The Experty.BY Awards and a Sense of Home in Belarusian Songwriting

A local register and domestic worldview. Akute (Mogilev, Belarus)

A few days ago, the respected Belarusian magazine Experty.BY announced a series of awards, dedicated to the finest domestic music of last year. As with the recent Oscars, so here a springtime, backwards glance was also cast across 2014. A wide range of prizes were involved, defined in terms of both format and genre - all the way from garage rock to folkloric improvisations or ghost rave, to name but three. In addition to that healthy complexity, voting was then divided between expert and public opinion(s). Here we look at eight of the Belarusian outfits involved in the Experty.BY competition, either as nominees or awardees.

We should begin, by way of direct illustration, with the approving and hopeful tone with which one Experty.BY contender - Akute - was initially celebrated. The same turn of phrase quickly helped to establish an air of local pride. This threesome comes from the ancient Belarusian city of Mogilev: Stanislav Mytnik (vocals and guitar), Roman Zhygarev (bass, vocals), and Pavel Filatov (drums). Experty.BY had already judged Akute to be one of the nation's two best bands in the middle of last year. By year's end, domestic journalists had not changed their mind. The same outfit was now considered the flagbearer for a burgeoning local scene.

It's hard to name one Belarusian city as the center of local rock music. That's not even a relevant issue (Akute)

"Akute waited two years between the release of their second and third album. These guys have clearly made very good use of their time. The trademark melodies on 'Reality and Dreams' [March, 2014] have been preserved, while the band's equally familiar penchant for sentiment has finally been put to rest. (The same sentimentality was spread thickly across Akute's first two discs.) The group has really matured, with their songs becoming more intriguing - and self-assured, too. Not only does the new LP contain some of the best Belarusian pop songs of the year; this entire album is also a highpoint in the band's career. We're left with the feeling that things will only get better."

How, put simply, did that summertime optimism become an equally positive assessment of local music in early 2015? What do Experty.BY's favorite outfits have in common - and how are they celebrated en masse by domestic media? 

The Belarusian ensemble known as IOWA are currently based in Saint Petersburg, but still eligible for Experty.BY's annual roundup. The last time we visited the band, they were straddling not only a couple of nations and marketplaces, but also a couple of professional realms: a desire was evident among band members both to avoid mainstream tedium and yet be widely relevant at home. The musicians of IOWA began describing their workplace dilemma thus: "We're concerned that 70% of Russian pop music today is faceless - it's an endless problem! There's nothing but 'Eurodance' everywhere. That stuff may be well-produced, but it's [artistically and socially] useless. Sure, we could write EDM [if we had to], but that's just as full of marketable cliches - and there's already too much of it around..." 

IOWA's Katya Ivanchikova (once from Mogilev, now in Saint Petersburg)

The answer to such generic constraints was not to offer English-language "innovation" to an international audience, but instead to shy away from global sameness - and sing in a Slavic tongue. Lead vocalist Katya Ivanchikova remarked: "I'm surprised that so many young groups converse with their audiences in English. Try popping into your local store and talking to the sales girl in Chinese! I understand what those bands are doing, of course; they want to be heard globally."

Originally from the Belarusian town of MogilevIOWA see professional hope in the neighboring, Russian-language setting of Saint Petersburg. Ivanchikova speaks more of sameness or similarities between the cities than of any culture shock: "Saint Petersburg never struck me as [stereotypically] snowy and grey. We arrived here one summer, when there was no absolutely sign of a cloudy sky. We had initially been invited by a concert organizer to play some songs at somebody's home. I don't why that organizer took a chance with us. He could easily have invited a local outfit. In any case: we earned $100 - and split it three ways!" A tiny honorarium became the gateway to greater creative options.

We earned $100 - and split it three ways! (IOWA)

The first few months in Saint Petersburg offered IOWA little except spare bedrooms in the apartments of relative strangers. Nonetheless, progress was slowly made and the band are currently happy to be enjoying what they term "a certain period" in their development between anonymity and the burden of widespread fame. In other words, shows are plentiful, yet the musicians can peacefully use public transport without being harassed.

