This week sees a new release from the wonderful ensemble known as Komba Bakkh (Комба Бакх). The band is best defined as an all-male outfit from Kostroma, an ancient Russian town first mentioned in chronicles in 1213. Some historians even date the founding of Kostroma hundreds of years earlier. Today it is home to just under 300,000 people, all of whom are surrounded by a rich architectural and spiritual heritage. Komba Bakkh are acutely aware of threats to this tradition and celebrate it in the strangest of ways: they are avid exponents of Orthodox Christian, primarily acoustic hip-hop. Icons, sampled beats, and a polished flow set the scene: modernity and an antique universe coincide.
Komba Bakkh's stage name, it's worth recalling, comes from an equivalent of the word "combo" (i.e., outfit оr collective) and an anagram made from the performers' initials.
We hope you'll find these new versions - of old songs! - interesting. Likewise we hope your own life will often be cast in a new light
And now there's the band's fifty-fifth(!) album to celebrate, a collection of twelve remixes taken from other, relatively recent LPs of the last two years. They arrive with a touching introduction from Komba Bakkh themselves. "We've long tried to give new life to some of our older material. We wanted to make the old songs fresher, to underscore their core themes, jettison whatever was no longer needed, and generally enrich them. We always strive towards innovation, since we ourselves are always changing - and seeking new ideas, too. Some of these remixes were conceived in order to better fit the lyrics, while others tend rather to continue our long-standing love for experimentation."
"The remixes have already been showcased in our Vkontakte community, but you can never tell whether people really like songs in that setting [of a social network]. If we only judged Komba Bakkh based on the number of 'likes' on VK, then we'd consider ourselves complete losers! Yet we know those 'likes' don't really mean anything. And so, once we'd gathered a 'critical' number of remixes on VK, we decided to publish them together as an LP. This is the first time we've done anything like this... We hope you'll find these new versions - of old songs! - interesting. Likewise we hope your own life will often be cast in a new light. In a word, we hope things become fresher and braver - on a regular basis."
Komba Bakkh in a suitably antique setting
The band even penned an open letter to Alla Pugacheva, queen of the Soviet stage, in the hope she might also want to remix her socialist pop classics. "Dear Alla, we dream of remaking your hit songs from the 1980s... Only you can get hold of those studio tapes, if - of course - anybody has even looked after them properly. Ideally, we could do something wonderful together and polish your classic numbers, so they'd match today's international standards. Together we'd be presenting Russian songwriting from a unique point of view."
The fantasy letter closes with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the project's unlikeliness. "Dear Alla, you may reject our letter out of hand - or even shower us with curses! Whatever the case, please forgive our cockiness; we just considered a direct appeal, without agents or intermediaries, to be the most honest approach." Life, it seems, does not always lend itself to personal and professional "remixes." Desires to start anew are often hampered by stately intermediaries or the irksome complexities of copyright law.
Common values are the most important things of all
Hence the importance of "solidarity" for Komba Bakkh, and all related metaphors. If the world does not lend itself to private plans or reinventions, then the role of compassion and good company only increases. Friends and family look better whenever the world fails you. "Common values are the most important things of all... Some of us are closer to the Church than others, but the authority of the Gospel has always been unshakable. That is what allows us to resolve arguments and conflicts." Remixing sounds is simple enough; remaking one's biography is considerably harder. Hence the value of amity and compassion.
A somewhat different tale of conflict between things private and public underlies the newest recordings from Lithuania's Leonas "Napo" Rėčkus.
This young musician is actually located in Šakiai, a small Baltic town whose history is often sketched in nothing more than a couple of brief lines. An eighteenth-century church first helped to establish a small, yet fixed community - and the following century would then bring a school and post office. Life moves slowly and peacefully in Šakiai, even today.
Adventure is more likely to come from subjective, rather than from social realms. The newest one-man recordings from Napo, much in the spirit of Komba Bakkh, are called "Improving Ourselves." Still preferring the visual building-blocks of a Tumblr account to anything verbal, Rėčkus has nonetheless granted the occasional brief interview to the local press, for example to the Baltic Scene. Here, in very abstract terms, he has validated private ventures over anything political or fervently civic. For Napo, the importance of music lies "in the [emotional] 'movement' of two people. By that I mean a mutual exploration of inner vibrations. Step beyond yourselves. Improve yourselves."
Both of those gentle imperatives suggest that social obstacles are to be expected en route.
A movie about beats, love, friendship... and the system that destroys it all
Napo's statements are especially interesting against the backdrop of a recent Lithuanian feature film, directed by Romas Zabarauskas and dramatizing certain aspects of the region's hip-hop scene: "We Will Riot." As the tagline has it, this is a "movie about beats, love, friendship... and the system that destroys it all." Similarly, the plot is sketched in ways that (with a melodramatic turn of phrase) show little, if any hope in social existence. Music becomes a tool of coping and compensation.
"Luke is an up-and-coming DJ from an affluent New York family with a Lithuanian father and an African-American mother. When Luke hears from his estranged grandmother in Lithuania, he defies his parents and decides to visit her by flying directly to a distant capital city: Vilnius. He falls in love not only with the city, but also with a rebellious girl called Marta. Luke is simultaneously attracted to the local music scene - to its beatmakers - who are promoted by an aggressive gay manager, Andy. Luke's grandma has connections. She gets him a deal with the city council, in order that he become the manager of a new nightclub. Luke takes up the challenge... but the deal turns out to be poisoned, forcing Luke to rebel in ways he never imagined."
