Moscow's Sketis label endeavors to gather and promote the most inventive combinations of folk tradition with today's jazz or electronica. Sketis, in fact, refers to itself as a "Russian world and roots" enterprise. Some of the other self-definitions within the project's catalog would include "experimental-ambient-roots-folk." Put differently, experimentation is tied both to tradition and the landscape that made it. A range of new recordings extends these efforts - and geographic locations - even further.
We might begin with Vasilyev Vecher (Васильев вечер), a Siberian ensemble that takes its name both from St. Vasilii and a Russian folk holiday, roughly equivalent to New Year. The musicians in question "are seeking to find a place for folk culture in modern life. We want to make use of our forefathers' experience today. We want to celebrate our ancestors' holidays and work days, yet remain citizens of our own age. We study the songs, clothes, cuisine, rites, and crafts of Siberia's oldest residents." In fact these singers and musicians prefer not to use published songs or collections. "It's better to get the true, live sound" - and visit the eldest members of far-flung communities.
Russian villages are slowly dying out, but their traditional culture lives on
That collective ethos is reflected in the ensemble itself, which draws upon six Siberian families. As a result, as many as twenty different people may take part - at any given time. The parents performing in Vasilyev Vecher are keen to involve their youngest children in the performances: "Children should be raised with a natural sense of beauty. And we understand beauty to be song, dance, and [spiritual] celebration." This activity, they maintain, is also part of a pressing cultural agenda: "Russian villages are slowly dying out, but their traditional culture lives on - not as our [fading] past, but as our present and future."
The local press in nearby Tomsk do a good job of supporting Vasilyev Vecher's activities - and showcasing their values. The city and region are arguably most famous for countless czarist exiles of prior centuries. Pre-Revolutionary Tomsk was deemed sufficiently far from Moscow to keep dangerous people at bay. For that same reason, Vasilyev Vecher have done much to save and celebrate ancient songs of liberty stolen. Group founder Daniil Krapchenov has suggested in local interviews that "probably every Siberian" has some distant relative or forefather who was once exiled and/or imprisoned. "Songs helped those prisoners to survive... These people were fed poorly; many were physically devastated by the experience. Had prisoners not benefitted from the charity of local and kindly folks, things would often have been worse."
A community of suffering took shape.
Some of Vasilyev Vecher's many participants
The one unifying factor between Siberian and Muscovites - of the present and past - is misfortune. "The songs of [ancient] prisoners can still evoke feelings of sympathy for those around you. We don't mean sympathy for the criminals themselves, but for people, pure and simple. Sympathy for their pain and sadness. After all, every one of them had lost their freedom, their mother, native land, and loved ones."
An "ethno-jazz" recording from Sketis nudges this connection between distant locations or lifelines further still. It comes from a Russo-Latvian outfit, Baraka, led by percussionist Dmitry Evsikov and his daughter (on bass and vocals) Devika. The band takes its name from the 1993 documentary by Ron Fricke, which captured the fluid patterns of animals, people, and nature in motion across the globe. Paying special attention to swarm-like activity (crowds, flocks, and so forth), "Baraka" was designed to visualize and then ponder what the director called "humanity's relationship to the eternal." The role of private liberty within enormous collectives, rigid social mores, and nature itself was especially foregrounded.
Once upon a time everybody would have lived within a single [pre-modern] realm
Our ensemble of the same name interweaves Indian, Central Asian, and Western traditions (usually those of lounge jazz) in order to ponder themes of "beauty and harmony" within the framework of "stylish, appealing music." Surely no style speaks more to the acceptance of one's surroundings than lounge or chillout! That jarringly relaxed mode, however, should be considered together with the outfit's name - this time from a spiritual point of view. "Baraka," prior to any filmmaking, is originally a term from Islamic mysticism that refers to prosperity, wellbeing, and divine blessing. It grants a profound sense of peace - despite the rigors of material life.
