Central Europeans reflect on life before the fall of the Berlin Wall
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Pavla Jonssonová

Why don’t you girls write something optimistic?

Prague, Czech Republic, 2009 and 2019
Czech English

Pavla Jonssonová, Musician, Writer, Senior Lecturer Anglo-American University


Thirty years away from communism it is now much better. So many books are coming out about that time. The more we know about the past regime in which I grew up, the more I think how terrible it was with all of the secret police and people telling on each other. There is, for example, a book about visual arts that includes the 1960s, when performance art, action art and conceptional art was happening. The Secret Police didn’t understand it so they had to get the theorists and art critics to be secret agents to explain how Western art is dangerous. It was so terrible that theorists and critics did this because artists could go to jail. The State Socialist Police tried to protect culture from everything from the West, to just have Social Realist art.  

We have discovered that many of the best heroes were hired by the Secret Police. It turns out that people that were loved and admired were secret agents.  They were denouncing everyone else in the community so they are discredited. It’s a huge problem, these people are in their 70s and 80s and they don’t want to speak about it. There is animosity and an impossibility to discuss things openly. Nobody really knows how to deal with it. 

I have been working on several writing projects, including work about the time of Socialism. I recently published a book with Charles University about the Czech music in the years right before Socialism ended, titled, Nine from the Czech Music Scene of the 1980s. I have also written about the time just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 1990s were such a blissful time for alternative bands. We could go to the studio and record their songs, go on tour, have big concerts. It was when the music festivals started and the new clubs and we could buy new instruments. It was heavenly.  I wrote about this experience for a compilation called The Tribes, which looks at all of these different sub-cultures of the 1990s, which helps us to understand the mechanisms and structure of power. 

The good thing is that the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia for the first time this year they dropped below the 5% that you need to get into Parliament. Before that they were around 16% - 20%. And many other positive changes are happening. We are getting richer and more affluent. I don’t think it was possible 10 years ago for the average Czech to travel to the Canary Islands and rent a car and drive around. The standards of living are getting closer and closer and it’s very sweet. 

Our band, originally called Plyn, was a splinter of the punk explosion in the late '70s, raw, primitive, funny. We were listening to everything that was happening on the local scene, including protest singers of Šafrán, progressive rock Kilhets, Svehlík, Extempore, Chadima. I loved King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd and all that. The punk thing was a liberation after the mid –‘70s jazz-rock boredom. There were no foreign bands coming (the Jazz section smuggled in The Art Bears, but no BIG progressive rock groups played in the 70s), only the Polish band SBB and the Hungarian band Locomotiv GT. We knew the Eastern Bloc bands from the records sold in their cultural centers. 

With the punk movement and music with single guitars we started to feel that we could do anything musically. I practiced guitar chords while listening to the Ramones. That was my learning technique in the beginning and you can hear it in our first songs. We of course loved Patti Smith, but our style was connected to the Czech “alternative style” of the time. It was a kind of inventiveness with Czech lyrics, Garage, FPB and Jasná páka, Psí vojáci. 

To perform in public each band had to have a guarantor from the socialist youth organization. We had to pass an examination, which was both musical and ideological. After we passed the musical test, a woman from the Municipality (a Communist Party liner) called me and said, “I read your lyrics and they are so dark.  I felt like drinking a bottle of wine and jumping off the bridge. There is no way you are going to play concerts.  Why don’t you girls write something optimistic?”  So, basically that was the end and we had to start playing under a different name, Dybbuk. 

It was common knowledge that at each concert there was someone from the party checking the lyrics. There were always new strategies developing for coping with the system. People would chip in together to buy farmhouses on private land where you didn’t need permission to play concerts. Some bands would adopt a new name for each performance and there were many one-time festivals. 

In the early 90s, after the revolution, there were clubs, festivals, recording studios and music labels popping up everywhere. It was an incredible time with so much activity.  

The political changes did not so much influence our music. It was our life experience that provided the topic and the form. The disillusions that come with age, as opposed to the original insane euphoria that young people have, made us more reflective and you can hear this in the music.

In the 90s, when we could finally get academic books about gender theory I became interested in looking at the sources of women’s creativity. I wondered if there really was something unique that woman could add to culture. What is it that makes a woman leave her “traditional” role and transcend into someone else and accept the freedom that we do have? And then, what do you do with it and how do you remain true to yourself? 

My band mate Marka, says she feels more creatively connected to men, exceptional Czech poets, like Vladimír Holan or František Halas, than to any "women“. How they worked with language was for her an opening moment. I understand her completely. Yet still, I was more interested to find out about the "wild zone“. The creative zone that, according to Elaine Showalter, only women have access to.  

In 2009, I feel that feminism has meaning, in the sense of liberal feminism, as politics. Action is needed in trade unions, elimination of poverty, and for single mothers. It can be used in the abortion debates, making violence against women visible, and so on. The European Union has fantastic means and potential with the anti-discrimination law. And the Scandinavian countries let us peep into what the future might be like. 

Secondly, it is necessary to be aware of the phallocentric discourse. How the symbolic bank developed throughout the centuries and how that reflects the patriarchal character of history. But just digging into that archeology of the human mind and complaining would be boring. Transcending the constraints is what I am most interested. Employing whatever creative powers we are empowered by. 

Other than for political purposes and the abstract discourse theory that many people find so off-putting, I find the use of the "femininity concept" difficult – especially for talking about culture. I have not discovered any one "essential" female creative strategy, rather only multiple strategies of each original, individual woman.   

Photo of Pavla Jonssonová playing bass guitar, courtesy of Pavla Jonssonová
Portrait of Pavla Jonssonová by Janeil Engelstad   

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