Back to Nature: Silver Wedding, Port Mone, Vozvraschenie, and Alhambra

Some artwork for Port Mone's new album, "Thou" (2014)

Port Mone is/are a trio from the city of Minsk: Aleksei Vorsoba, Sergei Kravchenko, and Aleksei Vanchuk. As we've mentioned before, these Belarusian musicians turn the traditional harmonies of the accordion, for example, into what they call a "mix of ambient, noise, experimental, and classical/traditional" forms. From a fixed heritage emerges novelty. The band now has a new album to announce, "Thou." 

The artists accompany that good news with some parallel texts in Belarusian and Russian. "The recording sessions became an experiment with sound. The musicians turned down any 'laboratorial' studio conditions, and instead opted for a natural acoustic space. Studio equipment was transported to a forest - and that's where everything was recorded. This decision was taken on the basis of ideological considerations, rather than any passion for things acoustic. We wanted to express the creative mission of Port Mone as a return to something natural, pure, and essential within the human spirit. In other words, something outside of social conditions and norms. 'Thou' hopes to map various genuine and profound experiences within the framework of six universally familiar settings: love, betrayal, loss, desperation, calm, and joy."

Studio equipment was transported to a forest

The Belarusian press has been very enthusiastic, "'Thou' is the first Belarusian LP that deserves to be placed beside the works of Steve Reich, Brian Eno, and David Byrne. In fact, I'd place this album beside the catalog of great composers in any genre. In addition, I'd suggest Port Mone are proof of the fact we'll soon realize how [traditional] notions of 'genre' and 'style' have already lost their meaning." 

Elsewhere from another journalist in the same nation we hear: "This is probably the most serious publication from Belarusian non-academic musicians in the last few years... if not since the end of the USSR. It's good enough to suggest parallels with academic minimalism." A discussion then follows regarding what might be gained by jettisoning the excess(es) of primetime pop. Less is undoubtedly more.  

Port Mone (Minsk) and the decision to record in a local forest

Following a successful tour with Ukraine's DakhaBrakha, Port Mone have also spoken to the Moscow press. Here Aleksei Vorsoba talks of a small, devoted following at home, rather than of any "mass" popularity. "I know our fans and vice versa. They've remained with us since the beginning. New people come and join us - slowly, but surely. To be honest, we play more in Western Europe nowadays. The situation there is similar to Russia [regarding a fan base], but in Europe we're dealing with bigger spaces and a more 'cultured' audience. By that I mean the level of literary or intellectual awareness - and certain democratic values." These remarks are made following some pointed questions on Russia's involvement in Ukraine. 

I know our fans and vice versa. They've remained with us since the beginning

And yet Vorsoba is no champion of academic elitism. In the same interview he claims that "a classical musical education spoils things. That's very often the case." Hence some heated arguments during his training in years gone by. "Most often they concerned issues of repertoire. I wanted to play more avant-garde works. The teachers, however, insisted on traditional compositions. And yet - simultaneously - I do remember with gratitude the words of one teacher: 'There are only two reasons a musician may be absent from a rehearsal. Either he is paralyzed or he's not in the mood to be creative." In which case, he doesn't deserve to rehearse.

Inspiration and intuition are, therefore, more important than anything cerebral.

Equally new - and from the same land - is an EP from Minsk's Silver Wedding (Серебряная Свадьба), with the strangely brief title of "Ag." And - yet again - the Moscow press has paid attention. The band is famous for its celebration of various East European cabaret traditions and generally theatrical or "thespian" air, with countless costume changes and/or props. There's an overarching sense of pre-Revolutionary cafe culture, with all the decadent undertones one might expect. 

Silver Wedding ("Серебряная Свадьба," Minsk)

Silver Wedding create a world populated with clowns, jesters, and jugglers - all filling the stage with their dramatized ditties. Songs become the interconnected narratives of various social outsiders - amid the absurdity of surrounding experience. If we take those clowns as metaphorical "performers" - as mirrors of the band itself - then Silver Wedding are dramatizing the lamentable fate of naive artists in the modern world. A pragmatic business or society has scant time for stargazing romantics.

Childhood was the time of my brightest memories and experiences. It shaped me as a human being

Front-woman Svetlana Ben' just spoke to Afisha, specifically regarding the emphasis of "Ag" upon its central theme of youth. "That's a time of really important, even painful emotions in life - and a general maximalism, too. I'd say there are two types of people in the world: those who remain linked in some way to their childhood, and those tied to experiences of their [subsequent] youth. I probably belong to the former group; childhood was the time of my brightest memories and experiences. It shaped me as a human being... My life is still shrouded in those emotions and recollections today. Maybe that's even typical for most folks - I mean the general inclination to enter a childlike state from now and then." 

This penchant for childlike spontaneity brings us back to how Ben' and Silver Wedding interpret their cabaret aesthetic. "Cabaret has always been an extremely multifaceted art-form, within which the main thing is private or self-expression. It always involves some sort of ringmaster and compere on stage or, more accurately, an artistic frontman. He's the person who sets the tone of the show. If he's an anxious, spiteful, or sarcastic type, then he'll create a socially driven, penetrating spectacle [around him]. If, on the other hand, the ringmaster is inclined to pluck at your heartstrings, he'll create more of a singalong atmosphere. Then, as a third example, somebody who's prone to hot-headedness or desperate emotions, even, will give the cabaret a real 'hooligan' tone!"

Feelings are prior to perception. Emotions shape self-expression and one's view of the world.  