The newest Baraka recordings - entitled "Shams" - hope to bridge the musical heritage of Latvia with that of Tajikistan. "European listeners will be able to enjoy the wonderful melodies of modern Eastern composers, both from Tajikistan and Afghanistan." Those international mosaics were constructed in a Baltic studio by artists from the same three nations, together with additional help from a Lebanese colleague. "Our new double album is designed to operate as a cultural bridge between various peoples. Once upon a time everybody would have lived within a single [pre-modern] realm, yet today they exist very far from one another." Maps and borders have, unfortunately, done much to keep people apart.
In a recent interview, Mr. Evsikov spoke about embodying themes of inclusion, liberty, or "expansion" on stage, much as Vasilyev Vecher. "I really want the band to grow bigger - that would be wonderful. I've long wanted to include elements of hip-hop; that would mean collaborating with young musicians, of course. Or I've yet another plan to start composing tracks that'll accompany some of today's younger, contemporary poets." Geographically, generationally, and stylistically, the aim here is to counter the exclusionary workings of cartography and primetime entertainment. Much in modern experience is frustratingly claustrophobic.
Traditional music can truly change people... if it's free of falsehood
The places that inspire such thoughts of liberty remain an ideal. Evsikov has also said: "I've never been to Tajikistan, but I imagine it in bright colors. The wonderful faces of locals, all smiling. I imagine markets with regional fare - and loads of sweet things! There must be folk instruments in every home.... For me Tajikistan is a place of fine traditions, all established many centuries ago." He also discerns in these faraway dreams and destinations another unifying factor that helps to push back against feelings of contemporary isolation or loneliness. "The best thing about music is that it's suitable both for people rich and poor, for the young... and not so young! Everybody understands music. If it is played from the heart, music can truly change people... I mean if it's free of falsehood."
That final noun sits well with the core ideas of Vasilyev Vecher. Both of these Russian projects (since Baraka's founder was born and raised in Russia) view song and music, taken from the past, as a way to understand or overcome erstwhile falsehood and ugliness, which endure today.
Given those flights of fancy, it perhaps makes sense to return home briefly, specifically to the work of Voronovo Krylo ("Raven's Wing") from Perm. Drawing basically upon the more ritualistic songs of Russian folklore, the group - whatever their proximity to modern Moscow - sometimes like to speak of "trance-like" elements within their reconstructive craft. "It's as if you're returning to the imagery of some ancient, half-forgotten faiths or shamans." It's not uncommon, therefore, to see songs by Voronovo Krylo tagged as "ethno-ambient" and "ethno-ritual," even.
In this case, an alternative to restrictive actuality comes not from empathy, sympathy, or dreams of some Eastern locale. A "trance-like" state is instead promised, based on shamanistic magic.
The band's name comes from a common element within shamanistic dress: a Perm outfit takes inspiration from the furthest possible source. In the same wandering spirit, these musicians happily admit to the lasting influence of "skomorokh" or minstrel culture from medieval Slavic territories. "The skomorokhs were something like Irish bards, people who saw no distinction between musical and magical knowledge." That sense of transformation becomes - for Voronovo Krylo - the simple ability to feel as if one is elsewhere. "We perform all kinds of songs; they might be frightening, 'immersive,' or simply jolly..." Those occasionally extreme or cathartic states are apparently lacking at present.
There was, after all, a time before the Tower of Babel
The theme of emotional release arises in several interviews with Voronovo Krylo. "Some songs, of course, preserve a [mere] concern with domestic issues. Others, however, still have a profound resonance. They've reached our times with minimal changes and are still employed - in the ritual sense. We really feel [the impact of] those numbers! There may be nothing more than an apparently superficial level of phrasing: themes of somebody coming or going, stories about a man or woman, somebody being born or dying, the harvest being sown or reaped - those things are always related in fixed images and symbols. Nonetheless, they lead us deeper... We want to make that [deeper significance] clearer in our arrangements. We want to grant people an opportunity to feel these songs."
