The band Mari! Mari! have appeared on this site several times, as they represent an important locus of activity in Vladivostok, Russia's main Pacific port. Mapping songs and music so far from the capital helps us to show with particular clarity that not all sounds emanate from Moscow. And now the members of Mari! Mari! have more business to report, over and above their ongoing support for "regional" enterprise. Just before the new year, a notice appeared on their LiveJournal account:
"We've now played ninety-nine concerts in our career. A friend has just come back from Japan and brought a synthesizer with him. That's good cause to play the hundredth gig! We're writing a new album and will play two new songs from it at that concert." Both those compositions are offered here: "Bright Thoughts" (Svetlye Mysli)) and "Actresses" (Aktrisy). They've also been made available for free download.
We've now played ninety-nine concerts in our career....
How to advertise such matters so far from Moscow's media? The promotional activity around the single has been precisely that: a preponderance of effort over wordy self-promotion. That same restlessness and industry has focused on local shows: matters close to home are more important. The band's web-pages likewise show little signs of willful self-advertising. In fact, instead of any "persuasive" rhetoric, one of the band members at that same LiveJournal account prefers to upload poetry. Most of which appears to be the work of others, chosen for a deft turn of phrase. The most recent of these fitting, cut-and-pasted poems is especially well-known, being a 1924 text by Sergei Esenin, "Letter to a Woman" (Pis'mo k zhenshchine).
Bleached artwork for "Actresses/Bright Thoughts" (Aktrisy/Svetlye Mysli), 2012
It consists of a dramatic monolog, designed in essence to recall the acrimonious collapse of a relationship. The speaker tells of his "stormy life" - and that image slowly becomes an extended metaphor. The couple's entire time together is referred to as a ship fighting against various "storms or tempests... Which of us [upon those waters] did not tumble, fall sick, or curse? Only a few individuals, with experienced hearts, can remain strong within the tumult."
To hide from these problems, the speaker then went "below deck" and drank heavily, "hoping to destroy myself in a drunken haze." Yet suddenly - without any warning - the drama fades, as we're told these events happened some time ago. In the closing lines, the addressee is left a few tender words, as the tone changes from conflict to care: "Live as the stars lead you, in the shade of a new shelter." A former lover is wished well.
These dramatic maritime yarns - themselves remembered and reused in a major port - give no indication of creative calm. They're quoted in order to evoke a state of unending, unpredictable effort, conducted against a fickle opponent! One hundred concerts, played in frequent absence from home, leave scant time for light - or lengthy - conversation. Hence the tales of thunder and lightning, borrowed in ready form.
Outer space, history, and catastrophe have been the dominant themes
A related symbolism appears elsewhere. Much closer to Moscow, we find the oddly named Powder! Go Away. The band's four members, shown below, are Sergey Velesko, Eugeniy Sanches, Pavel Utropov, and Ilya Gerasimenko, who've been collaborating for almost two years. Although the titles of their songs and albums are incredibly long, the band displays a basic leaning towards the silence of shoegaze or post-rock. Reverie is more important than idle chatter.
Once more, reticence is a reasonable stance when we consider some of the band's preferred topics for singing about and/or celebrating. Since the appearance of a debut recording, dedicated to the Soviet space dog Laika, the band admits that "outer space, history, and catastrophe[!] have been the dominant themes in our music." The cosmos and the high seas produce a shared set of images. Consolation is rarely found across those unforgiving expanses, as the title of the debut recording suggested: "Laika Still Wants to Go Home." (Even though she passed away in 1957...)
Moving much further to the south - and the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol - we find the dubiously named Prick Records and their colleagues Mandarinaduck, who are actually from Zaporozhye, further inland on the banks of the Dnieper River. The group's three representatives are Anton Levich, Oleksandr Gurenko, and Sergiy Levich. In operation since 2008 the trio now has a debut EP on offer, crowning more than three years of effort: "Summerstage."
A recent interview with the Ukrainian press helps to flesh out this context - including the group's peculiar name. The performers consider mandarin ducks to be "amazing, mystical creatures. They're so brightly colored, even psychedelic...It's as if they came from another planet!" The significance of that rather unassuming bird will grow over time, as we'll explain in a minute.
It's as if mandarin ducks came from another planet!
In the meantime, the musicians below remain pensive beside a body of water too stormy - and salty - for even the bravest ducks. These increasingly "tempestuous" motifs, in all seriousness, persist for a reason: they have analogies in daily or professional experience. And, on a more lyrical note, Mari! Mari! and Mandarinaduck of course live beside the sea: that address is of direct consequence to various aspects of the bands' output.
Our Ukrainian trio explain several of the professional challenges that face them on a regular basis. Two of the most salient are audiences and language. The performers are asked whether the general public's behavior worries them, in other words the relatively high percentage of people who attend concerts simply in order to drink. Gradually Mandarinaduck come to the conclusion that alcohol sales are, sadly, a necessary aspect of music events, given that profit comes more from beer than from ticket sales. Such is problem number one (of several...): playing live is risky, both financially and physically.
The other big challenge is that of communication, in other words the English language, which the group chooses over Ukrainian and Russian. "Singing in Russian, you really need to twist things in order to make your lyrics sound melodic or natural. Ukrainian is the same, but at least things sound more melodic. In English, everything just sounds better - and less forced, too. Expressions are less concrete and the range of imagery's wider - plus almost everybody can understand..."
We've got similar bands in Ukraine, but - unfortunately! - there's no [coherent] scene...
Despite that closing optimism, the general sense here is that successful communication between the stage and audience is never guaranteed. Speech and socialization - drunk or sober! - can be difficult. In fact, the comments left by fans on various sites tend to raise a related issue: this music is appreciated, but cohesion between bands, towns, and styles is extremely tenuous. "We've got similar bands in Ukraine, but - unfortunately! - there's no [coherent] scene..." Individuals outnumber collectives. Esenin's poem would not be out of place here, either.
Mandarinaduck live, 2011
On that note, it's helpful to end with a few words about the group's moniker. What is the appeal - or significance - of these freshwater birds? In Chinese culture, mandarin ducks are representative of fidelity and loving couples. Our Ukrainian artists, as we heard, refer to the same birds as "amazing, mystical creatures." They symbolize support and constancy, two forms of close communication that these Zaporozhye musicians consider almost mythically rare.
For Mari! Mari!, Powder! Go Away, and Mandarinaduck, motifs of isolation predominate. Working very hard against the law of financial or social averages, these bands draw upon the drama of oceanic and even cosmic ventures: they see themselves as lone, maybe valiant figures in the middle of nowhere. Certain poets evoke that same state in terms both recognizable and reassuring. Dogs in space and drunkards on the high seas both yearn for stability! And yet, when we turn to some time-honored Asian figures of that same equilibrium, the birds of life-long romance or security are attributed to "another planet."
Instead these young performers sketch a more likely - and less optimistic - scenario, shown below and playing upon the stormy paintings of another Black Sea visitor, many years ago... These ensembles like exclamation marks in their name for a good reason. Surprises are aplenty on the stages of Eastern Europe; seafaring ducks and young musicians, be warned.