Radif Kashapov is a journalist and musician, working most days as the editor in chief of Sobaka magazine in Kazan. Put differently, he oversees a glossy entertainment publication in the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan - a monthly that most people associate with Sobaka's original home of Saint Petersburg. And indeed, Kashapov's writing career has already taken him from a village in Central Tatarstan to the capital - and then to the nation's so-called "Northern Capital." Likewise, his articles have been published in Poland, Latvia, Germany, and England.
Of late, he has written and published songs under his own name, but several prior releases can still be found under the moniker Vodda. In both cases, the Tatar language predominates. Last year, a poem appeared on one of Kashapov's social networking accounts in Russian, suggesting a philosophy to link these various towns, trades, and tongues. In English prose, it might read:
The project is very ambiguous within the context of 'national' music
"Be polite if you see that your desires - expressed within the rules [of convention] - are stained with chalk. That means you've overstepped the mark. But there's always the chance to give your years to those who really need them. Give your place to a murderer or rapist. Give your cozy spot to a politician. Give up your place in prison. Be charitable; give it up..." Warped notions of propriety are front and center. Both criminals and figures of civic welfare are thrown together – as, potentially, is the poem's addressee. The world is more dangerously "exclusive" than inclusive of others; a Darwinian logic dictates who survives.
The songs of Kashapov and Vodda are designed to counter that brutishness. A recent release happily made simultaneous use of Castilian Spanish, Tatar, and the more contemporary - visual - language of internet memes. Together with local label Yummy Music, where Kashapov himself oversees matters of PR, this spirit of independence, divergence, and inclusiveness finds approval at home. "It's always great to discover creative individuals within Tatar music who aren't afraid to experiment or bring something unique to the table. Vodda would be one such example, since the project is very ambiguous in the context of 'national' music - but that's what makes it so valuable! A culture will only ever develop when its horizons are widened."
Another regional supporter has talked of Kashapov's admirable "movement towards complexity," such that marketplace banalities and generic stereotypes are simultaneously avoided. Then, understandably, parallels are drawn with Zemfira, an ethnic Volga Tatar who did so much for rock music in Ufa, Republic of Bashkortostan. To this day, fourteen years after her debut album, Zemfira can still claim to be Ufa's most recognizable and marketable musical export.
Looking back over his own life, Kashapov recalls that he was born in a small village and raised in the industrial city of Naberzhnye Chelny, still renowned (only) for truck production and located not far from Kazan. Just as those outposts of Soviet culture endure in the public memory for an old or dusty reason, so Radif remembers that his mother once attended a concert by late Soviet rock outfit Mashina vremeni when she was still pregnant. In other words, he implies that one musical tradition helped - perhaps - to influence another and lead it far from home. His biggest impulse, however, would ultimately come from the emigre artist Zulya, who moved to Australia and has been performing Tatar songs there for many years.
I was constantly playing Tatar songs on stage
Kashapov continues: "I was probably the first person to write about her back home in Tatarstan. In fact, when I moved to Saint Petersburg, I missed my own native culture so much that I was constantly playing Tatar songs on stage..." Despite being, therefore, a longstanding fan of Damon Albarn, Sonic Youth, and California's Minutemen, Kashapov learned that other significant objects of desire were positioned equally far from home - yet recognized only once he had moved away.
The same logic of growing - yet retreating! - affection applies to the Kiev outfit Crossworlds. In essence the project's members are two in number: multi-instrumentalist Alexey Mikryukov (King Imagine) and vocalist Irina Skrypnikova. On a previous recording - "Ivan Kupala Night" - a sense of belonging came not from imagined stars, but instead from an imagined past. "We decided to express our Ukrainian roots in some occasionally abstract electronic forms. That's why we included songs about mermaids, Kupala Night, and - in fact - the whole recording had a certain [traditional] structure. There's a lullaby to start with, followed by an evocation of the moments between sleep and waking."
Crossworlds vocalist and front-woman, Irina Skrypnikova
Various dream motifs ensued, as listeners were gradually returned to the real world. The closing composition from "Ivan Kupala Night" was tellingly entitled "The Dream Is Gone." Sooner or later, reverie would acquiesce to dull actuality.
