Seven Kinds of Solitude: The Best of New Belarusian Songwriting

Re1ikt (Minsk, orig. from Svietlahorsk in southern Belarus)

The Belarusian music press––admittedly with little haste––has recently announced a range of Top Ten lists, in order to ascertain the best music from last year. Some of the more detailed polls have come from local magazine Experty.By, which ranked domestic albums in a series of overlapping charts, each compiled by slightly different people. In other words, journalists, Belarusian performers, "foreign" experts and other interested parties each published their ranking of local hits and misses from 2015. A final, composite list was then created and posted online by Experty.By––together with some English footnotes by Dmitri Bezkorovainyi. A resulting compilation album was even uploaded. And so we now have a relatively objective overview of professional and public opinion in Minsk. What, in that case, are the primary sounds or viewpoints across these songs? How much do they have in common?

An opportunity to leave conscious thought behind (Re1ikt)

An interesting place to start would be Re1ikt from Minsk, who are leading exponents of Belarusian post-metal. Not only does the band regularly claim to "offer a modern take on Belarusian traditions and culture." They are also proudly dedicated to using their native language on stage, no matter the size of (larger) English and Russian markets to the West and East. "We'll be singing our songs exclusively in Belarusian... It's a beautiful language and interweaves naturally with our music. It's our native tongue, after all! That makes things interesting not only for people at home, but also for overseas listeners."

The last time we looked at Re1ikt, they had little to say about contemporary politics, for example, when considered against the backdrop of changing seasons, years, and generations. Nature was more impressive than any human enterprise. In the same way––and even in much older interviews––the performers admit that their early lyrics were sociopolitical in tone, but then changed over time. Bigger issues arose. "We've matured and our texts have changed, too. We used to sing about something else entirely––about something missing in the lives of kids from the provinces." Emphases would turn from sociopolitical critique to "performances on stage that are 99% unconscious. Our shows become a journey to parallel universes. They're an opportunity to leave conscious thought behind. It's as if the music takes on some kind of material form––like mud baths! We dive in and let our souls take flight..."

A year later, Re1ikt were even telling the Belarusian press that the worse actuality becomes, the more music is transformed into a precious mode of escape. "We're inspired by tricky situations in life. Whenever something serious happens and knocks you out of a [conventional] rut."

Polina Poloneichik of Respublika Palina (aka Паліна Рэспубліка)

A similar relationship between things material and ideal informs the Minsk ensemble Respublika Palina (aka Паліна Рэспубліка), fronted by singer-songwriter Polina Poloneichik. Her last LP was called "Бясконцы красавік," which might translate as "Endless April." She associated the album's springtime title with a state of constant growth, despite professional or civic hassles.

"The title refers to being endlessly in love––and enthused! I mean being able to experience everything in a [wantonly] naive, subtle, and attentive manner. We're filled with energy whenever everything in life seems to have significance!" A cultivated naïveté beats the banal "complexities" of which Re1ikt talk. One enthused commentator online has hoped––in explicit terms––that future songs of Respublika Palina "do not succumb too quickly to anguish and pathos. Please, Polina, don't hurry to be too 'adult' or serious in tone. We've all had our fair share of adulthood; let there be sunshine and flowers instead." 

Please, Polina, don't hurry to be too 'adult' or serious in tone

Another observer draws parallels with the bardic tradition of the Soviet '60s and '70s, when acoustic songs of introspection allowed for blissful ignorance of political machinations outdoors. "Palina is a rainbow above a battlefield, a rainbow above the ashes." There are, nonetheless, concerns that so-called "internal emigration" is replacing any contrary spirit: musicians, perhaps, would rather hide from actuality than engage or change it (were that even possible).

"The lyrics of Respublika Palina are sometimes overly sentimental and vacuous––just like classic Belarusian pop songs [of the Soviet era]. It all sounds so provincial, with strings everywhere, muted drums, and an overall feeling of emptiness." And yet if the center of Belarusian society is woefully unappealing, then these tactics of sentiment, a minor scale, and happy existence in some "provincial" setting sound wonderful. They're all forms of dignified solitude.

Escapism takes a further step away from home with the masked Minsk duo known as Hamlet His HighnessAlexander Haletski and Tatyana Shchuka, who sometimes prefer their stage-names Ivan Medvedev and Mariya Kovach. Overseen by multi-instrumentalist Haletski, this project has in the past been responsible for a range of "melancholic themes," "psychedelic space music," and––just as importantly––"odd scraping sounds." Of late, HHH have been extremely wary of any claims to political, material, or spiritual permanence. And so instead they speak of transience, silence, and the value of humility. The future offers little: probably no more than physical demise or political ruin. 

