From Folklore to Fantasy: Bubamara, Chorny Busel, and DakhaBrakha

One of the primary aims of folk song is to humanize space; born of pre-modern custom, when distances were insurmountable and shelter uncertain, folk songs often celebrated manageable goals. They spoke of private wishes or love's harbor in a hostile environment.

If we then consider that Russian folk song evolved within the world's largest nation(!), it's easy to see why that stubborn gap between cruel nature and cherished wedlock, say, could become almost unbearable. In an unforgiving climate or across unending steppe, choral celebrations of family and good fortune were occasionally the soundtrack to an increasing sense of desperation. They verbalized something that was elusive, if not totally absent - yet it remained desperately important.

Slavic folk music across much of the twentieth century, of course, was twisted into various patriotic forms. In the post-Soviet period, commerce then did much to turn that jingoism into profitable schmaltz. Despite those two extremes of rant and kitsch, folk traditions remain capable of voicing some very fundamental or cherished desires.

Take, for example, the Bubamara Brass Band from Moscow, who - with one eye on fading values - resurrect an antique Balkan and Roma heritage. The group's central members radiate enormous verve and vigor with their saxophones, clarinets, trombones, tubas, and joyful, clattering percussion. On vocals - fronting this happy chaos - is Anastasia Tokareva, who also has an elegant solo project, Quinta Toka.

Often inspired by the films of Emir Kusturica, Bubamara and their frontman Aleksandr Kashtanov have been performing together for over five years. They have now graduated to some of the nation's most important jazz festivals, where they are advertised in the following manner.

"This ensemble has the most amazing level of positive energy! You might think that'd be an essential part of any Balkan outfit, but not every band from outside the region is able to be this amazing or positive! At the basis of Bubamara's repertoire are folk melodies - and some of their own compositions, too..."

"It all comes together in bright, beautiful improvisation from the horn section who put on a really special show by mixing free-spirited Balkan drive and some ethnic dance routines. The vocals are also excellent..."

This ensemble has the most amazing level of positive energy!

In many ways, the ensemble's repertoire is a celebration of movement. Not only in terms of dancefloor vigor, but also because - through the Roma heritage that's constantly on display - Bubamara invest much time and effort in praising a nomadic worldview. This appeal of "gypsy ways" for a Russian audience has long been important, even since the very first gramophones appeared at the start of the twentieth century. With growing urbanization and the general misery of modern society, shackled by class or capital, the appeal of some mythical gypsy spirit was great from the outset.

The lusty, though troubled heroes and heroines of gypsy romances always moved according to their emotions; they were always "elsewhere," driven by some inexhaustible passion. The bittersweet melodies of the Bubamara Brass Band are likewise dedicated to another place and time. Neither that age nor address are here, in the immediate present. Which simply makes them more appealing.

This longed-for displacement, away from the big city, is greater still with Kiev's wonderful DakhaBrakha. The band's name includes a certain degree of wordplay. It refers not only to the arts center where they were born (DAKH), but also to an old Ukrainian expression meaning "give and take." And then, in a considerable flight of fantasy, we're invited by the musicians to hear additional echoes of the Egyptian sun god Ra, the Hindu god of creation Brahma, and the Slavic figure of "ptakh," a bird-like, singing soul.

Although the group's repertoire is grounded in serious ethnographic work around Ukraine, both collecting and preserving songs, DakhaBrakha verbalize to "an energy that's taken not only from their native culture, but from other cultures, too."

How can you possibly hope to find your roots in modern, urban culture?

The performers involved in that never-ending search are Nina Garenetska, Irina Kovalenko, Olexandra Kleynis, Olena Tsybulska, and Marko Halanevych - under the artistic direction of producer Vladyslav Troitskyi.

The artists explain why their work moves beyond any desire for tangible, "local" spaces - beyond, even, the neighboring culture of southern Slavs. "Modern ethnic music," they say, "needs to go through a kind of reconstruction. To some degree, that means searching for one's roots - it means going back in time. But if you belong to modern, urban culture and have no direct experience of traditional life, how can you possibly hope to find those roots?"

We're told, as result of this dilemma, that much folk music today "sounds artificial - because it's nothing more than an imitation." Instead, therefore, of copying milkmaids, shepherds, or other stereotypical figures, DakhaBrakha "decide to take a step forward with the help of inspiration and fantasy." This means that the traditional relationship of song to the open landscape becomes one of song to an equally expansive imagination. This new folk music becomes an expression of subjectivity amid endless fantasy, rather than upon endless fields.

Ethnically specific material with minimalist jazz and the precision of techno

"You first hear an impulse, and then create a new world of sounds." Those words and music, we're told, are part of one's cultural DNA; they're older than any texts collected by nineteenth-century ethnographers. This is a subconscious form of cultural membership. It's what DakhaBrakha refer to as "deep [or 'profound'] roots, not just their superficial, traditional forms." Older than tradition is fantasy; older than custom is desire. 

These grand syntheses, over and above both physical and political geography, have been well received in Moscow. "This is a phenomenal Ukrainian outfit, mixing genuine, ethnically specific material with minimalist jazz and the precision of techno-beats, too... They're making the natural folk music of the future."

Music for (still) absent liberties.

And that leads logically enough into a third use of folk material, this time from Belarus. It comes thanks to the efforts of two Minsk performers: Anton Krivulia (sometimes known to us by the stage name Mox) and nationally renowned singer-songwriter Sergei Pukst. The work in question is a thirty-five minute instrumental album called "Chorny Busel" (The Black Crane). One admiring fan of the album has already termed the release a "beautiful mystification" on Krivulia's LiveJournal account. And so, bearing that warning in mind...

We're informed that the music is (or maybe was...) designed to match a Soviet feature film of 1954, called "The Black Crane," which was virtually banned from state-run cinemas of the time. The film, allegedly, received a poor review from Soviet critics and was condemned to a minuscule print-run. It was accused of excessive pessimism and "a lack of faith in the ability of good to overcome evil."

We are then told that such reviews were simply a way of reproaching the movie's abstract anti-Stalinism; even though Stalin himself died the year before, the freedoms of the Thaw were not yet evident. Pukst and Krivulia conclude: "The film has not survived in any form, neither as negative nor print." In other words, there's no proof it even existed.

This is the tragic tale of a power-hungry Belarusian prince

The plot? "This is the tragic tale of a power-hungry Belarusian prince - and the death of simple folk. A drama unfolds, across a grand historical backdrop, of the love between farmer Yan and a golden-haired maiden Maryska. The girl works as a servant for her wealthy aunt and - on one fatal occasion - she catches the prince's eye. He is immediately attracted to Maryska."

Yan decides to fight for his love - and therefore to challenge the prince. We've already been informed that the story is tragic - and indeed, after his defeat, Yan is put to death. Maryska marries the prince. She presumably does so under duress, though, because "the prince gives her a medallion as a wedding gift - but Maryska places a lock of Yan's hair inside it. She does so as a sign of her love. As a dream of freedom."

Love, freedom, and fantasy are again synonymous - and best expressed within historically repetitious, folkloric forms. Where anything is (maybe) possible and, to use the terms of DakhaBrakha, one operates according to "impulse." Far from the city's pragmatic, depressing limits.

As we see from the only image released by Pukst and Krivulia for "The Black Crane," that same freedom may be lacking on the streets of Minsk this season.

Power-hungry princes still roam the hills - and folk music seeks a better home.

Related Artists