Tradition as Endless Change: Anna Pingina and the Wild Mint Festival

Last month the environs of Moscow witnessed the fourth annual Wild Mint festival (Дикая Мята), proud in its status as the nation's largest folk and/or "ethno-"event in Russia. Expectations were high, since the festival in 2010 had attracted more than 25,000 visitors - not one of whom, allegedly, had broken the law in any form. The music, enjoyed by peaceful crowds, was also framed by a series of master-classes in traditional handicrafts, while other guests could learn half-forgotten dances at the hands of experienced choreographers. Both adults and children were equally welcome. In the words of organizers, "The Wild Mint Festival allows visitors to revisit their roots. Guests can fully experience the atmosphere of traditional celebrations - together with the joy of a modern carnival."

...the atmosphere of traditional celebrations - together with the joy of a modern carnival

Given this inclusive, patriotic raison d'etre, many observers were surprised to learn that Moscow's authorities - with no great warning - had initially decided not to grant the event permission this year. Organizers were therefore obliged to seek a venue further from the city center - at greater inconvenience to local families.

The official reason for the change was that Wild Mint had now grown too large for the city. Upset by that stance, one Moscow journalist openly grumbled that "in a few year's time, we'll be holding the event somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle!" Kindred spirits, equally peeved at bureaucratic obstructionism, insisted that a festival designed to celebrate national, multiethnic society should actually be moved to the center of Moscow. 

The complaints, of course, had no effect. Everybody, as a result, simply found some warmer clothing and headed out of town.

One of this year's performers was the artist Anna Pingina, who plays in a similarly-named ensemble with up to fourteen different colleagues, if we include studio work. Currently heading this considerable collective are Sergei Vishniakov (guitars/keyboards), Dmitrii Frolov (drums/percussion), and Oleg Drobinskii (pipes/assorted wind instruments). Beyond that initial trio, the musicians' listings can be long indeed.

Ms. Pingina's appeal to the Wild Mint Festival is clear, even from her worldview. One of her better-known programmatic statements reads as follows in translation. It serves to show the philosophical overlap between artist and event:

Songs are born at the intersection of times, cultures, and ethnicities...

"Songs are born at the intersection of times, cultures, and ethnicities... The most interesting aspect of their development happens when somebody hears a traditional song - and then sings it in their own, special way. In doing so, they extend the song's life whilst giving it a unique melody or signature. Songs flow from region to region - and from people to people, too. It's never possible to say where they began."

At this point ethnography turns slowly into reverie. 

Following the rationale of Ms. Pingina's observations, the very idea of "traditional" or folk song is removed from narrow patriotism, since she's talking about processes that predate political geography. That same conviction underlies some other quotes, in which interaction is more significant than stable boundaries: "The most important thing of all is coexistence between peoples - forms of collaboration through art, mutual respect, and love." The grand sweep of that closing phrase gives some indication of how hard folk music needs to work, lest it be shouted down by primetime razzle-dazzle.

Pingina's celebration of music as ongoing, mobile, and fleeting performance - beyond the rigid limits of profit and/or jingoism - is something she also embodies stylistically. Stepping outside of folk or "world" music, even, she has enjoyed considerable success on the Moscow stage in a number of mainstream musicals. It seems fair to say that the capital knows her better for that "secondary" role. 

Away from the wigs and greasepaint, her transpositions of song from one (delimited) area to another, shuttling between nations and generations, remain in keeping with the outlook of Wild Mint. Her desire to connect text, melody, and landscape echoes the festival's increasing concern with ecological and environmental issues. The event nowadays sees itself more as a celebration of natural, rather than narrrowly national concerns.

Pingina's discussion of her newest album, "Moi" (My/Mine), shown above, confirms and continues that sentiment. She sketches a fantasy land- and soundscape for the band's creative output. Listeners are asked to imagine "pure, leisurely winds that move across the horizon, no matter which way you look. My voice will whisper tales [in that place] - and lament those things you've forgotten..."

It's interesting that Pingina's own family connection to national song and verse came not through field recordings or a rural childhood. Instead her earliest memories are of an uncle's vinyl collection, full of Soviet easy-listening ensembles and the soundtracks of cartoons. Somewhat ironically, it was that sugar-coated treatment of the folk canon that would begin her movement towards a more vivid, vibrant consideration of the same material. The songs that inspired her would later be avoided with great zeal. 