Hamlet His Highness: the masked "Ivan Medvedev" & "Mariya Kovac"

Thus we find some telling words borrowed by our Belarusian artist from Jean Baudrilliard in 1994. Translated "back" from the Russian into English, they read: "It seems we are condemned to the infinite retrospective of all that has preceded us. What is true of politics, history and morality is also true of art, which holds no privileged position. The whole drift of painting has withdrawn from the future and shifted towards the past. With citation, simulation, appropriation, present-day art is currently re-appropriating, more or less playfully, or in a more or less kitsch fashion, all the forms, the works of the distant, recent or even contemporary past." 

Sounds from a craft shop––without a craftsman (Hamlet His Highness)

The newest material from Hamlet His Highness was published through the excellent Foundamental label: "For All and None." Its makers had the following to say: "We associate this music with a sense of searching, conducted both in peace and isolation. It suggests crystal-clear landscapes and the discipline of staying silent. It gives rise to an internal flame––to a wordless knowledge... like a craft shop without a craftsman, perhaps. Whatever you hear personally in all this will depend upon your location, time, context, and intentions. It's a kind of metaphysical ritual that plays out in your head, according to your imagination and desires." Solitude and silence––away from empty clamor––are a precursor to greater truths.  

A related departure from the present day––heading backwards in time––has always been integral to the capital's widely respected folktronica ensemble Shuma (aka Šuma). The band members are currently defined with an intriguing turn of phrase: "digital archaica." Regional or national folk traditions are sought, saved, and then vivified with modern technology.

The musicians' preference is for folk material that was once––purportedly––used in "pagan rituals." The past offers a greater sense of civic order or discipline than the present. The band's current lineup, designed to keep these old ideas alive, is rather lengthy: Rusia and Nadzeja Chuhunova take responsibility for vocals. They are joined and supported by fellow musicians and sound producers Alexey Budzko and Nick Cherny. Behind them all stands Pavel Gorbach (drums). The last of those Shuma colleagues is already well known to us from his solo catalog.

Nadzeja Chuhunova (R) and Rusia, vocalists of Minsk outfit Šuma

Some recent statements from the band have suggested––"unfortunately––that Belarus today is a country of weak national identity." A stronger impression of inclusion or membership might come, therefore, from reconsidering a sung heritage and making it relevant, once again. Songs of consolation and community can work wonders. That same conviction informed the remixes on last year's "Zołak," an album we published here at FFM. Recent interviews in the Belarusian press with Šukiurava and Chuhunova have included the view that electronic, rather than acoustic performance has become "the universal language" of young Belarus. Private songs of love and consolation are more likely today to be made with laptops than lutes. 

The search for an honorable language (Šuma)

Likewise, Russian critics have spoken this season of "tasteful electronica with flashes of urban soul; that's what makes Shuma special." Modern - even timeless––variations persist upon the core themes of "ancient, pre-Christian traditions [in Slavic culture]... Some of our songs come from ethnographic expeditions, while others are taken from books and library archives." Music that's inspired by natural forces is, we're told, best expressed in a shifting, ever-changing mode. Hence the remixes. Thus Shuma hope to raise the cultural status or "ranking" of their native tongue to a that of an "honorable language." An ancient, unique decency has been lost to modernity, it seems. 

The less modern society offers, the more appeal is found in Shuma's ancient repertoire. A quick glance at the most recent reports on Belarus from the Department of State gives little hope for joy and/or comfort. "The most significant human rights problems continued to be: citizens are unable to change their government through elections; in a system bereft of checks and balances, authorities commit frequent, serious abuses; and persons remain imprisoned on politically motivated charges, while the government fails to account for longstanding cases of politically motivated disappearances." Better, kinder connections are therefore seen in a long glance backwards––far away from an uncaring city and the present day. Busy streets are replaced by open fields, at least in one's mind.

One might expect protest songs to be prevalent among Belarusian independent bands. One of the closest examples on this compilation album would be Super Besse, who have been compared to several UK post-punk outfits in the past. Instead, however, of anger and argumentation, we're more likely to encounter dismissiveness. Centralized planning is simply thought to be dull, not dangerous. And so indifference and/or pure spontaneity are appealing alternatives to the present. "We never think about anything for more than five minutes. Because if you do start thinking longer than that, every damn thing will go wrong. When everything's arranged and excessively organized, then the only thing left is utter cr*p. That goes for music, album covers, concerts, and basic philosophies." 

Super Besse (Minsk)

The importance of randomness––of rejecting common sense and modern pragmatism––leads to the surreal, circus style of Cassiopeja (Кассиопея) and Silver Wedding (Серебряная Свадьба), both based in Minsk. Life makes more sense when spoken of in absurdist tones. Together these two bands hope to avoid the "misery of traditional Russian rock. We don't want anything to do with that humorless sh*t... Cassiopeja have already written an LP about death––and one about childhood, too. So what's next for us? An LP about God, of course! Though we could also do something about Lenin..."

