As a foreigner in Brno and the Czech Republic, it is not always easy to know and understand Czech customs and traditions. Brno Daily interviewed Jan Blazek, a member of the folklore association Brnensko Tanci A Zpiva, to understand the issues surrounding the preservation of Czech customs through dancing, singing and costume making. Traditions are usually passed on from generation to generation in the Czech Republic, but they are increasingly being lost due to growing urbanisation and modernisation of lifestyles. However, in the country’s second largest city, Jan Blazek and his association are fighting to protect the importance of the traditional songs, dances and costumes that form the Czech cultural identity. Photo credit: Brnensko Tanci A Zpiva

You may have seen one of their parades in recent years, or at least seen their colourful costumes on a street corner in the city. On 1 June, men and women were still parading through the streets of Brno on the occasion of Pentecost, to the sound of traditional songs and rhythms. As foreigners, expatriates, students from abroad, or simply tourists passing through, knowledge of Czech culture and what it entails can sometimes escape us. Although most of the Czech celebrations join Christian celebrations shared with other countries, other aspects of Czech culture remain much less known, so we spoke to Jan Blazek about this culture and the movement trying to protect it..

An Association Made Up of Local Volunteers

Brnensko tanci a zpiva (English: “Brno dances and songs”) was granted official civic association status on 4 August 2006. Since 1975, the advisory board of the municipal cultural centre of Brno has been taking care of events and shows with the same name, but without its current status. The association has therefore been in existence for more than 15 years now. 

“The purpose of the association is to restore, maintain and develop the cultural and spiritual traditions of the ethnographic region of Brno,” said Blazek. “This purpose is fulfilled in particular through the maintenance of folk customs and traditions, publishing printed materials such as calendars, organising cultural and educational events like folklore shows, dance seminars and workshops, both independently and in cooperation with other groups.”

“The purpose of the association is to restore, maintain and develop the cultural and spiritual traditions of the ethnographic region of Brno.” Photo credit: Brnensko Tanci A Zpiva

To achieve these goals, the association is financed by donations, special purpose grants and its own profit-making activities. All members of this association, men, women and children, come mainly from Brno and the surrounding villages. According to Blazek, the origin of its participants is connected with some ethnographic areas.

The Know-How Of The Costume

The know-how of traditional Czech costumes is slowly disappearing. There are only a few people left who can make them from scratch, most of whom are women. However, although they are no longer worn as everyday clothing, they are still important for traditional Czech festivals because of their symbolism and meaning.

“It depends on what kind of costumes you have to wear,” said Blazek. “If you want to follow local traditions strictly, according to old photos and old costumes, there are only a few people who are able to do it nowadays. The entire costume is not quite easy to make. It depends on what contacts you are able to find out. The last people who are able to do these things like costumes, instruments, and blue printing for instance, are difficult to find. But still, there are a few people left.”

There are only a few people left who are able to make traditional costumes from scratch, most of them are women. Photo credit: Brnensko Tanci A Zpiva

The costumes are also interesting in the sense that they are not randomly designed, but have a meaning. One of the most famous celebrations in the Czech Republic is Ash Wednesday, where a 3-day procession takes place beforehand. During this procession, men wear masks. “Every mask means something different. There are of course some animals, for instance horses or mares. And also there are some ethnic masks, such as Turks, and also some Chinese masks”, explained Jan Blazek.

Women have historically had very little representation in this celebration. Jan Blazek provided some explanations: “There are also women, but all the participants in old photos are men. I would say that in the past centuries, there were only men. You know, it was forbidden for women to participate in the past”.

Origins Shared With Much of Central European

Traditional Czech celebrations, like many other European countries, have their roots in Christianity. This is particularly true of Easter and Christmas, which also have some regional particularities. Easter in the Czech Republic is an important feast for everybody because it has interesting folk traditions. Before Easter, boys have to prepare plaited willow canes decorated with ribbons, known as pomlazky, and girls must decorate and paint eggs. On Monday morning, which is the most important day of Easter in the Czech Republic, boys go from house to house with their canes to chase girls and whip them saying traditional rhymes and asking for Easter eggs. 