And now Voronovo Krylo are participating in a Sketis project called "The Green Harp" (Луговая арфа). A wide range of folk musicians from various lands come together to collaborate, "yet without adapting their ethnic music to the standards of modern commercial recording.... All participants still hear the voice of the ages - and the voice of their own land." Although those same participants are globally scattered in their varied addresses and chosen heritage(s), "everybody is attentive to the music of mankind overall. There was, after all, a time before the Tower of Babel. A time before we were all separated from one another. A time when mankind could even discern the voice of the grass and so, in order to transmit those same harmonies to others, people created a green harp."
Voronovo Krylo and a very northern reconstruction
In one interview with band members Andrei Mikhailov and Irina Pyzhyanova, some of these same issues rose quickly to the fore. Inclusion, unity, and a pre-modern or non-urban sense of membership were uppermost. "On one level, all folk cultures ultimately converge and only the slightest hint of anything 'national' remains. The fundamental roots are the same [in folk art]. By that we mean people interacting with the surrounding world - and with one another. We ourselves certainly maintain a considerable distance from any kind of superficial patriotism. We'd never say: 'We're Russian, so we'll use Russian instruments and therefore get rid of anything Middle Eastern!'"
In the proud spirit of Sketis' welcoming and worldwide outlook, it perhaps makes sense to finish on the edge of Slavic territories. Take, for example, Bubamara Brass Band from Moscow, who - with one eye on fading folk values - resurrect an antique Balkan and Roma heritage. The group's central members radiate enormous verve and vigor with their saxophones, clarinets, trombones, tubas, and joyful, clattering percussion.
Often inspired - philosophically and visually - by the films of Emir Kusturica, Bubamara and their frontman Aleksandr Kashtanov have been performing together for over five years. They have now graduated to some of the nation's most important jazz festivals, where they are advertised in the following manner. "This ensemble has the most amazing level of positive energy! You might think that'd be an essential part of any Balkan outfit, but not every band from outside the region is able to be this amazing or positive! At the basis of Bubamara's repertoire are folk melodies - and some of their own compositions, too..."
Some members of "walking" band, Bubamara Brass (Moscow)
The band's last album - "Balkanteka" - was made with the occasional help of Serbian Romani trumpeter Marko Markovic. At the time, Kashtanov also declared that the bebop spirit of Dizzy Gillespie had been equally important; together they helped to conjure Kusturica's vivid "emotionalism and bright colors in every scene, whether we're dealing with a wedding, feast day, wartime celebration, or funeral shootout! Love and death always coincide, traveling together, side by side. That's how life is, an endless chain of events. Bubamara's chosen themes are often raised to the level of farce or hyperbole - but there's none of our inherent Russian tendency towards grimness."
A certain acceptance or fatalism, perhaps, allows for a bittersweet smile. If nothing can be done to lessen life's disorder, then there's no cause for sadness.
I always leave room for improvisation (A. Kashtanov, Bubamara Brass Band)
The band's newest album, "Ja Volim Bubamaru," continues some of the convictions heard in earlier statements from Mr. Kashtanov. Once again, the sounds of New Orleans and the Balkans sit happily side by side. "Everybody in the band is a professional jazz musician. But - as opposed to most jazz performers - my guys are also into ethnic and pop music. They all strive towards a multifaceted skill-set. That's why, whenever I begin my arrangements, I always leave room for improvisation. That allows each person to play their solo as they want. They express Balkan music the way they feel it." Kashtanov then lists some other, more established collectives in which his colleagues work, including the Kremlin's Presidential Orchestra. Freedom of expression, perhaps, makes its way into some stately realms.
The best way to oppose the rhythmic, penal, or territorial "rigidity" of the past is to foster a worldview of inclusiveness. All of these new Sketis recordings, despite their proud bonds to a fixed location or people, are also infused with a spirit of sympathy, pre-modern harmony, or - at the very least - an escape into "improvised" self-realization. Sometimes that escape takes the form of a trumpet solo; on other occasions we hear the ancient, melancholy tale of a wrongly imprisoned relative, hoping to flee into a Siberian forest. Both are equally plaintive and relevant in 2014.