Whenever discussions are conducted in the Russian press about how - or if - domestic artists might cross over into the Western market, one of the most successful examples of all is often ignored. In 2003, the country ensemble Bering Strait was nominated for a Grammy and the same musicians were afforded much attention on American primetime media. True, sales may not have matched those of Tatu, but in terms of critical respect and institutional acceptance, it's hard to find a more positive example.
So who were these five Slavic exponents of classic country and bluegrass? They were - and remain - Russian artists from Obninsk, a town associated with high-end scientific research and located maybe sixty miles south of Moscow. The distance between Obninsk (close to Kaluga) and the Grand Ole Opry could not be greater - and yet it was traversed. In style.
An ability to create intensity without melodrama
The ensemble would disband in 2006, but its members have continued to make music - often within Nashville. One of them is Natasha Borzilova, whose own biography reflects the proud traditions of Obninsk: her father was a nuclear researcher and died tragically as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. Now a solo artiste, working very far from home, she maintains an important bond with her Russian past while simultaneously fashioning a career in Tennessee. Penning stories that speak to a woman's experience in either country, Borzilova has collaborated with top-notch Nashville session musicians, included those employed by Robert Plant. It's hard not to be impressed by her ability to enter - and then persist within - an extraordinarily distant, different tradition of songwriting.
The US folk market has certainly paid attention to these efforts, gracing Borzilova's earlier album with a top ten chart position. Speaking not long ago to the Nashville press of folk and/or country narratives (not to mention two lands and languages!), Borzilova interwove her Slavic and American roots as follows. "I've always wanted to record my favorite Russian folk songs, to put my own [Nashville] spin on familiar material." That dovetailing of styles is then extended to metaphors of harmony between two countries - or, on a smaller scale, between two individuals.
As we can already see, emigration would become the starting point for a wealth of appealing symbols: “The theme of many of my songs is finding a balance. Some of them deal with issues of integration, in other words finding a balance within yourself. Other tracks [working along similar lines] are concerned with finding the balance in a relationship." Between opposing states and sentiments, a range of compromises is found.
The theme of many songs is finding balance. Some of them deal with issues of integration
The best or most striking example of these bridging patterns - in several senses - would be the folk song "Rechka," covered by Borzilova a few years ago and closely related to the ballad "Razlilas'," which is known and loved by fans of Siberian singer Pelageya. Full of Russian melancholy, it tells of a young woman's death in a river - and how her spirit is then absorbed into the silent landscape. Various aspects of her lost purity are embodied by the water, pebbles, and reeds of the place where she perished. One life surrenders to an endless process. The singular dimensions of one body become space, pure and simple.
Distance and difference are therefore overcome - just as they are in several songs on the brand-new album, "Out of My Hands." The title alone speaks to a quiet submission to something bigger and better; it suggests that certain obstacles, such as a foreign land, language, or tradition, should not be cause for worry. In a world of myriad differences, these and other forms of alterity are, oddly, reason to celebrate. Difference leads to improvisation and therefore discovery.
The album as a whole, full of similar stories, will be available in two weeks, initially from the artist's own site. Its eleven songs continue to the development of a most impressive career.
Jazzator (Moscow): Marina Sobyanina and Sergei Balashov
A related outlook is clear in the springtime album from Moscow's Jazzator, fronted by the remarkable voice of Marina Sobyanina, who is supported by her colleagues percussionist Sergei Balashov and saxophonist Oleg Mariakhin. The band's newest recording - soon to be published - is entitled "The Dom(e)" in English and "Дом" in Russian. Over the course of sixty-four minutes, the musicians claim to traverse a wide "range of moods – all the way from drama to comedy and even gentle meditation."
That submission to happy, even liberating inconsistency is branded by Jazzator themselves as the "use of unconventional harmonies and rhythmic structures to create vivid musical images." Can we give these improvised sketches a degree of verbal specificity, though?
There's a frantic wavering between alternatives. It soon becomes a state of virtual hysteria...
Thankfully Sobyanina and her team-mates provide a verbal context for each of the tracks. Here we've chosen the opening two numbers, "Hustle-Bustle" and "Jabberwocky’s Morning." The latter composition, of course, offers the more specific imagery of Lewis Carroll, rebuilt in detail for us by Jazzator as if a screenplay: "A camera floats along the Jabberwocky’s formidable belly as he sleeps peacefully... The horizontal rays of a morning sun pierce the dusty air. The Jabberwocky’s nose starts to twitch... and the big fellow wakes up." Oddity and "monstrous" surprise come to life.