Predictable unpredictability at a recent Silver Wedding show

This conviction that verity operates, in some form, prior to modern and rational experience is clear in a couple of new releases from the Sketis label. Sketis specializes in modern interpretations of a Slavic folk heritage. One such publication, reflecting the same intentions, is from Moscow: Vozvraschenie (ВозвращениE or "Return"). That stage-name immediately speaks to a nostalgic gaze, cast lovingly backwards. On a more mundane level, the band was formed in 1999 by Sergei Kalunnikov with the explicit hope of "interweaving sounds from the past and present. In that way we managed to erase any difference between rhythms of a modern city and the Siberian taiga." Vozvraschenie have played at a wide range of festivals around Russia, especially at events where the appeal of something ancient and "elemental" is most evident.   

Either by will or by destiny, a heart and soul return to their origins

The title of the group's newest LP is rendered as "Spring Land," in the sense of spring water. It's a metaphor invoking an original source, so to speak. "Spring Land is an image of both Mother Earth and Love. It's the image of a planet that gives birth to creative people, who - in turn - offer their kindness and warmth to others... Either by will or by destiny, a heart and soul return to their origins. You'll have the sensation of experiencing something that happened very long ago."

Verity again resides in the past, long before any human planning or pretension. The greatest distance from modernity lies, perhaps, in the aforementioned taiga, about which Kalunnikov has said the following: "Three years ago, we found ourselves at a tiny railway station outside Yoshkar-Ola. All along a riverbank we could see rare stalks of hogweed sticking out. They had long since dried up, so we carved them a little with penknives in order to make clumsy but functioning didgeridoos. Then the three of us - like mammoths! - went wandering along the edge of the forest, trumpeting loudly and heralding the start of spring. We could have woken bears in our path!" The musicians soon headed off to play at a local festival, inspired by the surrounding primordial landscape and having expressed some equally ancient emotions.

Spontaneity and feral self-expression offered the best preparation before going to work. 

Vozvraschenie ("ВозвращениE") at a recent folk festival, "Troitsa"

Vozvraschenie have sometimes likened their craft to the wandering minstrels or harlequins of medieval Slavic culture, the skomorokhs. "Their performances were simple, yet both radiant and full of rural creativity. These men did not limit themselves to performing spiritual verse; they'd also ridicule the vices of society's elite - or mock local officials who were undeserving of their power. Songs, nursery rhymes, and spells... they've all survived until our age thanks to the painstaking work of collectors and other guardians of Russian culture. A lot of these materials include pagan motifs, which was yet another reason to subject the skomorokhs to severe persecution."

There's a direct connection between the skomorokhs, the poets of Russia's [fin de siecle] Silver Age, and our rock musicians in the 1980s

Childlike, yet knowing spontaneity worried the powers that be. "Children of nature" were seen as both troublesome and unpredictable in places of power. "I reckon there's a direct connection between the skomorokhs, the poets of Russia's [fin de siecle] Silver Age, and our rock musicians in the 1980s," who created free-spirited protest songs during perestroika. 

Nature proves an equally potent source of wisdom for another Sketis project, Algambra (Альгамбра), also from the capital. "We are a world music project, combining various ethnic trajectories. Music of the Near East, India, and the Mediterranean is interwoven in a minimalist spirit of contemporary harmonies." One Moscow observer notes: "The compositions segue or slide into one another, creating a sonic flow with elements of some Eastern melody, perhaps flamenco, Indian music... and other influences."  

The band members are keen to divorce these sounds from any one physical location. "We actually don't play ethnic music in the strict sense of the term. That would require an upbringing in the East itself or, to take a contrary example, we'd need to become aboriginal Australians. Instead our music allows you to surround yourself with a rush of various sounds. It's important not to treat this as background music!"

Algambra ("Альгамбра," Moscow) and founder Yuri Rubin

Currently the project lists eight members, but on-stage photographs of Algambra suggest the line-up is rather flexible. Whatever the case, Yuri Rubin (above) is considered Algambra's founder and frontman, himself a percussionist and expert on the hang drums. On his social networking profile, Rubin states his guiding principle as "shanti," or the ancient Indian notion of inner bliss. He then quotes the teaching of an Indian spiritual leader who currently enjoys a certain reputation in Russia.

Music reminiscent of something from a distant childhood

"Peace comes from a healthy spirit in a healthy body, together with a full awareness of our human brotherhood as sons of God. One [basic and relatively lowly] level of existence can be found in a stable condition of rationality, untroubled by fleeting joys, misfortunes, or disappointments. On a loftier level is an inner state of bliss - what we might call 'the coming into being' or Divine Realization. Be at peace with yourself, for then the surrounding world will also be at peace." 

Those people in the stressful Russian capital who attend Algambra's concerts will often link these concepts and sounds to pre-adult, elemental experience. "To see Algambra live is to experience a magical moment, because their music is reminiscent of something from a distant childhood. This is despite the fact that some of the musicians' instruments were invented only in the Twenty-First Century." Another attendee of a show this year comments: "Some of Algambra's compositions will whisk you away, as if in a beautiful dream, while others make you want to move with the beat - and dance, even."

For all four of these projects from Belarus and Russia this week, a studied distance from modern, rational, or adult experience promises a great deal. As Port Mone said, this is a "return to something natural, pure, and essential within the human spirit. In other words, something outside of social conditions and norms." Yoshkar-Ola marks the edge of Siberia's taiga. Apparently that's far enough.

Algambra and the incorporation of some very distant sounds

Related Artists