Radim Zenkl stretches the limits of mandolin music taking the instrument to a new level. As a former U.S. Mandolin Champion, his style remains at the cutting edge of the mandolin's future. He has invented a masterful technique the "Zenkl style" in which a single mandolin sounds like two.
He was born in Opava, Czechoslovakia to parents who both taught classical music. "When I was seven, I went to music school for piano and learned basic music theory. Between the ages of 12-15 I studied classical guitar but started to hear Czech country and bluegrass bands and became more interested in this genre than classical music” said Zenkl.
He was looking for another instrument to play and the mandolin seemed the perfect fit. His first mandolin was a Czechoslovakian instrument for which his father paid 225 crowns (about $7.50). Zenkl's choice of mandolin came as no great joy to his father who claimed the instrument had no "real" repertoire, thus fueling his desire to create one of his own. He started transcribing music from other instruments and later on began composing.
He was 17 when he joined his first bluegrass band called Rozkol - meaning split. The band originated by splitting one band into two, one of which needed a mandolin player. They supplied him with copies of American bluegrass LPs - Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, Jim and Jesse, Osborne Brothers, Seldom Scene and others and also gave him Xerox copies of Andy Statman's and Jack Tottle's bluegrass mandolin books.
During that time Czech’s were not allowed to own western currency or to buy western products, so everything was smuggled in. Generally one LP, instructional book or magazine successfully crossing the border was enough for the whole country. A network of musicians copied and distributed reel-to-reel copies of old and current American bluegrass LPs and Xerox copies of the printed materials.
“We did some recordings for radio but the censorship of lyrics was very strong; many times we ended up just playing instrumentals. Even though the music was more or less illegal, we had some opportunities to play underground or by calling it ‘a music of the poor oppressed American farmers’ which was somewhat accepted by the ruling communist party" stated Zenkl.
Between 1984 and 1989, Zenkl played in and led several bluegrass bands and also performed as a soloist with the State Opera Orchestra of Ostrava and on several occasions with the Janacek Philharmonic Symphony of Ostrava. In 1987, he won the Czechoslovakian National Mandolin Championship and in 1988 his band Tyrkys won Porta, the national band contest.
Besides playing with Tyrkys, Zenkl performed with his new acoustic duo Mondo Mando (inspired by the music of David Grisman) all over the country as well as in Poland, Germany and Hungary. In the spring of 1989 Zenkl recorded his first album, "Mandolin Parade" (also the first mandolin album ever made in Czech Republic) featuring him on ten mandolin family instruments.
“From the time I was 12, I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to leave my communist country” says Zenkl. The plan finalized in 1989 after six months of arranging all the paper work for a three week exit permission from the government. He came to the United States and asked for political asylum. Zenkl escaped four months before the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.
Zenkl flew to New York and took a Greyhound bus to San Francisco because it is considered a mandolin Mecca. His original plan was to put together a band, something like the David Grisman Quintet. When he realized there were already several bands like that, he looked for something more unique and determined to focus on solo mandolin performance.
Playing his own compositions, Zenkl won the prestigious U.S. Mandolin Championship held in Winfield, Kansas in 1992. His first recording in the USA was on David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label. It was completed in 1992 and called “Galactic Mandolin.” It is full of original solo mandolin music with each piece in a different tuning. He has recorded 8 solo CDs (Acoustic Disc, Shanachie & Ventana labels) and has performed on more than 60 other recordings.
In 2001, he co-designed his own signature Breedlove mandola which was built by Kim Breedlove. Besides the mandolin and other string instruments, Zenkl also plays a variety of ethnic flutes from around the world.
When off the road, Zenkl spends quite a bit of time teaching privately and also conducts workshops. Sadly, he lost his home and a lifetime of music and instruments in the devastating fire of Paradise CA in 2018.
Video Links: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21VMaVrOns0
“Zenkl has re-invented the mandolin in several different ways.” David Grisman