The girls pretend to run away and hide, with the aim of sharing a fun and convivial moment. Then, the boys collect their rewards such as eggs, sweets, chocolate or even money. The day also includes a great feast, with traditional foods like “Mazanec” (sweet cake with a cross on the top), “Jidase” (small plain cake) or “Beranek” (sweet cake in the shape of a lamb).

This regional folklore is sometimes very similar to the traditions of other Central European countries, be it through dances, songs, rhythms or instruments. Photo credit: Brnensko Tanci A Zpiva

This regional folklore is sometimes very similar to the traditions of other Central European countries, be it through dances, songs, rhythms or instruments.“There are many dances in the Czech Republic, with a lot of similarities with Slovakia for instance or Central Europe in general. There is also a border between east and west culture, because Bohemia and western part of Moravia are closer with music, dances, and many other things. These similarities are also comparable with Austrian, German or Polish traditions,” explained Jan Blazek.

“There are many dances in the Czech Republic, with a lot of similarities with Slovakia for instance or Central Europe in general”. Photo credit: Brnensko Tanci A Zpiva

The small region of Slovacko in the Czech Republic is also well-known for its almost authentic preservation of its traditions, even though it is a somewhat different culture from the rest of the Czech Republic. “This region is close to Slovakia and Carpathia. Its culture is quite different. It comes from mountains, it is connected maybe with the cultivation of the land or animal husbandry. Their traditions are old and so are their dances. These dances are very popular nowadays. They are transmitted from generation to generation through men to young men,” said Blazek. This population is very proud of its traditions and culture. He also noted that the media usually highlight this region because of their lifestyle, which seems far removed from modern cities.

Czech Traditions Challenged By Modernity

After decades under a communist regime, where everything religious was restricted and some Czech festivals and traditions were silenced and forgotten, those involved in maintaining Czech folk traditions are now facing a new, global problem: the standardisation and homogenisation of societies. Traditions in the Czech Republic were characterised by great local diversity, which has been blurred by mass culture. The characteristic annual cycle of Czech traditions has been upset by foreign traditions such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day. However, the association tries to provide an alternative to this unification, by promoting Czech traditions in the heart of modern cities like Brno.

Traditions in the Czech Republic were characterised by great local diversity, which has been blurred by mass culture. Photo credit: Brnensko Tanci A Zpiva

Jan Blazek gave some explanations to this conflict between traditions and modernity: “It comes from everyone’s lifestyle. If your family lives in the same house for many generations, maybe centuries, it is of course different. If you are working at the same place you grew up and you don’t go to the big cities, it is easier to live, be interested and participate in the culture. If you live in the city, there are many other things to do, literally everything. But as you can see, there were participants from Brno, not the centre of Brno but the surroundings which are connected to Brno. It is interesting to see that it is Brno, but people have their traditions, songs and dances. Everybody likes it because everyone says that it is quite unusual for the second biggest city in the country to have so many traditions and such a wide folk culture despite the fact that it is a modern city.”

Exchange With Other Cultural Minorities In The Country

In the Czech Republic, there are a lot of cultural minorities, from Europe but also from further afield, like the Vietnamese community. A festival promoting the culture of these minorities in the Czech Republic is held regularly in Straznice. This is the biggest folklore festival and it is entirely dedicated to the minorities in the country.

“There are of course minorities who are organising somehow,” said Blazek. “They have their communities, their organisations, and civic associations, and they organise festivals so that we know they are Slovaks, Greeks, etc. They are also supervised by the Ministry of Culture, they receive money from them. For the festival in Straznice, they prepare their dances, songs, music. There are Croats, Germans and many others. They make their own traditional costumes.”

“The culture should be for everybody. All ages, all origins.” Photo credit: Brnensko Tanci A Zpiva 

Through the promotion of Czech culture and also of minority culture, in particular thanks to the work of Brnensko tanci a zpiva, Jan Blazek sends an important message: “Culture should be for everybody. All ages, all origins. So that our culture, whoever we are, will never disappear.”

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