(From the Prague Post, English-language Czech daily, 20 March 2002.)

Rock of Ages

Multifaceted artist Jaz Coleman goes from classical to rock and back again

by Matej Novak, Staff Writer

Jaz Coleman has been busy. Consider the miracle makeover of the Moravian folk band Ceskomoravska hudebni spolecnost. A little more than a year ago, they were playing weddings and funerals, dressed in traditional folk costumes, or kroje, and busking on the street in their spare time. In the time since - under the revised name Cechomor - the band has performed to audiences of more than 6,000 at a time, sold 52,000 copies of last year's album Promeny (Transformations), and recently took home awards for band of the year, album of the year and song of the year from the Andel 2001 music awards. It was Coleman who sparked this incredible transformation, through what he describes as "a series of immaculately timed coincidences."

British-born Coleman is best known as the singer and keyboard player for the experimental punk band Killing Joke, which he formed in 1978 at the age of 17, along with drummer Paul Ferguson, guitarist Geordie Walker and bassist Youth. But his recent local fame lies primarily in his work with Cechomor - specifically, his orchestral arrangements, conducting work and production of the 12 songs on Promeny. A fictionalized version of the events surrounding Cechomor's rise to fame, including its series of concerts with folk singer Jaromir Nohavica and involvement with Coleman, is now the subject of Rok Dabla (Year of the Devil), a film written and directed by Petr Zelenka and released on March 7. Zelenka also wrote and directed 1997's Knoflikari (The Buttoners), winner of four Czech Lion Awards, and wrote the script for Samotari (Loners), released in 2000.

With all the key players - Coleman, Cechomor, Nohavica - starring as themselves, Rok Dabla plays like a documentary, taking the viewer on a journey through one year in the musicians' lives. Along the way various characters combat alcoholism, search for spiritual meaning, take part in a mystic ritual and get in a heated discussion over the eternal question: boxers or briefs? Though the film is largely fiction, many aspects of Coleman's character, as well as several plot points, are ripped straight from real life. Zelenka calls this "super-reality." Coleman came up with his own dialogue and did not need any coaching for the ritual sequence. "It's almost entirely him," says Zelenka about the character. "He gave the film an energy not present in Czechs." Coleman's cinematic meeting with Cechomor member Karel Holas in the elevator of the Moevenpick hotel mirrors their actual meeting in late 2000, when Holas requested a visit with Coleman after seeing him on television. Coleman was living in a conductor's apartment at the Municipal House when Holas came to see him. They talked and, on the way out, Holas played his violin for Coleman in the elevator. "I played and sang and we decided to record an album," says Holas.

Though he isn't sure exactly how that initial meeting turned into an album and film, Coleman says the process was magical. A musical genius At the March 6 gala premiere of Rok Dabla, Coleman and the rest of the cast and crew were prominently on display. When one of the guests, an American woman, heard Coleman speaking English, she approached him and asked who he was. "The devil," he replied. Coleman had earlier confided that when Zelenka asked him to star in the film, it was with a simple request: "I want you to be the devil." After a little coercing from the woman, Coleman agreed to divulge some real information, but at first only in the form of a brief overview of his work. The young woman looked doubtful and hesitated for a moment before telling Coleman that if what he said were true, he must be the greatest musical genius of our time. He didn't argue.

Indeed, Coleman has had a long and varied musical career. While he still records with Killing Joke - a new album is due out this year - his endeavors these days are geared more toward orchestral music. A conductor and arranger, Coleman has scored the works of the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd for symphonic orchestras. His Doors Concerto, with British violinist Nigel Kennedy performing as the "voice" of Jim Morrison, premiered and was recorded in the Rudolfinum about four years ago with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. He has also worked with the Czech Philharmonic and the Czech Philharmonic Collegium. It may seem a strange leap, going from leading a rock band to conducting an orchestra. But Coleman began his musical career at age 6 as a classically trained piano player and violinist. By 15 he had won the Bath International Festival for violin and was a member of the National Youth Orchestra in England. Today, Coleman has 35 albums to his name and has worked with such artists as Talvin Singh, Metallica, Enigma and Mick Jagger. While living in Iceland in the early '80s, he was a key figure in forming The Sugarcubes, which featured vocalist Bjork. He has worked on the soundtracks to Disney's Mulan and the 1985 John Hughes film Weird Science.

As if all that wasn't enough, Coleman was instrumental in changing the official language of New Zealand's national anthem from English to Maori, the language of the island nation's eponymous native people. Well before his orchestral debut in the Golden City, Coleman became acquainted with the Czech Republic. Local bands began writing to Killing Joke in the '80s, asking if they could perform covers of their songs. Coleman first played here with his band in 1991. "My relationship with this country is very strange," he says. "You think you know it and you don't." Though born in England to a half -British, half-Indian family, Coleman lives in New Zealand when he is not on the road. He says that New Zealand and the Czech Republic are "two countries I love with a deep passion." Each time he arrives here, he is filled with great joy - and great sadness when he leaves. "At the end of the day," he says, "my soul is Czech."

Looking ahead

A self-professed workaholic, Coleman will be composing a huge orchestral work, involving 160 performers, about the Maori people for the 2003 America's Cup sailing competition in Auckland, New Zealand. He also has a commission from the Indian government to set the story of the Taj Mahal to music. Currently working with Nigel Kennedy and singer Kate Bush in Poland, Coleman plans to bring Kennedy to the Dancing Building in Prague this summer for a performance with the Kroke Quartet, which Coleman calls Poland's Cechomor rivals. Coleman is also scheduled to open an exhibition of Killing Joke artwork in the Dancing Building on May 1. Cushions and headphones will be on hand so patrons can listen to the band's music.

On top of all that, Coleman has a commission from President Vaclav Havel - "a man I greatly admire," he says - to compose a major symphonic work based on the music of the Plastic People of the Universe to commemorate the 1989 revolution. "I'm a free man," says Coleman, describing freedom as intrinsic to his composition process. "I like isolation, and my work. - I'm an elusive creature." And just before he disappeared to introduce the final premiere screening of the evening, Coleman added one final insight into his character, saying he approaches every new project as his last. "Just in case it is."

Matej Novak's e-mail address is mnovak@praguepost.cz

Rok Dabla (Year of the Devil) is written and directed by Petr Zelenka  Starring Jaromir Nohavica, Karel Plihal, Cechomor, Jaz Coleman, Jan Prent  See Cinema, pages C9-12, for showtimes and venues

Coleman on -  The European Union: "I want to see a strong Europe to balance the world's madness."  Employment: "To create employment is everything."  His work: "This year, I'm greasing the wheels of capitalism."  The music business: "I don't like poor musicians; it upsets me."  Politics: "Music has to transcend all politics."  Prague: "I'm here because I like to compose here. - I owe it something." "At the end of the day, my soul is Czech."