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Marta Kubisova: the most powerful foreign-language voice I’ve heard

Earlier today I was reading the Camden New Journal’s report on Cilla Black’s visit to Camden to unveil a plaque in memorial of Brian Epstein. I was mentally recalling her rendition of Bacharach and David’s Anyone Who Had a Heart. Perhaps one of my favourite songs of its genre. But it’s not her version, or Dionne Warwick’s, or for that matter, Dusty Springfield’s which is my favourite interpretation. Instead, it’s Marta Kubisova’s.

Marta who? Well here it is:

I first discovered Marta’s story when watching a BBC series about Communism in Eastern Europe last year.

Marta was hugely popular in Czechoslovakia in the 60s, and was an icon of the Prague Spring, where Czech leader Aleksander Dubcek implemented a policy of ‘socialism with a human face’. I’ve always had an admiration for Dubcek – he showed that Eastern socialist regimes didn’t have to be the Orwellian dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four where censorship always had the last laugh. Instead, he demonstrated an example of socialism flourishing alongside personal freedoms and great culture.

But, as you may know already if you know the story, this couldn’t last. You may have seen the pictures of the Warsaw pact tanks rolling into Prague. And that’s what they did. Dubcek was sidelined and a more subordinate leader imposed by the Russians, as they were worried that his reforms would lead to demand for further changes (ie. free elections. To think of it!).

Soon after Marta recorded her next work – and in my opinion, her most beautiful – Modlitba pro Martu (A Prayer for Marta). Here is a translation of some of the lyrics:

Let peace continue with this land

Let wrath, envy, hate, and fear vanish

Now the lost reign over your affairs will return to you, people, it will return

And here it is:

The new regime, as you might expect, weren’t entirely happy, and after it became clear she wasn’t exactly their greatest fan, she was banned from performing and recording.

It became the song of the resistance movement, and you can see why, even if you don’t speak Czech. It has so much passion and power that you can hear the hope and optimism in – and yet still frame it within its melancholy context through – the tone itself.

After the Velvet Revolution, Dubcek made a return to Czechoslovak politics, as the leader of a new democratic socialist party. A Slovakian, he campaigned for Czechoslovakian unity post-Communism, but unsuccessfully. He was, however, elected to the position of Speaker of the Slovak parliament, a position he held until perishing in a car crash shortly after. An untimely end to an inspiring figure.

Marta Kubisova too made a return – and still sings to this day. Long may she continue to inspire the oppressed, and may wrath, envy, hatred and fear vanish. I must learn the Czech words in full one day.

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2 Comments

  1. Bill Ellson says:

    I absolutely agree about Marta Kubišová’s version of Anyone who ever Had a Heart, it is an astonishingly powerful recording.

    I am not sue of the exact release date of Modlitba pro Martu (A Prayer for Marta), but I have always understood it to have been ‘the song of the Prague Spring’ i.e. long before the Soviet invasion. Kubišová was banned shortly after the release of of her album Songy a Balady about, I think, a year or eighteen months after the invasion.

    Keep digging on Youtube as various new (old) Czech television recordings of Marta turn up from time to time.

  2. wayneburrows says:

    Modlitba was first aired (I think) as part of ‘Pisen Pro Rudolfa III’, a Czech TV show aired in early 1968, featuring recording artists of the day (including Kubisova) performing material in various historical seetings.

    The song was released as a 7″ record slightly later, I think, with Karel Cernoch performing ‘Zlej Sen’ (Bad Dream) on the reverse side, and after 1989 it was re-recorded for new releases (including an inclusion on the Trezor reissue of her long banned ‘Songy a Balady’ LP).

    I’d certainly agree that Marta deserves to be at least as well known as any of her Western contemporaries, and the wonderful compilation ‘Ne! The Soul of Marta Kubisova’ on the Vampi Soul label is a good place to hear much more of her best material!

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