Scaling Back Respect

In 1997 Hassan El Amin Abdel Radi, a Sudanese man studying in Prague, was murdered in the frozen heart of winter. With the spring thaw, Borek Holeček of Rachot Productions and a handful of others, including Respekt’s Markéta Janečková, Martin Mařan from the Prague Castle and Karel Schwarzenberg decided to stage a concert featuring ethnic and “world” music in order to counter the racist elements of the society surrounding them. The Respect festival, as it came to be called, was inspired by the words of Tony Gatlif, a French/Romany film director, who wrote, “Music is the best way of fighting racism—because it speaks straight to the heart, there is no resisting it.”

With Mařan’s backing, the fledgling festival quickly won the approval of then-President Havel, whose program of cultural openness concerned itself acutely with the Castle, long seen as a symbol of the forbidding remoteness and inapproachability of the socialist regime. Last year’s festival featured Manu Chao on the Castle meadow, one of the most successful and well-attended events Respect has ever hosted. Six seasons on, the incredibly popular series has run head-on into a brick wall in the form of the new administration of Václav Klaus – or, to be exact, the absence of an administration. With little explanation proffered and precious little time left to find a new venue, no one dares grant approval for the festival to occupy its traditional spot on the Prague Castle meadow. Festival founder Holeček sees it as yet another example of how the more things change, the more they remain the same, an old adage of particular poignancy to a city increasingly aware of the fact that it has, perhaps, sold its soul (or had its soul sold out from under it).

“By now I usually have fliers all over the city, but this year I don’t even know where it’s going to be held,” says Holeček, whose visible resignation seems more and more a ubiquitous part of Prague. Wandering over the grounds of a possible surrogate venue in the center of the city, his expert eye picks out a series of flaws—poor security options, safety issues, insufficient electric supply. “What’s happening now is a great pity. The people who have come to power now are really operating on fear for their jobs; they perceive that Klaus was against what Havel did, and so everything that happened at the Castle before cannot happen again. This is not responsible government, it is the rule of psychopaths. In the end, nothing has really changed after almost 15 years.”

Unsurprisingly, Richard Vidlička, the new director of programs at the Castle, was unable to comment on anything more substantive than the beautiful weather when contacted by the Pill. “The press department is quite new and they like to check all the comments before they are released,” says the new director, whose timidity Holeček ascribes to typical Czech lack of courage. “I have the feeling that if you were in his office and you asked, ‘Can I move this chair two meters to the right?’ he would answer that he doesn’t know, that he has to check.” Despite Vidlička’s assurance that our questions would be addressed, no response was received by press time. “Everyone there is afraid of making a decision,” says Holeček. “They send everything up to the president’s office for approval.”
Holeček isn’t retreating into his victim complex, though it presents an easy way out for many who see the city’s shrinking cultural endowments as a symptom of the eternal EU blandness to come. “I see other promoters, who’ve been operating here for much less time than I have, operating successfully. It all comes down to sponsorship—to selling yourself. It seems like this is more important than the music, the message or even the intent of the event itself.”

“I don’t think that this is some particular issue Klaus’ administration has with the [Respect] festival—they’ve been cancelling everything, even contemporary classical concerts,” Holeček continues. “One good thing that Havel did was that he tried to reinvent the public perception of the Castle. I imagine it will be more and more closed as the new people do their best to avoid notice and keep their jobs. In the end, it will be as it was: a forbidden place that serves as another symbol separating the people from the government.”

The Respect festival will be held this year, thanks in large part to the dedication of the organizers and the support of the city administration of Prague 1. In addition to hunting down a new venue, Holeček is also plying the Indonesian embassy for assistance with staging a concert of the 18-member Javanese band Samba Sumba. The festival will also feature the Moroccan Gnawa Halva, representing Berber musical traditions, and Achanak, stars of the British/Indian Bhangra scene. The legendary Skatalites, Jamaica’s godfathers of reggae and ska, will headline the festival, which will likely be held at Štvanice. Rumors have been circulating that Rachot may have a world music stage at this year’s Creamfields megafestival, which will likely be headlined by Massive Attack. The show will go on, but the sparkle is fading, supplanted by the neon glitz of Semtex inflatables and the muted fastness of castle gates.

Micah Jayne might be at [email protected], but no one will tell you if he is.

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