Imagine recognizable caricatures of recent Russian leaders from Nikita, Leonid, to Gorby in ascending order, like a nest of wooden babushka dolls pulled out one from the other, huddled about a chessboard that has sections of the Kremlin spread out as individual chess pieces. Imagine a country where the screws had been ratcheted down so long they’d frozen into place like unyielding clamps, with government-sanctioned news being the only news, an economy that had stagnated into a ruinous condition wherein only those in highly placed government positions could benefit but only from institutionalized thievery, where any comment or grumble could be reported as “suspicious” by anyone, resulting in a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Maybe even ending with a ride in the back of a bread truck headed for the correction center. That’s a mighty scary totalitarianism for you, and it’s beginning to sound a lot like Russia.
In such an environment, where an elite can control masses by instilling fear or by demoralizing them into a steady state of apathy, it’s likely that the state would sanction only certain music and musicians, because the government will decide which music can be recorded, performed onstage, and what can be broadcast on the nation’s airwaves.
The music on this CD is not that music, the officially sanctioned music created by those who had been streamed into the State-sponsored schools for their music education. This is music from the bards, a folk and popular music that grew up separately, neither supported nor banned by the State, either evading scrutiny or ignored by the official censors. Emerging in Russia during the 1960’s through the 1980’s, the bard movement took hold during the Russian equivalent of the back-to-the-land movement. This was a form of rural tourism where people would head out to the country with their backpacks for a little space and a breath of fresh air. They’d camp out and sleep in their little tents after spending long evenings around the campfires, strumming guitars and singing songs of bards like Vladimir Vysotsky.
As possibly the most famous bard, Vysotsky is first out on this collection, growling out “Dialog y Televisora” in different voices in a novelty-sounding tune, while an occasional bongo drum sounds and an off-chordal piano adds humorous accent to the saxophones and clarinets. Another pop novelty song follows by Nol. A sprightly accordion leads in “Chelovek I Koshka”, a quick paced tune about a deranged man trapped in his apartment with his cat. Complete with slinky electric slide guitar, again this is an overly emoted tune in a raspy somewhat comedic male voice. In this instance, life may have somewhat followed art, as the lead singer of the group was institutionalized for five years on an assault charge, after which he became a Jehovah’s Witness and declared all his previous works “immoral”.
The pop music on this CD is difficult for a Western listener like me to absorb, first off because many of the techniques and flourishes that have found their way in from Western pop music were more than a bit out-dated before they were imported. Also, the presentation is like over accentuated Vaudeville or circus music, a carnivalesque hokum played purposefully with a heavy hand. Sometimes complete with forced, fake laughter in the lyrics, as with the selection by Alla Pugacheva (who, the liner notes informs me, has sold over 100 million records and is as popular as the Beatles and is controversial as Madonna). None of which I can effectively explain, but suspect may be a carryover from years of being ordered to like the music or pretend you do. The word corny can’t adequately summarize the overall effect, but it will suffice.
This modern Russian pop sounds even crasser and overdone when placed along side the delicate lyricism of Clavdia Shulzhenko, one of Russia’s most popular singers. Her singing accompanied the people throughout eras of the harshest of times. She sang her way through the fearful Stalinist years of the 1920’s, performed at thousands of shows on the front lines during WWII, then continued on entertaining through the bleak postwar years. Her “Starinny Vals” (“Ancient Waltz”) evokes the mood, the times, and the music of the ‘40s as it was carried over into the next decade. This is soft, a bit slow-paced, with a core throbbing with quiet melancholy. This piece was a dancefloor favorite in the 1950’s. Accompanied by a subdued piano and quiet jazzy drums, the typical small combo ensemble backing for a chanteuse in a cabaret, Calvdia’s stylistic laughter near the end of the song dates the piece but doesn’t sound at all insincere. Because she was Stalin’s favorite singer, and popular for decades after, it’s easy to suspect why modern pop groups might want to take a swing at an older and overplayed style.
The beating heart of this CD continues with the songs most representative of folk music, in particular, two historic sweeping vistas by Zhanna Bichevskaya. Once a dedicated folkloricist, Bichevskaya traveled far into remote regions and villages to study and learn folk forms before they disappeared. Her music, carried by her rich husky alto voice in front of folk choruses and instrumentation, is expansive and dignified, the sound honestly dramatic and deep, full of rich harmonies, and surprising melodic resolutions. The songs here “Lyubo, Brattzy, Lyubo” (“Good, Brothers, Good”) and “Dikoye Pole” (“Wild Field”) are about the Cossacks who fought against the Communists during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920. These recordings of her folk music are likely to be her last work with this form, as during the past decade, Bichevskaya has become a devout Russian Orthodox, and her repertoire has shifted to spiritual songs.
An older form of American music was taken up by musicians after they were charmed by banjo music on a movie’s soundtrack. Deliverance inspired a group of Moscow students to take up an unfamiliar form of music, which they’ve managed with admirable skill. A little self-effacing, they call themselves Kukuruza (“corn”) but their understated honest sound is anything but corny. Acoustic flat-picked guitars, mandolin, fiddle, dobro (all the right instruments for bluegrass music) combine over lyrics sung in Russian by soprano female voices. The soft brushed snare and deep stand up bass provide a train-like rhythm, propelling the song through a slow-changing country landscape and without understanding a word, you can almost see the vistas of “Za Skaloyu” (“The Rocky Mountain”) through the frame.
The gypsy music is reinterpreted in a popular format by groups Loyko and Gipsy Talisman, while the Terem Quartet recreate classical motifs beautifully on accordion, guitars, and flute with “Diplomatichesky Vals” (“The Diplomat Waltz”). To say there are some great tracks among the 19 here wouldn’t do this collection justice, compiling music that simply isn’t heard very often in the West. The music is so rich and unique to place that for an hour or so, the listener is taken on an imaginary voyage to a distant locale where the samovars are still steaming.