A similar kind of hometown renown is also enjoyed by Minsk's Navi - aka the duo of Artyom Lukyanenko and Ksenia Zhuk, whose current worldview reads simply enough in translation. "The difference between [mere] existence and life lies in an ability to love and be happy." As a twosome - or couple, even - Zhuk and Lukyanenko advocate some microsocial, minor goals of considerable importance. "Each of our songs is a discrete event, something we've actually lived through. That's why we truly feel whatever we perform - and vice versa, too. Everything's done with sincerity or, to put things differently, without falsehood."

Both IOWA and Navi find greater promise and appeal in the honesty of minor social realms.

Simple pleasures. Navi (Minsk): Artyom Lukyanenko and Ksenia Zhuk

Hearing one journalist's recent assessment of Navi's career as a "successful start," Zhuk then adds: "It sounds banal, but we're just doing everything from the heart! We try transferring those emotions into music - and transmitting them to an audience, too. Some people do it in ways that are commercial, but..."

In more recent interviews or published conversations, Artyom Lukyanenko has spoken with gratitude for his local education in the Belarusian language. That schooling was then followed by adult employment as a journalist and radio station expert. "Ksenia and I both feel respect and gratitude for the fact the Belarusian language [still] lives within us." In similar ways, Zhuk's parents were both involved with a university theater troupe - "and that began my acquaintance with Belarusian culture." Together the two musicians sense that "local culture has become more fashionable nowadays, and that's a real plus." 

Local culture has become more fashionable nowadays, and that's a real plus (Navi)

Navi feel, for example, that fifty per cent of a Moscow concert set-list can consist of songs in Belarusian - because Russian audiences will remain untroubled by any movement back and forth. Indeed, a fondness for locally relevant lyrics has led to many instances at home when Lukyanenko and Zhuk are able to stand entirely "silent on stage," while audiences sing along to songs in their native language. It is worth noting that according to a government survey of six years ago, almost three quarters of Belarusians prefer to speak Russian at home. The number of citizens opting for Belarusian behind closed doors may be as low as 12%. Hence the private pleasure - and professional challenge - of building a following outside of both Russian and English.

Over and above any issues of linguistic specificity inherent in Experty.BY's competition, the one ensemble viewed outside of Belarus as "most obviously" local would, perhaps, be Port Mone. The instrumental project is a male trio from Minsk: Aleksei Vorsoba, Sergei Kravchenko, and Aleksei Vanchuk. As we've mentioned before, these performers turn the traditional harmonies of the accordion, for example, into what they call a "mix of ambient, noise, experimental, and classical/traditional" forms. From a fixed heritage emerges novelty, often in looped, even mantric patterns. And so international expectations in the "world music" community are met with both tradition and trances.

Port Mone and the slow processes of self-erasure 

The members of Port Mone initially accompanied their Experty-nominated LP, entitled "Thou," with some identical texts in both Belarusian and Russian during 2014. There was, it seemed, no desire to celebrate the sounds of Minsk in terms of difference from Moscow. A lack of lyrical content perhaps strengthened the band's themes of natural, non-urban or pre-modern experience, all shaped before political mapmaking.

And so admirers of Port Mone have read in recent months: "The recording sessions for 'Thou' became an experiment with sound. The musicians turned down any 'laboratorial' studio conditions, and instead opted for a natural acoustic space. Studio equipment was transported to a forest - and that's where everything was recorded. This decision was taken on the basis of ideological considerations, rather than any passion for things acoustic. We wanted to express the creative mission of Port Mone as a return to something natural, pure, and essential within the human spirit. In other words, something outside of social conditions and norms. 'Thou' hopes to map various genuine and profound experiences within the framework of six universally familiar settings: love, betrayal, loss, desperation, calm, and joy."

The greatest feeling of domestic membership transpired in a movement away from home, at least in the architectural sense. Forests were more welcoming than apartment blocks.

There's improvisation in any musical performance (Port Mone)

What transpired, ultimately, was not a folkloric or rural mode of imagined Slavic kinship, but a movement beyond all forms of nationalized ideology. Those same forests may once have symbolized a Belarusian domain, but - as unpeopled realms - they also belong to nobody. They are both claimed and yet unclaimed. Aleksei Vorsoba has, for this reason, spoken of a small, devoted following at home, which he then links to an erasure of jingoistic geography. "I know our fans and vice versa. They've remained with us since the beginning. New people come and join us - slowly, but surely. To be honest, we play more in Western Europe nowadays. The situation there is similar to Russia [regarding a fan base], but in Europe we're dealing with bigger spaces and a more 'cultured' audience. By that I mean the level of literary or intellectual awareness - and certain democratic values." These remarks are made following some pointed questions on Russia's involvement in Ukraine. Any hopes for pan-Slavic harmonies have been spoiled of late.

