Q&A with founder/director of the Blues Alive festival Vladimir Rybicka, one of the longest running blues events in Europe

"I think it's the traditional Czech humanity and understanding. The fact that blues was partly a banned genre during the communist era also contributes. There was also a defiance against non-democracy and thus an understanding of this music. Today, young audiences can be attracted by the variety of blues music and the fact that blues stands at the core of practically all modern music genres (if you can listen well...)"

Vladimír Rybička: Keeping The BLUES ALIVE (one of the longest running blues events in Central Europe)

Vladimir Rybicka is the founder and director of the Blues Alive festival in the Czech Republic. The Blues Alive festival is taking place in the Czech Republic between November 16-18, 2023. Blues Alive is an international blues & roots music festival located in the city of Šumperk, Czech Republic. Established in 1996 and approaching its 27th edition, it ranks amongst the longest running events of its kind in Central Europe. The festival is a proud recipient of the Keeping the Blues Alive Award by The Blues Foundation in Memphis. The event consists of concerts, jam sessions, film screenings, lectures, masterclasses, and blues-related art exhibitions. The programming of Blues Alive follows three main objectives. The first aim is to present the biggest legends of the blues genre, still alive today. Festival have worked with James Cotton, Hubert Sumlin, Johnny Winter and many others. Festival's team second aim is to present contemporary blues stars at the peak of their careers. The third aim is to seek out and present emerging up-and-coming talents.                                       (Photo: Vladimír Rybička)

This year's (2023) lineup includes legendary Philadelphia based G. Love & Special Sauce who mix traditional blues with hip hop and other modern styles, Louisiana soul-blues master Robert Finley, discovered and produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, multiple recipient of the Blues Music Award Tommy Castro & The Painkillers making him one of the current kings of blues, as well as other international stars such as Bernard Allison and Alvin Youngblood Heart. In short, 2023 Blues Alive program involves more than 30 acts. The festival's music masterclasses, open for the public, will be held by the brilliant British guitarist Krissy Matthews and Memphissippi Sounds. Blues Alive is a member of The Blues Foundation, the European Blues Union, and is one of the European Blues Challenge Awarding Festivals.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: Vladimír Rybička, Štěpán Suchochleb & Martina Waller Fiserova

How did the blues influence your view of the world? What characterizes the philosophy and mission of Blues Alive?

I don't think the blues has dramatically influenced my worldview. It was more influenced by the people and situations I was put in through the blues, which certainly shaped me over the years. The philosophy of the Blues Alive festival is all about encounters: encounters of cultures, genres, different people, creeds, intermingling and certainly influencing each other. The mission of our festival is to present the blues genre and all its forms and offshoots in a small border town in central Europe in a national and European context. The mission is also to spread awareness of a genre that is certainly a minority in the Czech Republic.

How do you think Blues Alive as a festival has grown since you started and what has stayed the same?

Today's festival is incomparable to its beginnings: from a small, one-day festival of Czech bands it has developed into a three-day festival for both musicians and audiences. The festival has long been a festival for musicians and musicians from the Czech Republic, Europe and the world, especially from America. The audience comes not only from the Czech Republic but also from abroad. What has not changed in the 27 years of the festival is the great and unique atmosphere. Excellent audiences can encourage musicians to perform excellently, and the energy is mutually transmitted between artists and audience. So, the highlight for us, the organizers, is not the prizes and awards, including the Keeping The Blues Alive Award, but the people, their behavior and mutual tolerance. Today's festival is not just about music, but films, lectures, discussions, masterclasses, educational events. It takes place at several venues around the city.  The festival concerts take place on two stages, which is challenging for the organizers and attractive for the audience.

"There are many experiences and memories over the 27 years of the festival and it's hard to highlight just a few. I don't want to talk about the musical highlights. For me, the most important memories are the individual steps the festival went through. Very important for me are the colleagues with whom I have the honor to work and to contribute to the whole, which has a resonance and evolves for the better every year." (Photo: Vladimír Rybička with booking agent Štěpán Suchochleb; and program director Ondřej Bezr)

What's the hardest thing about doing a blues festival in Europe? What do you think is the key to making a BLUES FESTIVAL the BEST?

There are several commonalities that have to intersect here: An excellent, bold and informed programming, timely and flawless booking and an honest local background with helpful and passionate people. Logically, the understanding and support of state, county and municipal authorities and the affection of donors must be added to the mix.

Why do you think blues music still creates such a devoted fan base in the Czech Republic?

I think it's the traditional Czech humanity and understanding. The fact that blues was partly a banned genre during the communist era also contributes. There was also a defiance against non-democracy and thus an understanding of this music. Today, young audiences can be attracted by the variety of blues music and the fact that blues stands at the core of practically all modern music genres (if you can listen well...)

What moment changed the Czech blues scene the most? What have been the highlights of the Czech blues scene so far?

I can't really answer that question. You'd better ask a musicologist or journalist who has been involved in this music for a long time. Maybe the most important point was the fall of communist regime in 1989? Maybe concerts of Johnny Cash in Prague in 1970s? Maybe first BB King concert in Prague in 1990s? Every good concert is a highlight and believe me there have been many...

Are there any particular memories or highlights of Blues Alive that you would like to tell us about? Which encounters were the most important experiences for you?

There are many experiences and memories over the 27 years of the festival and it's hard to highlight just a few. I don't want to talk about the musical highlights. For me, the most important memories are the individual steps the festival went through. Very important for me are the colleagues with whom I have the honor to work and to contribute to the whole, which has a resonance and evolves for the better every year.

"The philosophy of the Blues Alive festival is all about encounters: encounters of cultures, genres, different people, creeds, intermingling and certainly influencing each other. The mission of our festival is to present the blues genre and all its forms and offshoots in a small border town in central Europe in a national and European context. The mission is also to spread awareness of a genre that is certainly a minority in the Czech Republic."

(Photo: 27th edition of Blues Alive festival, Šumperk, Czech)

What are the most important takeaways from your experiences on your musical travels?

I am not a proficient traveler. I traveled a lot in the early years of the festival, when I tried to promote Blues Alive with my presence in the Czech Republic and abroad. Repeatedly I experienced a great atmosphere at various concerts in Chorzów, Poland.

Do you think that blues music in its current form has its audience, or at least the potential for young people who can become future listeners and fans?

According to our fans, yes. Among the visitors to our festival, in many cases we meet parents with children and grandchildren. The relationship to this music is intergenerational. I want to believe that there will be more and more blues fans. Hopefully our festival contributes a little bit to that.

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