The improvisational wizardry of Sobyanina's voice is visualized as something bizarre indeed. That promise of revelation - of places and forms unknown - is then handed over to the symbolism of "Hustle-Bustle." "It's a musical depiction of making choices - tricky choices. Your heart flutters under the pressure of time. There's a frantic wavering between alternatives. It soon becomes a state of virtual hysteria and then, for better or worse, a choice is made."
Jazzator: Sergei Balashov, Marina Sobyanina, and Oleg Mariakhin
The departure from normality promises a great deal - and much risk - whether it's viewed as the entrance into a new land or language, or as an unfamiliar kind of musical expression. "The Dom(e)" is further proof of Jazzator's status as one of Russia's most consistently challenging acoustic outfits. Never a dull moment...
Elsewhere - in St. Petersburg - two more surprises emerge from a couple more artistes. The first of them extends the discography of Sasha Almazova, front-woman of Non Cadenza. This band has garnered a solid and hard-won reputation far beyond the limits of their northern hometown. Their music has likewise been heard from the same stage as Moloko's Roisin Murphy and - in quieter surroundings - within the soundtrack to national TV dramas, broadcast across Russia and Ukraine.
A melange of jazz, soul, a dash of hip-hop, and other stylistic innovations, too!
Moving with much gusto across various styles or genres, the band picked up a national pop award in Moscow last year - and then played at the prestigious Usad'ba Jazz festival a few months later. This fruitful inconsistency was recently assessed by one Moscow journalist as a melange of "jazz, soul, a dash of hip-hop, and other stylistic innovations." Novelty comes from an crisscrossing of traditions; it comes, in other words, from leaving the comfort of home.
Such bold imagery - and a related, intrepid spirit of adventure - is possible thanks to the cast-iron support of Non Cadenza's other members: Viktor Savich (bass), Aleksandr Potapov (drums), Arman Sidorkin (keyboards, vocals), Andrei Polovko (saxophone), and Aleksei Degusarov (guitar). Together celebrating the benefits of an impromptu craft and jeopardy, the band members have said: "Whenever we play our old songs live, we always try to give them a new sound. Sometimes that bothers a few people - but it's just the way we work."
Jazzy elements designed to create a warm, romantic atmosphere
These ideas now take shape in a great new single, "February Disco." The promise of change and chance is celebrated in a track full of "jazzy elements designed to create a warm, romantic atmosphere. The cold weather of this year's winter - at long last - will finally leave us alone!" We've also added another uptempo number - entitled "Dance!" - from the band's recently available album, "Beskonechnost'" (Eternity). Together they show how Non Cadenza continue to handle western traditions of jazz, funk, and disco with aplomb.
One needn't necessarily move into foreign realms to sense this creative liberty, though. Also from St. Petersburg, Non Cadenza's friend and colleague Nina Karlsson has just moved "back" into her native tongue after a range of releases in English. In various earlier interviews, Karlsson had always said that the choice of English was something "fortuitous," rather than planned. She has now given a little thought to the expressive opportunities available in a Slavic register - and justifies the benefits.
Aleksandra (Sasha) Almazova, lead singer of Non Cadenza
Karlsson began her studies of English as a very young age; that prior experience can now be joined with some other events from years gone by. In both instances, youthful effort is producing adult gain. In other words, she also has a one-act ballet in her back catalog; that theme of choreography, first developed years ago, is now revisited in the title of a brand-new song. "Ballet." As suggested, this is a Russian-language composition, which has been announced online together with "Volna" (Wave). One by one, these brief materials are being published in quick succession, all en route to an EP.
I've only just realized how I can write in Russian. And how much I want to...
What, therefore, is the logic behind this homeward trajectory, towards a native tongue? Ms. Karlsson - who recently married Vasya Vasin, lead-singer of local hip-hop outfit Kirpichi ("Bricks") - spoke to the Russian press. "Of late, I've been writing more and more in Russian. I've come increasingly to feel the 'depth' of my own language. You can live your entire life and only realize some home truths - all of a sudden! - when you're sixty. As far as I'm concerned, I've only just realized how I can write in Russian. And how much I want to. The time has come..."
A couple of days ago, Nina Karlsson was talking again to the Russian press about the meaning of "Ballet": she referred to the tendency of Russian or Soviet media to show ballet at a time of "important," if not tragic events. Tradition is used to hide the shock of something traumatic. "It's a song about how many fine Russian writers, directors, actors, poets, and musicians we've lost over the course of the twentieth century... We so rarely see talented people who try and keep our culture alive..."
With two songs released from her patriotic EP, there's one more yet to come. One more surprise - and therefore another promising, maybe risky potential. Nina Karlsson's songwriting appears to have benefitted greatly from a move to her own language - and, oddly enough, the emergence of novel options. Sometimes the greatest opportunities lie very close to home - as long as they're something different.