Growing up as a girl with a rather deep voice (and sometimes mistaken by teachers for a boy!), she would acquire early choral skills through the Pioneers, where - once more because of her "sturdy" physique - she was given a bass guitar. The heaviest instrument and the spiritless traditions of the Pioneers nudged Pingina towards the spiritually-informed, profoundly lyrical air of folk song. One paradox after another.

And yet those linkages can, perhaps, only be drawn in retrospect - because the most lasting, bona fide connection to a traditional catalog would not manifest itself for several years. Only as a teenager, attending a regional festival, would she encounter the older, respectful folk repertoire that would change her life. 

All the time, this leaning towards the past was tied with her modern enthusiasm for Bjork, Susanne Vega, and local luminaries such as Inna Zhelannaia, whose own work interweaves folk and rock lines. Elsewhere, she expresses equal enthusiasm for Sergei Starostin, Auktsyon, and Ukraine's DakhaBrakha. Rock and rural custom worked side by side.

As a result, she has never lapsed into a strictly academic repertoire - or voiced disrespect for contemporary modes. "We try to play relevant music that sounds up-to-date... The main thing is the idea behind the songs - the thoughts that you're trying to get across. Music should always be 'live' in the sense that it comes from nature, from the earth itself. Anything strictly folkloric should be transmitted through one's energy, in other words on some subconscious level, rather than taking the form of musical cliches."

Music should always be 'live' in the sense that it comes from nature

Here we can see Pingina's desire once more to align traditional stagecraft with the kinds of ecological motions that make generic "impurity" a form of progress, even. Put differently, the ebb and flow of nature itself, unconstrained by mapmakers, makes it both logical and easy for her to speak of a related, metaphorical movement across stylistic boundaries. In fact, one might argue, it's only through inconsistency that these songs remain vivid and outside of a museum; only change will keep tradition alive in ways that today's listeners find "relevant," as she says.

It's sad, therefore, that Pingina sees in much of today's folksong a tendency towards what she calls "musical fast food." Listeners want and expect that which they already know; these are the very cliches and stereotypes she fears can turn a living heritage into fossilized repetition. After all, many folk songs in prior centuries were designed as forms of consolation amid the dangerous whims of Mother Nature: they voiced (desperate) hopes for brief, transitory calm in a very unpredictable world. They make most sense, therefore, in situations of overriding risk and bona fide danger, rather than in banal advertisements or political campaigns.

Songs of love and/or family voice their greatest power in contexts where neither seems possible... for long.

Time and time again, the plaintive and powerful compositions by Anna Pingina draw upon elemental metaphors - not in the name of some constant, consoling chocolate-box aesthetic - but in order to celebrate their ongoing transience. She sees Russia's sung heritage as reflective of passage, alteration, and therefore disappearance. Born of nature, the constant risks of pre-modern experience, and in avoidance of profitable or politicized showiness, these songs must alter. Endlessly. The arrogance of authorship fades very quickly indeed. 

This is especially true in the realm of Russian national media, where folk custom in prior decades had been loudly claimed by the extremes of primetime banality or civic fustian. Therefore the charm of song as private, essentially homeless, and endless variation is great indeed. Humility has much appeal in a noisy household. As a result, instead of some call to the unchanging values of a bygone age - or a related civic agenda, heaven help us - the catalog of Anna Pingina and her colleagues works to an opposing end. These musicians remove the clamor of modernity in favor of a forgotten, humbling membership in grander, quieter processes. 

...an open expanse where you're [finally] alone with your memory

Instead of half-imagined, poorly-constructed villages, full of hessian shirts and cheap mead, we find the following: Pingina's band currently hopes to evoke the sensation of some "open expanse where you're [finally] alone with your memory - since you've no idea of its depths." Profundity is made synonymous with distance: the further we move from modern habit, the better. Perhaps the Moscow authorities did the festival a favor.    

Timeless movement starts where the crowds end - and prohibition fades out of earshot.

Audio

Anna Pingina – Klever (Clover)
Anna Pingina – Kupalenka
Anna Pingina – Lastochka (The Swallow)
Anna Pingina – Moi (Mine)
Anna Pingina – Rechenka (A Stream)
Anna Pingina – Solovei (Nightingale)
Anna Pingina – Verby (Willows)

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