The most recent Crossworlds recording was published as "Day and Night" - and has now been rereleased with additional and accompanying materials. "The LP was first conceived as a present for my daughter. Initially it was to be published on vinyl, with the two sides given over to daytime and nocturnal themes. Everything was recorded over the course of two years, from February 2013 to February 2015. The album contains both our own, original material and some lyrics by Lesya Ukrainka. The result is a fairly strange, yet organic mixture of folk, academic music, downtempo tendencies, and experimental elements."
At least young people are aware of the good music in Ukraine nowadays...
Ukrainka, who died in 1913, was a poetess and playwright whose narratives often employed the folkloric traditions of her homeland in order to speak of its future independence. The past would bypass a woeful present - and engender a better future. Yesterday helped to (re)imagine tomorrow. The result, in Crossworlds' mind, becomes "a place where the noises of a post-industrial world intersect with ancient lullabies. Together, those melodies carry a listener away... into the distant darkness of prior centuries."
Irina Skrypnikova was just interviewed to mark the rerelease, where she described Crossworlds as a deliberate counterweight to the "vulgarity and bad taste" evident in Ukrainian popular songwriting today. She speaks first to the project's name, which - as with Kashapov - is conceived in terms of a morally laudable hybridity. "Our creative work has closely intertwined elements of Indian, Arabic, and Ukrainian culture. I wanted to move in that general direction... Alexey operates with musicians from around the world. They might be saxophonists from California, singers from Spain, and so forth."
This inclusiveness, she feels, reflects more accurately the liberal outlook of youthful Slavic audiences in 2015. "At least young people are aware of the good music in Ukraine nowadays, but in terms of the general public, the same material will frequently remain inaccessible." She then recalls the multiple occasions on which Ukrainian club owners have dismissed Crossworlds as something lying outside of established and/or profitable "formats... Some labels have even labelled our songs as mere 'curiosities.' All they said to us was 'Thanks. Do svidaniya.'"
Dzierzynski Bitz: loving reconsiderations of an antique fanfare
Skrypnikova holds that the project's core motifs, borrowed from distant times and faraway, rural locations, all "recall some connection with the songs my mother once sang to me. They come from a profound memory of my childhood... Indeed, many of our songs directly recall lullabies." She has even termed the semi-improvised vocals of Crossworlds a "mermaid language," referring to the plaintive call of water spirits in Slavic folklore. Something - or somebody - calls from afar. The effect of echoes from an imagined chronicle is soothing.
The calming effect of a 'mermaid' language
A kindred summons to another time and place is central to the work of a second Ukrainian outfit, Dzierzynski Bitz, who have strong professional connections to Kiev. With their "Polish" name, these performers reconsider one corner of socialist culture where individual dignity was, allegedly, always alive and well. More specifically - and by referencing Russian culture under Brezhnev - they reconstruct an old-school pop aesthetic of the Soviet '60s that saw Polish and/or Czech culture as exotic - and infinitely more fashionable. When overseas travel in that same decade was an impossibility, Soviet consumers looked instead at neighboring nations as chic and charmingly diminutive - at least compared to Russia's dimensions.
In an English-language interview, Dzierzynski Bitz once admitted to distorting the name of the KGB's founder Felix Dzerzhinsky "so that it sounds more like a Polish jazzman." In fact most of the band members give themselves faux Central European names in PR materials, while Dzierzynski Bitz as a whole claim (equally falsely) to be from the Slovakian town of Pavlovce nad Uhom. Why play so many games with second - or third - identities? "It's like saying 'Suomi' instead of 'Finland,' or 'Holland' instead of 'The Netherlands.'' Being nameless is a fine state of affairs; it allows a freedom from pigeonholes. And so the efforts continue to dovetail "Polish culture, Soviet jazz from the 1930s or '60s, 'Swinging London,' and [British] New Wave sounds" of the late 1970s.
The band's newest EP refers to a related time in Poland and Ukraine: "Novy Twist." One of Dzierzynski Bitz's recent videos was likewise dedicated to yet another, even more personal form of nostalgia. The video footage depicted a man waiting for a telephone call that never comes... and so he begins to reminisce on that which might have been. The group's members then add: "The symbol of 'return' [to prior events] here represents the whirlpool of human existence - a kind of classical [and cyclical] 'Eastern' view of the world." What goes around, comes around - in more ways than one.
