It was bluegrass, as much as anything, that lured Radim Zenkl to slip through the Iron Curtain and become a political refugee in the United States.
“At the beginning I played folk music, but as soon as I heard some country music on the records that were smuggled from the USA, I was really interested in it, especially in bluegrass.”
Like many young musicians, the Czech-born mandolinist was drawn to the fast pace and technical challenge of his chosen genre.
“I was a teenager, so instead of playing speed metal, I was into bluegrass.”
Early on, he had also been influenced by so-called Czech “tramps” – singer-songwriters who would go camping on weekends and play American music from the 1960s and earlier.
“We used to sing those by the campfires in Boy Scout gatherings and trips, so that was the first music I would listen to. It even included some music of, like, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristoferson and others, with Czech lyrics, often.”
Zenkl started out as a singer and pianist, but switched to classical guitar after learning the basics from his mother.
“She played recreationally, not that much. But at the beginning, all that I needed was just the chords to get me started, and then I was on my own.”
He later persuaded his father to buy him a mandolin, for the equivalent then of about $7.50 US. But his father, a classical music teacher at the university in Zenkl’s home city of Ostrava, was skeptical of his son’s plan to become a professional mandolin-player.
“He was worried that I wouldn’t have enough repertoire, because he’s a classical musician and comes from that point of view,” Zenkl recalls.
“But I was able to show him that there are other possibilities of music, and not just classical. Even though I love classical music, and occasionally I participate in it.”
Before he left Czechoslovakia at the age of 23, in fact, Zenkl even performed several times as a soloist with both the State Opera Orchestra and the Janacek Philharmonic Symphony of Ostrava.
“In Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, there is a piece for four mandolins – it’s a dance for mandolins. In my hometown, there were only two sort of decent mandolin players, so we both played two parts. It was a good challenge,” he laughs.
In the meantime, Zenkl also played in and led several bluegrass bands, and clung to a dream he had been harbouring since the age of 13: to escape the oppressive regime of Soviet-era Czechoslovakia.
In 1989 he acted on that dream, emigrating to the San Francisco Bay area, the home base of many of his musical idols, such as David Grisman and Mike Marshall.
Little did he know that the communist regime would collapse a few short months later.
“It was incredible, just watching the news on television, what was happening back home,” he says.
“I kind of wish I could have been back there, because it was this incredible time. But at the same time I was having a really special time being in a free country, you know. So many times, I was dreaming about it.”
He also didn’t know that two years later, he would be performing for his homeland’s new playwright-president, Vaclav Havel, in what he admits was an emotional experience.
“This was at a reception at the University of California in Los Angeles. There were many Czechs gathered, and it was just an amazing feeling of joy and happiness.”
By this time, Zenkl had broadened his musical tastes to include many other genres, including acoustic jazz, Latin, blues and swing.
“I decided to pursue a mission of a solo mandolin player, so I was looking for special techniques, how to make the mandolin sound perhaps like two instruments, with the melody and the accompaniment.”
What he came up with was style called “duo-playing”, which involves the use of two picks – one to play tremolo on a single string while the other is used to play melody.
“There’s an old Italian technique which is kind of similar, but I was able to expand on it and use two different picks. This way you can play more separation between the voices.”
And while Zenkl is not a luthier, he has been credited with designing a number of acoustic instruments in the mandolin family, such as the nylon-stringed mandolin, a fretless mandolin and the mando-ukelele.
“I guess that would be my creation, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. You can’t really buy a mando-ukelele, but you can buy a ukulele and make it into one by changing the strings.”
Strangely enough, Zenkl only started playing traditional Czech folk music after moving to the United States, but he recently released a CD called Europick, which features Czech and other Eastern European music.
About ten years ago, he also started playing a variety of different flutes.
This Sunday Zenkl will perform with pianist Bill Schuck at the Yukon Arts Centre as part of the Jazz on the Wing series. Concert time is 7:30 pm.
On Friday he will perform solo at a house concert sponsored by the Bluegrass Society of Whitehorse, and will offer a mandolin workshop Saturday from 10-noon. For info on these events, call Kim at 335-1428.
On Saturday he will conduct a workshop for melodic instruments from 3-5 pm in Haines Junction, followed by a duo concert at 8 pm in St. Christopher’s Anglican Church.
Next Wednesday he will perform at house concert in Dawson City. For info call 993-5901.