The Czech Republic's biggest festival of country and folk music, Porta, celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Established in 1967 by a group of music enthusiasts, the festival gradually evolved into one of the largest events of its kind in Europe, attracting some 30,000 visitors in its heydey. Many of the country’s respected musicians and bands, including Spirituál kvintet, Wabi Daněk or the Nedvěd brothers, started their careers there. Last week, Porta launched the first of a series of concerts marking its special anniversary.
In its beginnings, Porta drew on the extreme popularity of the genre of country and western music in 1960’s Czechoslovakia. It was tied to the unique Czech pastime known as tramping, which originated in the interwar era and which was inspired in part by the vision of the American Wild West. Zdeněk Švagr, a long-time organiser of Porta, outlines the festival's early days:
“The tramping movement originated in Czechoslovakia already in the 1920s and in the 1930s. People would leave cities for the weekend for tramping settlements, and along with that came the music. It is hard to define the genre, but they would usually play acoustic instruments, such as the guitar or harmonica. So there was a group of people around the tramping movement who listened to the specific genre and it wasn’t difficult to eventually bring the music on stage and establish a festival.”
The title of the festival, Porta, refers to Porta Bohemica or Bohemian Gate, a canyon valley of the Elbe River, which creates a gateway to the region of Ústí nad Labem. As Zdeněk Švagr explains, for Czechoslovak amateur bands, Porta as a festival symbolised a gateway to the world of professional music. Indeed, many of the country’s most respected musicians first appeared on stage at the Porta festival.
At the time Porta originated, there were just a few dozen bands playing country music in Czechoslovakia, but the festival soon enlarged its repertoire and introduced the genre of folk music into the competition:
“During the first years Porta was called a country and western music festival. It was only in the 1970’s that the genre of folk music and singer-song writers started to appear. But already at that time, bands based on traditional music, such as Spirituál Kvintet and Skarabeus were playing a sort of folk, or tramping music.”
The Spirituál kvintet band, which played mostly American spiritual and gospel music, received their first Porta award for folk music a year after it was established, that’s in 1970. This is the band’s take on the famous English ballad Scarborough fair.
With each edition, Porta gained increasing popularity with the public and was sometimes referred to as the Czech Woodstock. At the same time, it was also closely observed by the Communist authorities.
“I would say that during the Communist regime, Porta had a taste of forbidden fruit. People who performed at the festival were enclosed in their own world and from time to time, they would dare to express their opinions freely. And people who attended the festival did not always comply with the rules of Communist society and they soon became a thorn in the eye of the authorities.”
In 1971, the organisers were ordered by the authorities to share the stage with Soviet Army bands. When they refused to do so, the festival in Ústí nad Labem was forced to close down. For the next ten years, Porta had to move from place to place every year, from Karviná, to Brno, and Olomouc. But Zdeněk Švagr says it didn’t harm the festival in any way:
“There was actually one good thing about the constant moving. Even people who couldn’t afford to travel could actually come to the concerts. So that was a big advantage and I think it was thanks to the travelling that it became so popularised. Also, there was no other event of the same kind in Czechoslovakia at that time, so the audience base was really huge.”
In Porta’s heyday, in the 1970's and 1980's, some 30,000 visitors would come to the festival each year. Most of the country's up-and-coming folk and country musicians made their appearance on its stage at one time or another, including Zuzana Navarová, Karel Plíhal,Vlasta Redl or Jaromír Nohavica, to name just a few.
After the fall of Communism in 1989 and with the appearance of new festivals, Porta started to lose its privileged position and the number of visitors started to decline. Despite all that, Porta maintained its devoted followers, who have kept it going despite growing competition on the Czech music scene. This year, some 300 musicians and bands are expected to take part in its regional competitions, which will take place all around the Czech Republic. The best of them will perform at the national final in Řevnice, while the international competition will take place in Ústí nad Labem.
The town of Ústí nad Labem will also be the main venue of this years’ celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of Porta. Most of the concerts will be dedicated to the musicians, who launched career on its stage:
“We want to dedicate this years’ 50th porta to people who influenced the genre in some ways, such as Spirituál Kvintet, the Nedvěd brothers, Robert Křesťan, Miki and Wabi Ryvola, Zuzana Navarová, and many more. They were people who had a profound influence on the genre; musicians, who stood out from the crowd, who have always found their own way and who affected those who came after them.”
Concerts will also take part in other cities, including Děčín and Duchov in the Teplice region, which hosted the festival in its past days.
The celebrations of Porta’s 50th birthday were officially launched last week with a concert by Robert Křesťan and Druhá tráva. Altogether, some 150 events are planned for the next six months. The final concert is scheduled to take place in Ústí nad Labem on June 5.
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