Saratov is a large city in southern Russia with ties to various ancient civilizations; the movement of peoples through this region, over the centuries, was often made possible by the wide, low landscape and surrounding waters of the Volga. Mother Nature may have helped the growth of Saratov, but she also dwarfs it. The circuitous, baroque currents of the Volga are more impressive - and enduring - than any straight lines drawn with asphalt.
Historians often argue about the city's debt to the Golden Horde, not to mention Scythian and Greek settlers. Time has scribed - and then erased - many patterns here.
From these same fields, shores, and streets there now comes an album by reggae, hip-hop, and grime exponent Gosha Ashog. He frames his music with an equally grand sweep - and various musings on the workings of time. In fact, a small text in Russian - designed to introduce these recordings - begins with a deliberate confusion of decades and dynasties.
Life, death, other facets of reality, the present, past, and future, too. Eternity, even...
It would seem that Saratov's 450 miles from Moscow are sufficient to inspire talk of bygone, if not timeless designs. "Each of us lives a certain number of lives. For that reason, our age does not determine wisdom. Adulthood does not guarantee insight. In this album Ashog touches upon several aspects of time's evolution: Life, death, other facets of reality, the present, past, and future, too. Eternity, even..."
Whilst pondering the passage of time, "this album is also a touching work of the present day. Take a deep breath and dive into a long, winding story of multiple lives. Listen closely and take a moment to ponder things. Once you've done that, exhale - and let it all go. Everything is an illusion." The cover art by American photographer Duane Michals underscores these central themes.
Exhale - and let it all go. Everything is an illusion
The young man offering us such bold observations then insists that "all musical styles are relative. There's simply music - which itself has no limits." In other words, an instinctual approach to creativity will also make it easier to dismiss obsessive linearity. By the same logic, an aimless perusal of large, disorderly record collections starts to reflect the cultural stereotypes surrounding Saratov's evolution, seen very much as a river town - perched on the edge of endless green and blue.
The city, of course, remains encircled by nature's slow, stately designs. Saratov's retreat from goal-driven enterprise is also made clear on the album's release page at Shufflebrain. Here we find a poem from Ashog; many more of his works can be discovered at the Stikhi.Ru portal.
Translated into English prose, his locally specific poem reads: "An old, old gramophone; the scratch of vinyl warms a home. Sparks jump from the fireplace and the air has an aftertaste of jasmine. People watch TV, either in the heat or when mercury falls..."
"But there's so little truth [on TV]. There are more adverts and blood; more dirt and dumbness - from dusk till dawn." And then, amid the crude workings of primetime distraction, we're invited to consider a grander timeframe. "You'll never step into the same river twice. D'you remember when grumpy Uncle Tolya lived nearby - and Auntie Tanya from No. 6? In a two-roomed apartment. I came by yesterday. They've gone forever - a banker's office fills their space..."
"Morning. Sleep. Opened my eyes. Daytime. Hassles. Home. Station. Passport. Night. Trains. Carriage. Morning. Tea. Taxi. Off to see you..."
Passport. Night. Trains. Carriage. Morning. Tea. Taxi. Off to see you...
Somewhere within humdrum repetition or unidirectional, corporate striving is a happier, desirous alternative. It's embodied in the whirlpools of the Volga, the sweep of a southern landscape, and the winding pattern of a taxi en route to a girlfriend. By implication, therefore, it's in the very emotions that cause that journey to even happen!
At one of Ashog's other web venues, he distills the essence of these sentimental, unpredictable whims in a brief list of personal preferences: "Reggae. The dacha. Summertime. Being loved..."
As the happily faded, rustic image above suggests, this worldview can be found elsewhere, too. We're dealing with a realm of dachas, laptops, and shaggy nature: Russia has all of them in abundance. Much work conducted in these leafy spheres displays the conviction that beyond/behind modernity's engine room there lies a hushed domain of private sentiment. Where (human) nature takes over.
The figure shown above - another champion of this small-scale, heartfelt dignity - is LeOnid_US (aka Leonid Gladkikh), author of three instrumental tracks in this post. Based in Novosibirsk, he has been the subject of our attention before. Now, as then, he does not use his pages at MySpace or Soundcloud to publish any textual materials. Nonetheless, his colleagues at Guerilla have kindly written a little framework for us, which helps to synthesize this musician's wide-ranging enthusiasm(s) for hip-hop, dub, funk, and various forms of psychedelia.
Leonid tries very hard to employ sounds from the material world...
"Leonid tries very hard to employ sounds from the material world, rather than digital 'ones and zeroes.' He uses a couple of djembe drums (from Nepal and the US), clay whistles, all kinds of rattles, and various resonant metal objects." This jumble of unwanted bits and pieces extends to "Leonid's favorite handmade instrument: a half-liter shaker - made from a can of energy drink... and filled with ganja seeds."
The romance of waywardness returns.
Gosha Ashog calls his album "Fonovost'," LeOnid_US uses the title "Wobla," presumably a variation upon the Russian term "vobla." The former noun refers to all the minor, often unnoticed events that exist and endure in the background of a situation. The off-stage chatter of a major event, perhaps. The latter noun, a kind of freshwater fish, is traditionally eaten in dried, salted forms - with beer or vodka. Both of these titles speak, in semi-serious ways, to a purposelessness that sits in the shadows of adult (self-important) enterprise.
And, in fact, if we take the LeOnid_US title not as a variant spelling, but as a play upon the English verb "wobble," then we still end up with a celebration of inaccurate trajectories and wandering patterns. A Slavic kind of "wonky," perhaps, one played out on the banks of the Volga and across Siberian forests.
It takes no great effort to find physical examples of this on the streets of Saratov. Long after the concrete monsters of Soviet architecture have come and gone, wobbly green cottages still linger. Painted in sympathy with their leafy surroundings, they sit quietly on equally "wobbly" streets - none of which are terribly straight. These are the places where Uncle Tolya and Auntie Tanya have managed to avoid bankers - and instead raise children (the kind who save their pocket money for taxi fares).