The equation is really very simple: Music equals liberation.
The notes and melodies that Jozef Luptak plays on his cello might as well be words on a page because they can do the same things.
While growing up under communism in Czechoslovakia, music meant freedom of expression.
When the old Soviet bloc crumbled in 1989, Luptak was in college, studying music, participating in the events that would lead to democracy.
And now, nearly three decades later, the accomplished Slovakian musician is using music to bring understanding of culture.
Luptak has been in Billings for several days, giving concerts and playing music. His final concert will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Cisel Hall at Montana State University Billings.
Love of music came naturally for Luptak, who took up the cello because his mother had always loved the instrument and wanted one of her four children to play it. He was the youngest in the family and his sisters already had taken up the piano, his brother, the violin.
And in this state system that had all but outlawed some of the greatest classical music — Handel's "Messiah" or Mozart's "Requiem" because of religious themes — Luptak learned to play beautiful music with exquisite polish in a place that could be bitterly cruel.
"Not everything was brutal," Luptak said. "You couldn't wipe (freedom) out completely. They were trying as much as they could."
His own father got a taste of that cruelty. As a member of an evangelical protestant church, a decade before Luptak was born, his father and four other men were met one day after work by two men in black overcoats.
"It was just like in the movies — where they were waiting for them," Luptak said.
Taken to a police station for questioning, Luptak's father was accused of distributing subversive literature and corrupting the youth — trumped up charges aimed at squelching his church activities.
"Literature and activities with the young people — those were their enemies," Luptak said.
Luptak's father stood resolute while facing trial on the charges. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison.
"They used half truths and half lies to convict my father — just enough to condemn him," Luptak said. "He had no way to defend himself because the defense lawyer was a communist, too."
During his father's trial, church members from the small congregation all gathered in the corridors and hallways of the building where the trial was held. Not being allowed to watch the trial, they instead remained outside the courtroom, saying nothing, silently praying.
"The officials were completely scared," Luptak said.
Ironically, many of the officials had been religious before the communist takeover.
"It's kind of funny. On one side, you had all these people — officials — who were going to church before communism. Then, they turned their coats," Luptak said. "There were very few of them who were convinced by socialism or communism. In fact, most became opposed to the communist system eventually."
For one year — until the country's president pardoned him — Luptak's family knew nothing about him. From his cell in Pankratz prison, he was placed among other prisoners — politicians, philosophers and those who were economic prisoners, punished for what they had once owned, condemned as imperialists or bourgeoisie. Luptak's father could not write letters, and the family was left to think the worst — maybe Siberia, maybe he was dead.
And it was because his father had stood firm and resolute, not compromising his beliefs that Luptak would stand firm in his pursuit of music, even if his father had at one time objected that because his son must have a "proper education."
And as much as places like Prague were epicenters for classical music, it was Western music, even rock 'n' roll, that also inspired Luptak as a teenager. He would listen to his older brother's Beatles music. At other times it was smuggled or bootlegged copies of Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd or Cream.
"It was like a window to freedom," Luptak said.
Local rock bands and musicians performed a style of covert music. Since every lyric played in public had to be first approved by a "cultural committee," bands and artists got adept at writing lyrics that were really a commentary on society.
"The authorities knew that they were about something else, but couldn't do anything," Luptak said. "You could say one sentence and everyone would know it was a dual system. You didn't really mean what you were saying and everybody in the audience knew something different."
The music helped liberate the people even during dark times.
Today, though now a free society, Luptak has found ways of using music to heal and also address some of the dark Slovakian history of the 20th Century.
For nearly 40 years, until the fall of communism, there had not been a rabbi in Bratislava. And so he's worked with the Hasidic Jewish community in Slovakia to help bring back the musical and cultural tradition that had been part of the country. At the same time, he has reminded his fellow Slovaks of a more difficult part of the country's history.
"The Jewish music, of course, has a deeper meaning in our country," Luptak said. "The Slovak state helped collaborate with Hitler. Not every person today is clear about that, but 72,000 people who were sent (to German concentration camps) were from Slovakia."
He's also tried to save, preserve and promote the traditional and "ancient" gypsy songs from eastern Slovakia.
"Our culture can be xenophobic," Luptak said. "The gypsies from Eastern Slovakia can have a negative connotation there. But you can kind of compare them with Native Americans in America. They're a part and there are 600,000 gypsies in Slovakia — 10 percent.
"The music is so natural to them, and it shows the positive side."
The liberation that he found in the music and has used to help restore Slovakian culture is just a part of the transformation of the country.
"After the revolution, we had a new system, but you can't change the people so quickly. They have been in constant fear, and they're afraid," Luptak said. "In a democracy, you can (change), but somehow they're passive. Somehow they have to buy into it."