Virtuoso pianist Tomáš Kačo: When I tell somebody I’m a Gypsy in the US,
they’re excited about it|
Earlier this year the young piano virtuoso Tomáš Kačo performed for the
first time at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall. It was the fulfilment of a
long-held dream for the 31-year-old, who comes from a large Romany family
in a small Czech town and was a youth prodigy before seizing a
life-changing chance to study in the US. I caught up with Tomáš Kačo
when he was visiting Prague last week from his home in LA. My first
question: When was he first exposed to music in a meaningful way?
“I started playing piano when I was five, actually because my dad forced
“At the time I just hated it. Like every kid, I wanted to go out and play
soccer or stuff.
“And being forced was actually very important, but of course at the time
I didn’t realise that, right?
“Then 12 years later, when I was 17 or 18, I heard the music of Frederic
Chopin for the first time and I fell in love with music and the piano with
all of my being.”
Was your dad a skilled teacher? Could he train you in piano?
“No, he wasn’t. He’s not a musician, he’s not a pianist.
“He just knows how to play a few chords on the piano, which is A minor, G
major, F major and E major.
“He just had, I don’t know why, some kind of dream, that one of his
kids would be a musician or a pianist.”
You come from a small town, Nový Jičín in Moravia. Were there many good
teachers around? Was it possible to get good training in piano when you
were a teenager, say?
“Officially I started to get real music training when I was, I guess, 11
or 12, but by that time my technique was already pretty good.
“I was kind of a rebellious guy, because I had freedom – until that
time I was self-taught and I didn’t have any rules, any borders.
“But when I started to learn classical music, meaning notes and sheet
music, they tried to put me in a box, in a sense.
“I remember at music school I switched between three different teachers,
because none of them knew how to handle me.
“I was always changing the music of Mozart or whatever.”
Were they trying to kind of re-educate you, telling you were doing
“Yes, exactly. That’s what they tried to do. Like, You can’t play
this note there – it’s not written in the score, right?
“But I said, Wouldn’t this be better? It just sounds better to me.
“It was more about focus and trying to respect the traditions of
I guess piano isn’t an instrument that’s commonly used in gypsy music.
Do you take any influences from Romany culture into your work, do you feel?
“That’s a subject I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Like,
what does gypsy music even mean?
“Because gypsy music is different in every country. That’s why you
“But of course the biggest influence for people from the Czech Republic
and the Slovak Republic, I mean Gypsies, is actually music from Hungary.
“The traditional instruments in gypsy music in Hungary are violin, viola,
bass and the traditional Hungarian instrument called the dulcimer.
“Those people can play really fast on this instrument and I think
pianists, when they try to play gypsy music, the tradition is kind of
copying, or trying to copy, the sound of the dulcimer.”
The biggest turning point in your career must have been when you were
accepted into the Berklee of School of Music in Boston. What did studying
there give you?
“Studying at Berklee was a very important part of my life.
“I would say more than musically, I think I grew personally – my
personality grew more than my musical education.
“Of course, my musical education developed as well.
“But I think just seeing and meeting different cultures and seeing the
diversity at school and generally in the US, that just generally helped me
“It completely transported me to a different level at the human,
Obviously in the US there is racism, but also there are a lot of
multicultural areas or cities. In this country, everyone knows, there is
racism towards Romanies. As a Romany person, how do you find living there
compared to being here?
“Basically when I’m in the US and I say to somebody I’m a Gypsy, or a
Romany or whatever the correct word is, they are excited about it.
“They are, like, so interested and they want to know what it’s all
about and about the traditions.
“Because they think that Gypsies are only in the movies kind of thing,
that they don’t really exist. They’ve never met anyone who’s a real
“So it’s kind of like an advantage. I think in the US, the more
different you are, the more interesting you are.
“And here if I meet new people, let’s say you grab a coffee with them,
or they’re friends of your friends or something, it’s not easy to say
that you’re a Gypsy or that there’s something different in your family
“Because you don’t know if they’re going to judge you right away.
Mostly, like 90 percent, they have bad experiences of Gypsies and the
judgment is there, right away.”
I saw you playing one time, I think about four years ago, at a wedding and
you were absolutely fabulous. Did you often have to do that kind of work to
make a bit of money in those days?
“Really, four years ago at a wedding?”
Around four years ago.
“Oh man. I used to do those kinds of gigs you know.
