The Volga is Europe's longest river, extending for almost 2,300 miles through Russia. Tied, by many accounts, to the development of Indo-European civilization, it would subsequently connect ancient Slavic lands both to Scandinavia and - in a different direction - to Persia. Needless to say, these bridges to prehistory have left a deep impression in Russian culture.
In local folklore - and all related cliches - the river is often referred to as Mother Volga; a fledgling civilization took shape on her shores.
Parental care would sadly be overcome by violence. Some of the twentieth century's bloodiest battles took place in towns along the Volga, as the Soviet Union defended itself against German forces. Peacetime also brought little respite. After the Second World War, Soviet hydroelectric plants would flood many old villages in the name of progress. These losses, however, simply strengthened the symbolic value of the Volga as an endangered source of nationwide dignity.
A mother, thought some, had spawned a most ungrateful child.
To this day, thanks both to an epic historical backdrop and modern tourism, the Volga remains a site of pride - and vital leisure time, too. Drawing upon these endlessly positive associations - in song - is a new compilation entitled "Gems of the Volga Region" (Самоцветы Поволжья). That phrase alone speaks to the welcoming banality of Volga shoptalk designed for holidaymakers, and indeed jewelers in the region use precisely these words to advertise their polished wares.
A recent exhibition of local jewelry (shown above) promised "the widest possible range of colors, styles, and periods. These crafts are all unified by the bright and sparkling qualities of gemstones found along the picturesque banks of the Volga."
The songs gathered for this compilation come, however, from Belarus. More specifically, they've emerged from the editorial offices of the Minsk art collective known as Solntsetsvety (“Sun Flowers”), working together with colleagues Mox (Anton Krivulia) and Magical Unicellular Music (Волшебная Одноклеточная Музыка or V.O.M.).
A patchwork aesthetic comes into being, with one eye on the river.
These, in the simplest sense of the word, are performers.
The Solntsetsvety domain, as we've mentioned before, is designed neither for linear nor logical investigation. Immediately from the home page, it splits into three sections, which in translation are referred to as “Slipping,” “Immersion,” and “Tracking.” They each suggest a type of movement further into the site’s ramshackle collections of text, audio, and video works. The only way to divorce one section of Solntsetsvety from another is to sit back and listen to the rationale of those involved.
Today they present a handful of equally disorderly "gems" from along the Volga. Translated into English, the small promo-text reads as follows.
"This is a compilation of contemporary musicians from the Volga region: 'Volnisty,' 'Cartmen of Southern Alaska,' 'Challenger,' 'Sukhofrukty,' and 'Zhiguli.' They all belong to a certain kind of psychedelic pop or local 'hypnagogic' scene. The compilation seemed very timely to us; after all, it mirrors what the Solntsetsvety do. That's why we're publishing it - and recommending it highly, too!"
"We hope to meet these guys personally when Mox will be on tour around the Volga in the springtime..."
These artists all belong to a certain kind of psychedelic pop or 'hypnagogic' scene
If, however, you have a couple of hours to spare, you'll discover that information about these bands is nowhere to be found. If they do actually exist, these Volga performers are maintaining a state of radical anonymity. Nonetheless, even if we're looking at a seven-track, twenty-seven minute joke, it still has good, if not laudable intentions - for the following reason.
There's no element of parody here: nothing is held up for mockery, including the bands' provincial addresses. "Gems of the Volga Region" is a work of celebration, not censure. Instead of giggling at backwater creativity, the album (re)employs the timeless romance of distant, sleepy riverbanks in order to document the existence of an artistic enclave.
Or so the story goes...
The symbolism of the Volga region as a social or cultural cradle returns once again. And, in support of that optimistic concept, the album's very pronounced lo-fi aesthetic only adds to an evocation of nascent, natural performance, far from the grim influence of moneyed studios. Even, in other words, if the bands documented here do not exist, the idea and romance behind them does, which actually may be more important.
An ensemble that never forms will never quarrel or collapse - just as the most famous Soviet song about the Volga claimed that it never ends. That, surely, is a fitting location for hopeful fantasy to take root. For boundless reverie, uninhibited by petty concerns for truth.