Musicians Who Poked at the Iron Curtain

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Guitars, keyboards and drums did not topple the Berlin Wall. But for the young people who helped bring down Communist regimes across Eastern Europe in the fall of 1989, pop music was a profoundly subversive force, inspiration and vital tool of protest for challenging and undermining a totalitarian state stricter than any parent.

Now middle aged, some of the musicians who played in ostracism during those last gray years of Communist rule gathered in New York over the weekend for the festival Rebel Waltz: Underground Music From Behind the Iron Curtain. Performing at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village on Friday and Saturday, bands from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia commemorated the 20th anniversary of the wall’s fall with cascades of sound in the grand tradition of the British and American pop that first motivated them.

Stylistically, the groups, some of which will be playing later this week in Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto and Washington, were all over the map. Dezerter, from Poland, is a classic punk band, playing short, loud, punchy songs with few breaks between them. Kontroll Csoport, from Hungary, showed strong art-rock leanings, with long suitelike pieces and elaborate, sometimes atonal arrangements featuring twin saxophones. Bez Ladu a Skladu turned out to be a Slovakian version of a British two-tone band, with the musicians even wearing the skinny ties and sunglasses that were the uniform of that movement.

The event was organized by government cultural agencies of the five countries represented, as well as the New York Public Library. What united the groups then and now, as became clear during interviews and at a round-table discussion Saturday afternoon at the New School, was their common anti-authoritarian stance. They saw themselves as rebels with a cause, punks whose lyrics railing against the status quo often carried a heavy cost, including surveillance and the danger of being labeled social parasites because their music could not be legally recorded, played or broadcast...

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