“It was pretty good, a pretty easy job, pretty easy like side money, you
“Of course, it wasn’t my main focus.
“It’s pretty dangerous area, because once you get good at these kinds
of gigs, it’s quite easy to fall into it and stay doing it.
“You can make good money and everything, but you stay at the level of
being a pub or wedding gigs musician.”
Now obviously you’re at a very different level. You played at Carnegie
Hall in New York in February of this year for the first time. What did it
mean to you to play at a venue that everyone in the world who knows
anything about music has heard of?
“It was such an honour, you know, and such a responsibility.
“I felt great responsibility and at a certain time I just felt, Do I
deserve it? Why me? I know I’m probably not the best pianist in the
world, I know there are tonnes of better pianists.
“I was kind of playing with the idea in my head. I was like, Man,
shouldn’t I just call some of my friends from the Czech Republic who play
much better and probably deserve it.
“But after a while I realised it is what it is, you know, and I’ve just
got to take advantage of it and do my best.”
Were you more nervous than usual or anything like that?
“Yes, I was pretty nervous when I was backstage, in the green room.
“Because I had a lady there taking care of me and I started to talk to
her and asked her how long she’d been working there.
“She told me she was working there for 40 years and she said, All the big
artists started right here, like [Vladimir] Horowitz and all these guys.
“I was like, Oh, my goodness. It took my breath away completely.
“I was honoured that this lady was taking care of me, asking if I had
water or needed something.
“So I was pretty nervous. But from the minute when I sat down at the
piano and started to play everything fell away.”
There was a lot of coverage of that concert here in the Czech media. What
was the response of your family or perhaps even the broader Romany
community to your success?
“It was pretty positive. Everybody was happy for me.
“I think the Gypsy community were pretty proud and kind of showing off.
They were like, We’re so proud that you’re a Gypsy and you’re doing
Also there probably aren’t that many role models for young Romany kids?
“Exactly. And I think that’s what’s needed.
“Young Romany kids have pretty low self-confidence. Just because they are
“Their skill is pretty high, their talent can be pretty high, but their
confidence is pretty low.”
Did you ever get annoyed by the coverage of your concert? A lot of the
headlines were along the lines of, Here’s this poor guy, he’s got 11
brothers and sisters, he’s come from nowhere, he’s a Romany and now
he’s playing at Carnegie Hall.
“I know how the media works – and what they’re selling is the story.
“What I more felt sorry about was that people didn’t know what my music
“Many people think I perform classical music only, strictly classical
pieces. Or strictly jazz – many people think I’m a jazz pianist, you
“So people don’t know. But what they do know is the story.
“I think it will take more time before people know and appreciate what
the music is about.”
As well as playing music, you also compose and improvise. Do you feel that
you fit in comfortably to classical music or would you see yourself being
more in the kind of crossover area, reaching out to audiences who usually
wouldn’t go to classical concerts?
“Yes, I definitely feel I’m somebody who’s making bridges between
nationalities and bridges between different music genres.
“So it’s definitely not going to be simply classical or simply jazz.
It’s always going to be about trying to get people to learn about fusion.
“Because I grew up in a fusion. My tradition is fusion.
“It wasn’t only Gypsy, you know – it was Czech as well. I’m a Gypsy
and I’m Czech.
“And the music’s like that as well – it’s fusion.”
Would you like to be a big pop classical musician? Like these guys who play
in big arenas with big shows and all that kind of stuff.
“No, no. I was always an introvert type of guy and I’ve got a bit of a
phobia of people – if there are many people around me, I don’t like.
“I don’t have a problem if I’m on the stage and there are like 6,000
people sitting and watching or whatever.
“I definitely don’t want to be a Michael Jackson type star but more
like the pianist who’s playing for Michael Jackson, kind of thing
My final question is where would you like to be, or what would you like to
be doing in terms of your career, in let’s say 10 years from today?
“Ten years from today I would love to have at least one Grammy nomination
Not just a nomination – you must want the award as well.
“Yes, maybe the award.
“And probably later touring the world, of course, performing and sharing
“Trying to do as many collaborations as possible with many different
artists in different genres.
“And just to try to connect people, connect genres, and inspire more and
more people with my story.”
Tomáš Kačo is currently preparing his debut LP My Home. He is performing
at Prague’s Convent of St. Agnes on November 11 and will play at Carnegie
Hall again on February 22.