I reckon love means feeling good and doing less sh*t to others (Cassiopeja)

Cassiopeja's front-man Ilya Cherepko–Samokhvalov holds that jollity is a better path to God. "Let people laugh about faith. After all, God is a smart guy; he doesn't want folks to be miserable. It's amazing that we––as Slavs––traditionally dress in black gowns with long beards. We've all turned religion into some ridiculous bullsh*t [by being so po-faced]. When you watch that [happening in our troubled society today], you've gotta wonder who's going to burn in hell first..."  He continues: "The fundamental essence of Christianity is knowing that you'll never be King of the Hill. Constant self-improvement is everything. If anybody believes their salvation is assured, then he'll probably get a shock in our company!"

Joyless rock music, politics, and religion are bracketed together. Cherepko–Samokhvalov declares: "That entire church hierarchy is more like superstition than faith. We were driving back from a photo-shoot recently and came across a young woman on a bike. She was desperate to find the local church. 'My congregation already considers me a whore. If I don't turn up, that'll be the end of me.' It transpired she was considered a 'whore' because of her lipstick... What kind of Christianity is that, dammit?" 

For Cherepko–Samokhvalov, a truer, more inclusive faith would be grounded in subversion; it would always be intolerant of self-importance. "Jesus was a revolutionary! The Old Testament was full of laws––more than enough of them. But Jesus turned up and said: 'Right, then! You, you, and you––can all f*** off!' He reduced everything to a simple love of God––and of your neighbor, also. Jesus said: 'I hold love in the highest!' Then he was approached by a Roman legionnaire who asked: 'What should I do? I'm here waving this sword around.' Jesus answered: 'Go and do whatever you must. Don't f*** with my head. As soon as you understand love, your question becomes irrelevant.' So I reckon love means feeling good and doing less sh*t to others."

Local politics should take note.

Cassiopeja (Кассиопея) with Ilya Cherepko–Samokhvalov (R)

As for Silver Wedding (Серебряная Свадьба), they are famous for their celebration of various East European cabaret traditions and generally theatrical or "thespian" air, with countless costume changes and/or props. There's an overarching sense of pre-Revolutionary cafe culture, with all the decadent undertones one might expect. Silver Wedding create a world populated with clowns, jesters, and jugglers––all filling the stage with their dramatized ditties. Songs become the interconnected narratives of various social outsiders––amid the absurdity of surrounding experience. If we take those clowns as metaphorical "performers"––as mirrors of the band itself––then Silver Wedding are dramatizing the lamentable fate of naive artists in the modern world. A pragmatic business or society has scant time for stargazing romantics.

The general inclination to enter a childlike state from now and then (Silver Wedding)

Front-woman Svetlana Ben' recently spoke to Moscow's Afisha magazine, specifically regarding the emphasis of the band's "Ag" EP upon a central theme of youth. "That's a time of really important, even painful emotions in life––and a general maximalism, too. I'd say there are two types of people in the world: those who remain linked in some way to their childhood, and those tied to experiences of their [subsequent] youth. I probably belong to the former group; childhood was the time of my brightest memories and experiences. It shaped me as a human being... My life is still shrouded in those emotions and recollections today. Maybe that's even typical for most folks––I mean the general inclination to enter a childlike state from now and then." 

This penchant for childlike spontaneity brings us back to how Ben' and Silver Wedding interpret their cabaret aesthetic. "Cabaret has always been an extremely multifaceted art-form, within which the main thing is private or self-expression. It always involves some sort of ringmaster and compere on stage or, more accurately, an artistic frontman. He's the person who sets the tone of the show. If he's an anxious, spiteful, or sarcastic type, then he'll create a socially driven, penetrating spectacle [around him]. If, on the other hand, the ringmaster is inclined to pluck at your heartstrings, he'll create more of a singalong atmosphere. Then, as a third example, somebody who's prone to hot-headedness or desperate emotions, even, will give the cabaret a real 'hooligan' tone!"

Feelings are prior to perception. Emotions shape self-expression and one's view of the world. Better, in that case, to walk away from an unsatisfying modernity and simply feel better. The Experty.By compilation album contains many examples of that same, dignified retreat. 

Silver Wedding and the joyful construction of somewhere better


Hamlet His Highness – Eternal Cosmic Super Lovers
Re1ikt – Healing Herbs
Shuma – I'll Go into the Forest
Cassiopeja – Iron Woodpecker
Super Besse – Look at Me

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