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Czech Republic: World Music Festival Breaks Cultural Barriers

The second annual Respect music festival was held this past weekend in the Czech capital, Prague. The three-day outdoor concert featured folk music from around the world. While new Roma music is a special focus of Respect, this year marked the beginning of a wider, more multi-ethnic focus to the festival, as our correspondent, Alexandra Poolos, reports.

Prague, 22 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- On a sunny day outside Prague Castle in the Czech capital, languages from around the world can be heard as people lounge on the grass or dance near the bandstand.

The whirling music easily conjures images of a Roma camp on the outskirts of town, when, after a long day of traveling, families join for a meal and to share in an evening of music and dancing.

But the lively group gathered on this day in Prague differs from the romantic images of the past. The audience of some 400 came in colorful sun hats and with picnic lunches and dogs of all sizes to enjoy an afternoon of ethnic music. They were American and Korean, Indian and Czech. They danced or clapped or just tapped their feet. Everyone shared in the infectious melodies.

For Marketa Janeckova, the multi-cultural scene is proof that music is a universal language:

"When you're in a crowd of people on a concert and you don't speak the same language, but you listen to some type of music which you all like, it all puts you in a certain mood. And then its much easier to communicate. And then, it doesn't matter what language you speak or what kind of color you are."

Janeckova is the co-founder and chief organizer for the second-annual Respect Festival, a three-day outdoor concert in Prague featuring folk music from around the world. Last weekend's (June 18-20) concert marked the beginning of a wider, more multi-ethnic focus to the festival. The diverse program featured everything from Mongolian khoomi to Jewish klezmer music.

Ethnic and world music festivals are popping up with increasing frequency in many parts of the world. And with the popularity of traditional music has come a new celebration of folk culture. It is this heightened curiosity about ethnic culture that activists like Janeckova hope to capitalize on:

"The whole thing is basically hidden in the name of the festival. It's called Respect. Because of the word, of respect to each other and to different cultures. Because in the Czech Republic, people don't know what it is to respect a culture which is different, which is not Europe, which is not Western Europe. It's not because they don't want to but just because they don't have a chance, they don't know it. Because music is always the best way to communicate between people. That is known. We hope that through this, people will start to respect."

Janeckova believes the Respect wave is catching on. Local music producers and club owners have booked musicians for concerts and recordings. And the crowds, Marketa says, have grown bigger each year. But, she adds, the festival itself cannot change peoples cultural perceptions:

"I don't know if only this project without many other things would do it. At the end, it always depends on the people. It depends on every individual person. But I think it can help. I think it can help in Middle Europe and Western Europe if you have a chance to see cultures and countries you normally don't have a chance to see."

American Patricia Goodson is testimony to just how far a person will go to hear the infectious melodies of Roma fiddling. A native of the eastern U.S. city of Boston, Goodson says she first became interested in Roma music a few years ago in the small clubs of her hometown. The exposure there brought her to the Czech Republic eight years ago, where she has been soaking up the sounds ever since:

"To me, it's the spirit of life. It's just intoxicating. It's the best music. I am a musician, and I think its the best. And I love good fiddle playing. It just drives me nuts."

Alom -- a Roma band from the Czech Republic -- is the first group to play this afternoon. Drummer Jiri Mana is originally from Moravia. He has traveled with Alom for a year and says he first joined the group because he couldn't resist the music. He says the audience and the performers on stage feel the same exhilaration: "I feel great. Because especially this band, we try to put our energy together. It's not like someone's more visible than the other one. It's just the energy. The power. It's a kind of bridge, but now is the time for all the cultures to mix up. And it's not important who is who, from which culture he comes."

Simona Senkovia has performed with Alom for a year, but she has sung Roma songs with her family since she was 10 years old. She was born in the Czech Republic and says that -- with any luck -- her music will travel the globe:

"[The music] is good because it's good for white and for black. The music can enrich the culture."

According to Senkovia, it doesn't matter who you are -- only that you listen.