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Borrowed, Blue : Druha Trava's Newgrass by Way of Old World

September 26, 1997|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

About 1,500 folks converged in Nashville last year to pay their respects to bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, who died at age 84. Called the Father of Bluegrass, the Country Music Hall of Famer was a revered bluegrass ambassador. His backing band--the Blue Grass Boys--produced a succession of worthy disciples in Flatt & Scruggs, Mac Wiseman and Carter Stanley.

The mourners included Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart and Robert Krestan, a man who had come all the way from the city of Brno, in the Czech Republic. He traveled so far because he had a debt to pay: Through Monroe, Krestan discovered bluegrass music in 1968, when he was 10.

Now a singer-songwriter, Krestan leads the Druha Trava quintet, the top bluegrass band in his part of the world. The group, which performs Saturday night at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, contemporizes the genre by using such modern instruments as a full drum kit, electric bass, clarinet, alto saxophone, electric guitar and lap steel.

But Krestan acknowledges the deep influence of the tradition-minded Monroe.

"My life would be totally different if he wasn't put on this Earth," said Krestan, 39, by phone from a tour stop near Santa Cruz. "I'm sure I wouldn't have become a musician. I would probably be doing construction work.

"Monroe's style of singing, that depth and soul in his music. . . . I'd never heard anything like it. And I loved listening to Earl Scruggs play his banjo. It was so pure and full of life. I'll never forget getting a six-string banjo for Christmas when I was 11 or 12."

Last September, Druha Trava--also featuring banjo player Lubos Malina, Dobro player Lubos Novotny, guitarist-mandolinist Martin Ledvina and bassist Jiri Meisner--flew to Dallas, then drove to Nashville to attend Monroe's funeral at the Ryman Auditorium. Once there, Krestan says, he felt surprisingly unemotional.

"It was strange," he said. "I was kind of shocked or numb. My emotions just froze up until a day or two afterward, when I felt this incredible sorrow while listening to his music."

Monroe's style drives the traditional side of Druha Trava, a.k.a. Second Grass. But the group's alter-ego plucks from jazz, rock, country, folk and classical ingredients to forge its own eclectic identity.

Typically, a Druha Trava performance will feature original instrumentals, selections sung in Czech and English, classic bluegrass tunes, jazz standards and pop-rock covers, including the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," Dire Straits' "Telegraph Road" or Bob Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee."

Broadly speaking, the group's music fits under the heading "newgrass," a subgenre of progressive bluegrass that includes American groups such as Seldom Scene, the New South and New Grass Revival. Newgrass allows for variations featuring electric instrumentation and rock, blues and jazz touches.

"It's our kind of bluegrass music," Krestan said. "We were raised in Central Europe, so no matter what we do, it's not going to sound Kentucky-style. Even when we sing American bluegrass standards, it's our unique interpretation. Because of our roots, the core of our music is inside of us."

While virtually unknown in the United States, Druha Trava routinely plays before thousands throughout Eastern Europe. Its four albums for the Czech label Venkow have sold very well. Exposing the West to so-called Eastern Bloc bluegrass has been sometimes difficult, Krestan says.

"During our first tour here five years ago, I was unhappy and wanted to go back home," he confessed. "I just felt weird, trying to speak a different language and all. And nobody ever walks here--everyone drives all the time. I wasn't used to that.

"But now I'm happy to be here. Fans in America are very warm and gracious. In fact, they're much more free and open too. They seem to be interested in experiencing new things. So if we play a sax solo during [the traditional] 'Rock Salt and Nails,' they'll give it a chance. They don't--how do you say it?--freak out."

* Druha Trava performs Saturday at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real. 7 and 9 p.m. $3-$6. (714) 248-7469.

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