This week the people of Prague have a chance to hear Frank Zappa's music, thanks to the efforts of the American rock musician's sons, Ahmet and Dweezil. They have organized a European concert tour called "Tour de Frank", and are performing in honour of their father, who died in 1993. There is a special connection between Frank Zappa and the Czech Republic. Zappa's music belongs to a repertoire once-banned by the communist censors, and Frank Zappa himself gained huge acclaim in Prague following the Velvet Revolution.
When Zappa was invited to Prague by Vaclav Havel in January 1990, he was reportedly shocked at his instant popularity, as well as by how well people knew his music—in the 1970s and 1980s Czechs listened to Zappa thanks to albums that were smuggled into communist Czechoslovakia via secret networks that transported literature, music, and even musical instruments.
The connection may not seem immediately obvious, but Frank Zappa's popularity in Prague is closely connected to the dark days of the dissident era, when his music and that of the Velvet Underground were blacklisted by the censors. For example, Frank Zappa's second album, Absolutely Free was smuggled into Czechoslovakia within a year of its 1967 release, and critics claim that the music influenced the famous Czech underground rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe. Zappa's tunes thus came to represent freedom and independent thought to dissidents in Czechoslovakia. Reports have it that when young kids in communist Czechoslovakia played heavy rock music, the police would tell them to "turn off that Frank Zappa music."
Then, in January 1990, Vaclav Havel appointed Frank Zappa as "Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism," much to the disgruntlement of U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, who is famous for declaring: "You can do business with the United States or you can do business with Frank Zappa." Still, Vaclav Havel's friendship with Frank Zappa grew, and Zappa shared his ideas about increasing tourism to Czechoslovakia, and explained the concept of credit cards which were then an unknown quantity in this part of the world. It was Frank Zappa's brief interlude in the world of international trade and diplomatic relations—and the vantage-point was Prague.
Vaclav Havel still counts himself amongst Zappa's big fans, and says that "Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground." There he'll surely stay in the memories of his Czech friends.
My Prague – Rob Cameron
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