t you?

“Yes, we built a special Czech stage which is for us – what I mean is kind of a best of Czech popular songwriters’ music, a best of our history. It is legendary singers such as Michal Prokop, Ivan Hlas, there is a younger singer called Monika Načeva who is coming with Michal Pavlíček, a great guitar player on our scene. And we are hosting Pavel Bobek, who is a very special singer, he was the only one during communist times to sneak Western music across the borders. He was singing Czech lyrics to the songs of Frank Zappa and Lou Reed, and the public doesn’t know that very well, so we would like to present him.”

Finally, I hear that as part of United Islands there is going to be a ceremonial handover of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency to the Swedes, is that correct?

“Yes, we have this surprise informal handover of the Czech presidency to the Swedish, and because Sweden used to be a sea empire, and we are on the Vltava River, it is going to happen on the water.”

One of the bands playing at the festival this weekend is the Czech-British group, the Prostitutes. Adrian Bell is the lead singer:

“We are going to be playing on Střelecký ostrov, at 14:40-14:50, on Saturday afternoon.”

And you are sort of veteran Czech musicians, can I say, so you have played a few summer festivals in your time. How does playing at United Islands compare to the other festivals which crop up each year?

“We’ve played United Islands once, I think three or four years ago. And it’s different. It’s more multicultural, and it’s a nice festival in the middle of Prague, we like it.”

And which of the bands will you be going to see yourself at this year’s festival?

“I want to see N.O.H.A – they are playing after us, and I would like to see Sammy Decoster as well.”

Václav Havelka is the frontman of Czech band Please the Trees. As well as playing twice at this year’s festival, he has also been involved behind the scenes in the event’s organization. Speaking before his first show on Thursday, Václav said that his job, for the most part, was fixing up visiting bands with the right sound equipment and instruments:

“The philosophy is that we do this just for the selected bands which come from abroad, so that’s like 10 out of 50 bands, because the rest are from the Czech Republic, or even if they are coming here from abroad, they are traveling by van and so they bring everything on their own.”

Can you tell me what is new about this year’s festival? It seems a bit bigger than in previous years…

“I think every year it is getting like more and more, I don’t know how to describe it, compact or something. In my opinion it is not that big, because in past years it has been like huge and they were inviting huge bands and stuff. But the philosophy is like, keep it free for people and explore some new music, new bands from places. So I think that David goes to festivals all around Europe and the world and he is choosing bands and asking them if they want to come and stuff.”

A part of this festival is the club night on Thursday, when places which don’t normally open their doors for free do so for one night. Can you tell me about that?

“It happened last year too. And for each venue there is a producer who is like a famous musician or someone who chooses bands for the venue. And so even venues like Palác Akropolis or Rock Café which usually charge an entrance fee, they’re all for free. So people can actually travel from club to club to see different bands.”

And as well as organizing this festival you are playing a couple of times, I understand…

“Yes, I’m playing solo tonight in Škabetka bar which is in Prague 6, I’m playing with the Slovak band Longital, that is tonight, and then I’m playing with my band Please the Trees on Saturday afternoon on the main stage on Střelecký ostrov.”

The open-air festival runs until 10pm on Saturday evening, and then moves indoors for an after-party in Manes. For a full programme and further details on the festival, visit United Islands’ website – the address is www.unitedislands.cz.

19-06-2009