In a related interview, Zabarauskas has listed the forces against which Lithuanian beatmakers allegedly struggle: "Corrupt politicians and sociopathic, unlawful corporations. I also mean global warming, exploitation, and financial speculation.…" His list only grows in size and stature.
This borderline fatalism increases in the newest recordings from Siberian outfit Uplotnenie. The project is a duo: Ivan Dmitriev and Grisha Dudarev. Both men remain virtually silent in terms of promotional effort, but one of them has previously used a 1931 text from the Russian surrealist or absurdist writer, Daniil Kharms. In translation it might read: "Before coming to see you, I will knock at your window. You will see me in the window. Then I will stand in your doorway; you will see me in the doorway. Then I will come to your house and you will recognize me. Then I will enter you and nobody, apart from you, will see or know who I am. You will see me in the window. You will see me in the doorway."
This music may seem depressing, but it's designed for the heart and soul
As we've said before, Uplotnenie's moniker has a wide range of meanings in Russian, none of which are terribly pleasant. It can be translated as "compression, reduction [in size], a tightening [of pressure], hardening, or subcutaneous lump." This melancholy imagery is extended in a new release, "Yama" (Яма), meaning "Pit" or "Deep Hole." The artwork above helps to drive a grim message home.
The band members attribute meager attention in the Russian press to "the fact it's easier to write about all the nonsense surrounding everyday pop music than it is to explain anything complex or unfamiliar. Our new LP is something prophetic. The 'pit' [of which we speak] has been dug on an intersection between various contradictions: between reality and our imagination, between filth and magic, tragedy and hope, love and hate, etc. May each of us gaze into the pit and recognize himself. This music may seem depressing, but it's designed for the heart and soul."
An admission of limited self-determination in the world is honest, yet therefore(!) consoling. The truth both hurts and helps.
A closing poem from Uplotnenie even invites listeners to revel in that hopelessness. "Fall from all directions into that pit for three years. Fall deeply - and for ages. Dance within the pit. Dig, dance, and then dig yourself out. We all lie in the same pit, while above us the grass interweaves its roots. Our corpses drunkenly try and come to terms with their doubts."
Dance within the pit!
A long and complicated series of tags have always accompanied Uplotnenie's downtempo, dub-heavy, and wantonly muffled instrumentals over the last few years. They include such seemingly unrelated terms and hashtags as: "Experimental, good, Jesus, sinking, winter, frost, 'does not help,' mother, 'cold/honest,' 'what the heart desires,' bottom, gully, pit, 'tight seal,' dance floor, and honestly." Perhaps that final adverb is the most telling. In a world where self-determination appears severely limited or "buried" by lumpen civic processes, honestly lies in the purging of a messy unconsciousness. And the erasure of self-deception.
Equally important, perhaps, is Uplotnenie's call to "dance" within one's misery. The same importance of heady abandonment - in various senses - has colored a recent EP by La Vtornik, a band operating between Saint Petersburg, Samara, and Yekaterinburg. The group's two members, Kirill Bitov and Daniel Shake (i.e., Shaikhinurov), have even referred to their widespread enterprise as "music of the regions."
La Vtornik speak with admiration of Moscow's Beryoza collective, whose members make loving fun of provincial tastes within popular music. Such as the unflagging adoration for Alla Pugacheva, decade after decade... They simultaneously mock, modernize, and sentimentalize the cheesiest classics from the late-Soviet pop canon, which are still loved in towns and villages nationwide.
La Vtornik: Kirill Bitov (L) and Daniel Shake (i.e., Shaikhinurov)
It's interesting to see how La Vtornik associate far-flung points on the map with a certain Wanderlust. The musicians' sensation of truly being at home comes from being nowhere in particular. "We're constantly shifting from town to town. That's really fun - and something we love doing, in any case." In fact, the connection of La Vtornik - of two men - to three locations simultaneously is something that's deliberately cultivated. Hence the overriding themes of less people and more movement - either around the map (to avoid the workings of fate) or around the dancefloor (to forget any related feelings of inevitability).
These thematic emphases certainly underwrote the band's autumnal mini-album, "Dance!" (Танцуй).
Everything was put together on my laptop, on the road - and in various locations, too
Shaikhinurov has spoken of the (very) modest conditions under which the musicians are usually forced to work, due to simultaneous constraints of time and money. "Everything [on 'Танцуй'] was put together on my laptop, on the road - and in various locations, too. There were no studio speakers involved, let alone the studios themselves! The vocals were recorded in Samara, more specifically in a cupboard... inside Kirill's apartment. Other vocals were committed to tape in my Dad's attic, just outside Saint Petersburg. Then the tracks were mixed by me in a Moscow hostel, using nothing more than an iPhone 5 and my headphones."
Daniel Shaikhinurov's 9-to-5 employment may be within a studio environment, but... "I reached the point [not long ago] where I became utterly sick of recording corporate anthems. I'd get fifteen people or so together, simply in order to sing 'Our Factory Is the Best!' Then I'd mix and balance it all... so the result sounded half-decent. My employers were ticked off that I'd sometimes use the studio to record other material in my free time. After that job, I was employed by an advertising firm, where I made decent money and did close to nothing. That at least gave me the opportunity to make some music."
Sounds appear despite the pressures of time, cash, distance, and social indifference. It's a wonder these publications exist at all. And that makes them all the more precious.