The songs on "Novy Twist" now mirror some of the Asian locations made implicit here, especially since the video under discussion was shot on location in India. Dzierzynski Bitz have made various references to Indian places and philosophies in their more recent interviews. For that reason, it seems, we now find ironic discussions of several gods and related "heavenly" visions... all encountered under the influence of cheap drugs. Those same chemicals, whatever the witticisms on display, allow an escape from time's unforgiving and linear passage. "The clouds melt on the horizon. Doubts leave no shadow. Time is no more. It carries away the shards of our moments... into tomorrow." Chemicals help to overcome both nostalgia and the pull of the past.
It's as if Armenians are scattered across the globe, but our homeland is always found in songs
A closing, more concrete version of distant yearning colors the discography of Deti Picasso ("Picasso's Children"). Although well grounded in various Armenian traditions, the band has previously worked with several widely respected Russian folk exponents such as Vladimir Volkov and Zventa Sventana. Based now in Budapest, Deti Picasso's current lineup is: Gaya Arutyunyan (vocals), Karen Arutyunyan (guitar), Anasztázia Razvaljajeva (harp), and Áron Porteleki (drums/viola). Their newest collaboration, tellingly enough, is called "Motherland" and speaks to issues of both future membership and prior tradition. Gaya just talked to the Baltic/Russian emigre news service Meduza and clarified matters. She begins: "We relaunched Deti Picasso about a year ago, when I looked back at our career and realized how things should have been..."
She then says that "Motherland" was originally going to be called "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" (Teni zabytykh predkov), presumably in retrospective tribute to the classic Armenian and Soviet film of 1965 by Sergei Parajanov. It depicted the colorful, supposedly timeless traditions of Ukraine's Hutsul people - and led to the director's condemnation by the Soviet establishment. Parajanov had deliberately ignored the benefits of "progressive" Soviet society. Other titles for the LP were then considered by Deti Picasso; they translate into English as "Roots," "Blood," "Genes," "Earth," and "Mother." All were rejected in favor of the evocative and patriotic noun now on the album's artwork (shown below).
Those relatively straightforward, if not stereotypical invocations of earth, virgin soil, (spilled) blood, and so forth were justified by Arutyunyan following a trip to Madrid. She unexpectedly found herself in an Armenian cafe where the owner sang her a folksong - far from Yerevan. The melodies and food together inspired a wave of fondness for her homeland. "It seemed to me as if Armenians are scattered across the globe, but our real homeland is always found in songs. That's the main idea of 'Motherland'..."
Deti Picasso: Gaya Arutyunyan (front) and Karen (in reflection)
These concepts emerge in part from the tough experiences of emigration. "Initially we thought 'How cool! We live in Budapest!'... But after a few years we understood that we're actually in someone else's nation and that our own musicians live far away. There's a constant language barrier - and you're nearest and dearest are always absent..." As a result, Arutyunyan turned to books of the past: "I began reading all my Russian books like a mad woman! I reread all of Tolstoy, Nabokov, Gogol, Dovlatov, and Ulitskaya, too... back to back. You forget your language faster than you expect [after emigration]. It's something really cr*ppy, actually. So little time has past and yet you've lost yourself entirely."
So little time has past and yet you've lost yourself entirely
The decision to leave for Hungary is now deemed "spontaneous," but the reestablishing of cultural links is anything but. It takes considerable effort. "We don't want to lose our connections. Moscow was the city that 'socialized' us... We wanted so badly to put ourselves back in that [forgotten] picture [of daily life in the capital]. We needed that vital flashback to our roots. We needed to instigate a process of self-identification amid the multicultural trash in which we found ourselves. We needed a return to something Armenian - and to something Russian, too. It was a painful process, but I think we've managed to reestablish that connection... It's something very important for us."
There's plenty here with which to take issue, such as the purportedly inclusive multiculturalism of Russian society - and the negative assessment of Hungarian, especially in the light of recent events. Nonetheless, it remains clear that for Deti Picasso and Crossworlds, a pre-urban or premodern existence holds more appeal than the present day. For Dzierzynski Bitz, a playful and tongue-in-cheek treatment of Soviet culture allows the band members to (re)imagine the romance of 1960s Moscow or Warsaw, when youth culture became an important antidote to the horrors of Stalinism.
Or, in a more lyrical setting, Radif Kashapov discovers in 2015 that a move to the Russian north leaves him especially grateful for his local culture in Tatarstan. What unifies all these examples, irrespective of language or location, is that movement backwards is more attractive than anything overtly progressive. Time becomes a process of loss; in which case, the quicker one looks back, the better.