On the cover of her last album, elusive, Zulya Kamalova sat with a black towel wrapped around her chest, regarding the onlooker with the wary, haggard expression of a woman who has just been rescued, after delicate negotiations, from a hostile Turkish bath. On the cover of The Waltz of Emptiness (and Other Songs on Russian Themes) she’s looking hip, she’s standing on the platform of a railway station, and the wrap-around has been replaced with a leather jacket. Her blonde hair is groomed; she gazes thoughtfully off to the left. She has plans, she’s deciding where to go next, she may have just missed her train.
Surely The Waltz of Emptiness must be fiercer than elusive, and more modern, to go with the leather jacket, the newly confident attitude, and the railway? Well, yes and no. The Children of The Underground are warmer and more exciting than her last band, and there are more fast-paced songs on this new release than there were on the old one, but at heart the music is the same. Her voice, while capable of going quickly when it wants to, still likes to move with the cradle-rocking lilt of a lullaby. It’s no surprise that Putumayo put her on their Dreamland compilation for sleepy children. She can be simultaneously dreamy and meticulous, shaping each note with care and then drawing it out like a jeweller with a ball of ductile metal, leaving it firm from beginning to end.
Born in Tatarstan, a Russian republic at the junction of the Volga and Kama rivers, she migrated to Australia in 1991 and made a name for herself as a singer, winning a number of world music awards and releasing four albums: Journey of Voice, Aloukie, elusive, and now The Waltz of Emptiness. “She has traded in her trusty horse and is now travelling … on the incredible Moscow Metro,” says the press release. “It is an album about home and homelessness; belonging and freedom; difference and indifference; public transport and walking alone.” This is all in the lyrics, though, and if you don’t speak Russian then you’re not going to understand it without the printed translation in front of you. The music on its own doesn’t say ‘homelessness’ or ‘freedom,’ or ‘now I am walking alone,’ although an introductory recording of an announcement from the Moscow Metro does make the point about public transport. The announcement leads, rather cleverly, into the sound of a door sliding shut, which then turns into an instrumental opening that mimics the clickety-click clickety-click beat of a train.
The music is sweet and loungey and quotes tunes that will easily be recognised as Russian — there’s a kind of Cossack-kick moment at the end of the first song, “Leaving,” for example, and a circle dance coils and uncoils through “Does It Matter?” shrugging as it goes. “Green Storm” takes melodies from all kinds of places, sounding jazzy at one stage, then country, then like a tango. (The lyrics to this one are so engagingly nonsensical that I wish I could hear it in English: “A green blizzard was blowing – / Things were not good. / It covered us up completely. / We became green.”) The second-last song, “No(t) Home” brings in a nine-man choir and rouses itself into the album’s most stirring moment, a turbid roll of male voices. “Nevechernyaya” ends on a wistful note that floats and departs.
With each album her arrangements have grown more complicated and dramatic without ever completely straying from the territory she established on Journey of Voice, the simple spot of land that lies around her silvery, flexible tone. The band here is excellent, but, really, your enjoyment of this album will depend on your enjoyment of that voice. If you’ve heard it before and liked it then you should like this as well. If you haven’t, then The Waltz of Emptiness (and Other Songs on Russian Themes) would make a good introduction.