In an even more recent interview, Vorsoba explains how Port Mone's allegedly "narrow" choice of folk instrumentation and a national heritage actually gives rise to greater freedoms. We're not just dealing with some improvisational heritage, itself expressed within (one) folklore. "In actual fact, there's improvisation in any musical performance. Even when you're closely following a score, there's always an element of [subjective] interpretation. You only have to compare versions of [any] one work, performed by different musicians. So, in that sense, improvisation is the conscious sense of an audible 'present' [in any stage show]. It's a sense of being 'tuned in' and [a constant] awareness." A small-scale presentism helps to escape anybody else's grand narrative. A private present trumps a grand public future. Local forests are a fine place to cultivate membership in natural, "industrious" networks that are free of angry, goal-driven enterprise.

Earworm (Hrodna ) and a novel approach to business dealings

Some equally purposeful and instrumental colleagues of Port Mone celebrated at the Experty.BY awards were Earworm, from Hrodna (Grodno): Pasha Foleichik, Lesha Kovtun, Andrei Kutsko, and Igor Volgin. Talking to a local radio station not long ago, these four young artists spoke of their small hometown in terms both serious and sentimental. National failings and natural charm were both evident at home. "Hrodna is a totally hopeless place. It's completely rotten - there's not a club in sight. And yet we see its beauty, artistry, and creative potential, too!" Beyond any singular location lie more impressive values. The best experiences belong to no one place or person.

According to the same logic, Earworm see no convincing reason to leave home - despite their grumbling. "Moving away would be the end of us. We could even live underground, if necessary... Life wouldn't be very different somewhere else. Sure, there's a lack of decent record labels in Belarus, since so many of them have pretty much died out. The globalization of the music industry has been harmful, in that regard." And so, yet again, Hrodna becomes a strangely desirable address. "We've been on tours and seen various locations here and there. That's all very interesting, of course, but it soon becomes tedious." 

Moving away would be the end of us (Earworm)

Better to stay at home and send the music elsewhere. "We haven't had any concrete offers to make a movie soundtrack, but the issue comes up a lot... Maybe one day we'll get a genuine offer or commission. Straight from the US!" A note of irony quickly tempers any such dreamy notions. "We'd only write the soundtrack to a feature film if it had lots of battle scenes! Or, better still, zombies! We'd debut the movie in a garage somewhere, projecting the footage onto one of the walls..."

This tongue-in-cheek comparison of distant cinemas and regional parking also underlies, arguably, the garage rock of The Toobes (Minsk). This threesome from the Belarusian capital do much to cultivate an easy-going, devil-may-care attitude towards their catalog. Nothing is worth taking too seriously. Stas Lаmakin, Konstantin Pyzhov, and Dima Vinitsky voice these attitudes - once again - in a new interview. Banter such as this is common: "We haven't changed our style too much. We haven't become a different outfit." "The main thing is to keep following our own path. We'll remain a rock band." "Maybe we've become more lyrical?" "No, we've just gotten older!" "Rock music may have died out, but somebody needs to keep playing it!"

The Toobes

Pyzhov extends this rationale of staying home, stylistically speaking: "Many musicians reach the point where they seemingly 'realize' they've done all they can. They want to change everything, remake themselves, and avoid copying anything at all from their back catalog. I actually think that's wrong. Keep doing whatever you do best of all. Personally, there are three notes I play really well! I'll play them all my life, too, because I find it cool. It gives me pleasure." Vinitsky even holds to the classic postmodernist position that novelty is already an illusion - and all "unique" endeavors are mere pastiches of prior styles. In which case, why strive far from familiarity?

In the same manner, The Toobes try hard not to idolize any one distant or imagined location. "We feel most at home on stage. It's the place we're supposed to be - our main home. It has nothing to do with national borders, passports, nationalities, and all that cr*p. Whatever you do - that's your home and your castle." One's address is one's activity.

