The Havels: musicians without borders

Michaela "Mysha" Košťálová

Like a living ad for inner peace, the Czech musical couple the Havels talks about their spiritual journeys to India, nostalgic memories of the era of communism, and artists’ lives without children. Their mystical, authentic, mantra-like music will echo in Prague’s Jindřišská Tower on May 19.

If you would meet Irena Havlová and Vojtěch Havel, chatting silently in a tearoom, you would never guess their lively nature. Calm expressions, soft voices and inconspicuous clothing don’t drop a hint that this couple has traveled around 37 countries and played for an audience of 2,000 in New York City. They have also produced several CzechTV documentaries. The two of them are a band, known outside of the Czech Republic as the Havels, or domestically as Irena and Vojtěch Havlovi.

“From time to time, we try to take in somebody else, but it never lasts. They appear to have different interests; often their family plays a role. We don’t have children, so we’ve always given our entire energy to music. It’s difficult to find somebody who would instantly fit within what we’ve built in the last 30 years,” Irena says.

Last year, the Havels celebrated the 30th anniversary of their professional musical career. However, they have known each other for an even longer time. “I first saw Vojta at a concert; he played the cello and didn’t notice me. But he looked funny, as if he had been around 13 years old,” Irena recalls with a childlike sparkle in her eyes. Then Vojtěch stops her by a subtle gesture, and adds: “We met via friends. There was a great group of musicians in the ’80s in Prague; some 50 people into jazz and rock, and music in general. We threw parties, played, sang and danced whole nights. Once, when my mother left the flat for a weekend, I invited a few people and my friend, a saxophonist, brought Irena. We’ve been together ever since.”

The couple didn’t resonate only in music. “It all started with our relationship,” Vojtěch says.

By “all” he means a kind of alternative lifestyle, fulfilled by art, contemplation, spirituality and travel. The Havels’ music mediates a transition to their world. Vojtěch’s cello picking evokes mysterious sceneries of the Far East and Irena’s soft singing recalls murmuring mantras.

“I wanted to play cello when I was young,” Irena says; “But I didn’t. Instead, I ended up with a violoncellist,” she smiles.

But it is not only the cello that Vojtěch plays. “I like the piano and the organ, too. Irena plays the guitar, piano, a few wind and brass instruments and she sings. We both enjoy playing the viola de gamba – a historical instrument and predecessor of violoncello.”

Actually, the strings are their favorite and they invented a brand new technique of tuning them: by using Tibetan singing bowls, special types of bells traditionally used in Eastern cultures for spiritual purposes. “We have never talked about this before,” Irena says, “But this way, the strings’ tones become more delicate, soft and colorful than if you tune them up normally.”

“It has taken time for our style to crystallize into its current form. We started as a duo after the Velvet Revolution. Before then, there was a big group of musicians who cared about one another; we played together in many prestigious places such as PragueCastle or the Clementinum, where it’s not possible today because of high rents. On the other hand, we couldn’t officially release a record; everything was censored and it took years to get permission. But people helped each other and our music was everywhere, thanks to samizdat. We would have a concert and it would be out on cassettes the next day – there was always somebody who had the courage to record and release it,” explains Vojtěch. Samizdat refers to underground publishing.

They admit their political indifference during the era of totalitarianism. “We were young, spent whole days creating music and, in my case, also art. We had fun with artist friends during the nights. … Those days were like floating in a dream for us. If you asked me if I want communism back, I’d say no. But this age is much worse,” Irena says.

At the beginning, they were interested in historical music. They focused on the Renaissance and the Baroque, rediscovered bygone instruments and got inspired by forgotten songs.

“Then, one day, a friend took us to a spiritual meeting and we met our guru… Since 1985 we’ve been engaged in nāda yoga under the guidance of our spiritual masters Paramhans Swami Madhavananda and Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda,” Irena says.

Vojtěch finishes the story: “As soon as it was possible, we went to visit them in India, and we fell in love with the country. We have been there ten times between 1990 and 2010, often for months at a time.” They have traveled mainly through the countryside, stayed with locals or in spiritual centers called ashrams. They have made many friends on the way. Not only have these journeys served as an inspiration, but the Havels also gathered a lot of material for their documentaries. Irena recalls a trip to Rajastan: “We love their music. It’s similar to Moravian folk, because Indo-European gypsy origins are the same in the Czech Republic and India. Their tones, the melody, the colors of their music… It’s all in us.”

As for their travels, the Havels can fill a book with their stories. They love returning to India because of its mystical atmosphere, and Irena dreamily describes villages with poor people, where spiritual life and traditions are still alive.

“I think the poorer and humbler people are, the better they behave to one another,” she sighs. When I ask if they live simply too, they both laugh. “Well, we don’t have a choice,” Vojtěch says.

“But we don’t complain. We don’t like concerts for huge audiences anyway; it’s much more enjoyable for us to play for some twenty people and get in a kind of intimate touch with them. Because we have chosen this artist’s life, we have had to simplify things. But we’ve got our freedom in return,” he adds.