Milan Jakobec is the Czech ambassador to all of Central America out of San José. He is also a musician who writes songs of protest. Though a diplomat, he is not one to mince his words. His songs speak of controversial issues many of his colleagues would rather sweep aside: war, poverty, the plight of illegal Latinos in Miami.
On July 16, Jakobec will give his first major Costa Rican concert at the Children’s Museum in San José. Backed by members of local band Escats and a Czech bass player, Jakobec will be premiering some of his newest songs, most in Spanish, some in English. The concert will start at 7 p.m. Tickets costs ¢3,000 ($6) and are available at the door.
The Tico Times talked to the multitalented diplomat recently. Excerpts:
TT: It is said the bohemian soul lives in all Czechs, so it is natural for Czechs to sing. What do you think of this?
MJ: Czechs inherited the bohemian soul from both the Celts and Slavs. These are fun-loving people who enjoyed drinking and singing. We have an old tale that recounts how the Czech army won a war solely on the power of its battle song. Such was the power of Czech music.
Did you have formal musical training?
My father was a professional pianist and gave me my first piano lessons as a boy. However, he gave up on me after a few months. Later, rebelling against my father’s piano and classical music, I took up the guitar and started playing Bob Dylan songs.
You have recorded three CDs in the Czech Republic and are releasing another in the fall. You give concerts. You are also the Czech ambassador to all of Central America. How do you manage two different careers?
In Latin America, diplomacy and music blend very easily because Latinos are musical people. I think of my guitar as a diplomatic instrument here. I had my guitar in hand the moment I got off the plane in San José. In the other hand I had my credentials. My songs and concerts bring me closer to the people than my diplomatic job. Diplomacy and music are both about communication.
Tell me about your latest CD. What is the music like? What are the lyrics about?
I composed my first Spanish song, “Costa Rica,” while still in Prague. Its successful reception in Tiquicia encouraged me to write other songs about Central America. Some songs are based on my first impression of a country. Others are based on my imagination and longing for a place. I initially called the songs “My Anthems of the Isthmus.” But I changed it to “My Songs of the Isthmus” to avoid the criticism that “a Czech Gringo wants to change our anthems.”
Can one write authentic Spanish songs when one has a Czech heart? Do you write in Czech first, then translate?
I wrote the songs in Spanish. I can hardly say that I compose Latin American songs. The songs express only my musical taste and my Central American inspiration.
Which musicians have influenced you the most?
I like musicians who can put great music to lyrics with pertinent messages. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Silvio Rodríguez, Ricardo Arjona, Jaguares, U2 and Coldplay are some examples.
How did growing up behind the Iron Curtain affect your music?
Like most people of my generation, I grew up unhappy with the communist regime. I craved freedom. Naturally my first songs were protest songs against the regime. Before the fall of communism, my protest-song career was at its peak. When the Velvet Revolution brought freedom to my country, it also ruined my promising career as a protest singer. So I hung my guitar on the wall and started to work for my new democratic country as a diplomat.
In your songs, you protest state-sponsored exploitation of the poor and unfair treatment of illegal immigrants. You have very fine ideals. But do your songs sometimes get you into trouble with your government?
Despite the messages of my songs, which are not always “diplomatically correct,” I never have conflicts with my ministry. They respect that a poetic truth is sometimes more complex than a diplomatic one.