We feel most at home on stage. It's the place we're supposed to be - our main home (The Toobes)

This assertion that activity operates independent of any fixed locale soon acquires a political resonance. In other words, it is, according to The Toobes, impossible to prohibit something intangible and/or elusive. "It's impossible to ban art. Likewise, if you want to write a song, you cannot 'prohibit yourself.'" Desire is more powerful than dogma. "And once that song is finished, it cannot be erased. Songwriting cannot be banned, in the same way you can't stop people from using the toilet. Radio stations may refuse to broadcast my song - or I may be unable to play it on stage. But the act of creativity has already happened."

Some of these darker undertones become more pronounced in the work of Nikita Vasiliev, who is originally from the provincial town of Gomel. His work has long been informed by the morose or borderline Gothic elements of witch house and ghost rave. A relatively new release under his stage-name (((О))), setting the general tone, had neither time nor patience for sunny optimism: "[This music] embodies dead voices from the underground, plus spooky beats from the darkest corners of an eternal consciousness." 

One of the newest projects from (((О))), has involved an interface of Belarusian electronica and ancient folklore, specifically with bagpiper Yevgeny Baryshnikov from the medieval town of Slonim. Some timeless elements or outlooks are discerned at home. In a Facebook post this month, Vasiliev angrily declared: "I love my country, culture, and history. I regard the remains of that same culture with the greatest respect, even if our government and some elements of society want simply to cr*p on all that... But do you really think that songs calling Lukashenko a d*ck will change anything?"  

Public protest is ineffectual, especially in musical forms. Self-respect and introspection promise more. The past looks better than the future. 

Nikita Vasiliev, otherwise known as (((О))) (Gomel, Belarus)

In essence, though, the domestic and productively local or "minor" scale celebrated by Experty.BY is best summarized by Mustelide. Such is the stage-name of Natalya Kunitskaya, who usually plays keyboards in Minsk's "freak cabaret" ensemble, Silver Wedding - together with Clover Club. Declared online to be the "First Electronic Princess of Belarus," Kunitskaya launched her solo career in the spirit of old Soviet "apartment gigs" (kvartirniki). These were shows held in private homes by those writers, musicians, or painters dismissed by the State. New sounds or artistic concepts were quietly presented to close - and more trustworthy - friends.

Did you feel it? The music was living here with us (Mustelide)

It's worth noting that local journalists discern in Kunitskaya's stage-name the English phrase "must elide," in the sense of "must disappear." It actually refers - simultaneously - to the Latin term for the weasel or mink family of mammals, which also includes small beasts such as otters and badgers. There's no striving for permanence or grandeur on display. Likewise the recent debut LP from Mustelide was entitled "Secret," romanticizing both smallness and subjective experience. Things local appear better than anything large and/or stately.

Mustelide records everything alone at home in a one-bedroom apartment, which she shares with her husband. Inspiration is found locally, in situations where Kunitskaya - often people-watching on the street - feels "like a cop who's observing the actions and reactions of others." One interview this year in the Belarusian press followed Mustelide composing at home with the help of these same field recordings and notebooks. The journalist described how Kunitskaya toyed for an entire hour in search of a desired effect. As something approximating the perfect sound eventually passed by, the musician said to the writer: "Did you feel it? The music was living here with us."

It was - and remains - nearby. It takes local, subjective effort to unearth it. 

The values and virtues celebrated in the Experty.BY awards follow a related rationale. They are neither overtly patriotic nor isolationist in nature. Instead - and faced with the globalized sameness of primetime enterprise - these Belarusian artists believe that difference and novelty are better cultivated at home. That may mean a material loss in terms of one's audience or income, but it also brings about a creative benefit, amid familiar faces and unfamiliar opportunities. Multiple, minor opportunities or latent sounds are "living here with us"; they simply require care, attention, and a slightly closer gaze. 

Mustelide (Natalya Kunitskaya, also of Silver Wedding and Clover Club)

Audio

Earworm – Beckerite (Edit)
(((О))) – Death Waves
IOWA – Looking for a Husband
Navi – Pilgrim
The Toobes – Road to the Big Time
Akute – Scenes
Mustelide – Smysl (Sense)

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