One of the more interesting bands performing around the Czech Republic this summer are Kon Sira, who play traditional songs of the Sephardic Jews as well as Balkan music. The group’s Kateřina Garcia herself has an unusually interesting background: Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha was her great-grandfather, while one of her grandfathers was a Spanish Civil War veteran who fled to Russia. Kateřina has lived in Spain and here in the Czech Republic but is now based in Dublin, where she teaches at Trinity College. When we met, I first asked where her surname had come from.
“It’s my father’s name. My dad is from a mixed marriage: Spanish-Russian. His father was from the Northern Spanish region of Asturias and he emigrated after the Civil War, in 1939, and ended up somehow in Moscow. He met my grandmother there.
“During the war they moved away from Russia. I think by the end of the war they were in Zagreb. My dad was born in 1951, so by that time they were already in Prague. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what year they arrived in Prague. But that’s how my parents met – they went to the same high school.”
What was the language at home?
“In the beginning it was Czech and Spanish, because as far as I can remember, if memory serves me well, my dad spoke Spanish to me, because he thought it would help me integrate better. But then shortly after himself and my mother agreed that maybe Czech would be the best way to go.”
And you left here at a young age?
“Yes, four; I was four.”
Was that after the death of Franco? Is that why your dad wanted to go back to Spain?
“It was, yes. We moved to Barcelona in 1981 when I was four and my sister was six months old. Franco died in 1975 so I suppose at that time it was easier for my father’s family.”
During these years, did you come back here to visit?
“Yes. Thankfully we were able to come and spend the summers here with my grandmother in Smržovka, in Jizerské hory [mountains].
“That was due to the fact that my mother had married a foreigner and hadn’t emigrated. So were able to travel back and forth. So yes, we were in contact with our Czech relatives.”
To digress for a second, Alphonse Mucha, the great Art Nouveau painter, was your great-grandfather – what exactly is the connection?
Do you take a particular interest in Mucha’s art?
“I do because I grew up with it. I grew up surrounded by Mucha art, Mucha posters. I suppose quite a few other people did, because Mucha posters were and are very popular, because they’re very decorative.
“But, of course, given that there was a family link, the amount of Mucha art was greater in our home.
“At one point my mother [Jarmila Mucha Plocková] started working on Mucha’s art and started basically building her career that she has nowadays. So [laughs] the incidence of Mucha at home intensified. It’s part of our lives.”
I know there are have been splits in the Mucha family and Mucha is still big business today – are you benefitting financially from Mucha, do you mind me asking?
“We aren’t [laughs]. Unfortunately we aren’t. We are not in contact with the side of the family that set up the Mucha Trust.
“I guess the only benefits that my family have is that my mother is allowed legally to carry out her work, in that she owns the copyright for the work that she does. And that’s basically it.”
Your family moved here in the early 1990s, when you were in your mid teens. Was that a big culture shock?
“It was, actually, even though as I said before we’d been spending summers here in Czechoslovakia. But I suppose nothing really prepares you for the change from Spain to a Central European country such as the Czech Republic, in terms of climate and in certain aspects culturally as well.”
You became interested in Irish music and later fronted this band Dún an Doras, who were well known. What sparked your interest in Irish music?
“It was my father. My father had some tapes of Irish and Scottish music and thought that I might like listening to them. I have to say that I became quite obsessed with them [laughs] when I was about 13.
“When we moved to Prague I noticed that there were quite a few Irish musicians playing in town. They had concerts and sessions and I began going to these and became sucked in [laughs].”
That was a big fashion in those days – why do you think it happened that so many Czech people became interested in Irish culture?
“I think it was new. I think it was very melodic, as well – it’s a type of music that is quite easy to listen to. I’m not saying it’s easy to play, but you can learn the tunes.
“And it’s very social. It’s something that you can participate in. I guess the session culture that these people brought to Prague was very appealing to musicians here.”
“There was a big fashion. People were attracted to everything Celtic – they sort of searched for their roots in that direction. And I guess perhaps it was an alternative to what had been presented to them for decades before that.”
These days, several years later, you are living in Ireland. What took you to Ireland?
“I met my now husband in Prague, while I was working at the Philosophical Faculty, and just decided to move over to Dublin.”
And you teach at Trinity College – what exactly is it that you teach?
“I’m at the Department of Hispanic Studies and I teach several courses. Mainly medieval Spanish literature, Spanish linguistics, the “Spain of the Three Cultures” and Spanish language as well, so a range of courses.”
How did you find moving there after so many years living here – it’s quite a different culture?
“It is, yes. But I have to say I didn’t have any problems moving there. I found it quite easy to start living there. Mainly I suppose because I was very lucky to find such a great job, so that solved many problems. And it’s not that far away, after all.”
Getting back to your musical activities, Katka, you have a band now called Kon Sira. What is Kon Sira? What kind of music are you doing?
“Kon Sira actually started as a once-off project. We originally didn’t think that it would develop into a band or that we would have gigs.
“My sister Bara Garcia, my friend Predrag Duronjič from Bosnia and I used to sing Sephardic songs, for years. With other friends as well – for years we had a band called Call-i-canto here in Prague.
“But at one point we were sitting down and thinking we don’t have anything to show for these years and those were nice songs and maybe we could record them.
“At the time I was on sabbatical leave and I decided that if we were going to record them those songs would have to be properly researched, properly edited and so on.
“So I kind of combined this with my research interests, which happened to be the language of the Sephardic Jews, the Spanish spoken in Greece and the Balkans.
“Off we went, and when we decided that we would record them, we thought we might just as well do it properly in a proper recording studio – and then somebody would have to produce it properly.
“Then my sister decided that maybe a double bass would be nice [laughs]. It just snowballed from there and evolved into a record.”
Have these songs been previously recorded?
“They have, yes. There are quite a few bands out there playing those songs. The interpretations are diverse. Some people treat the material as medieval or Renaissance music, early music, due to the fact that the Sephardic tradition reaches back to medieval Spain. Other bands present the songs with a more Balkan sound, perhaps.”
My final question is, you’ve spent big chunks of your life in different places, in Spain, here and now in Ireland – where do you feel most at home?
“That’s a tricky question. It’s a question I’ve tried to find the answer to my whole life [laughs]. I find myself at home here. At one point I wasn’t so sure, but the more time I spend away from the Czech Republic the more I realise how strong the links are.
“Barcelona or Spain is where I grew up. That’s the place where I spent my childhood so that’s where the childhood memories are. It’s something very strong that I feel, every time I travel to Spain. Or to Barcelona, to be exact.
“And Dublin, well Ireland, is the place where I live now and where for the moment I’m raising my family. So it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere.”