Volga: "A Touch of Pagan Psychedelia"

Fun on the farm.  The picture above was taken at a recent festival staged by Russia's best-known rock station, "Nashe radio" (Our radio).  These gym rats are rockin' out to a performance by Volga, who define their work as "Slavic psychedelia that encompasses new global folk music."

That doesn't sound like the kind of thing that would get Old MacDonald onto the dancefloor.  Nonetheless, this muddy intro does help to show how "our" rock music in Russia very often uses the kind of folk elements that Anglo fans would consider an aesthetically misguided throwback to the '70s.

Stairways to heaven, "bustles in the hedgerow," bubble-perms, etc.

On stage at the same event, Volga looked as above (the station's large logo of a transistor radio with two dials fills the canvas backdrop).  Their appearance here would suggest they could be lumped in with other ensembles who use Russian folk music to foster ideas of nationhood, but it's the adjective "psychedelic" that bumps Volga out of the canon.  They use it more in the sense of Goa than Glastonbury - though there's evidently enough mud to go around.

The band is essentially a foursome: Angela Manukian on vocals, Roman Lebedev and Aleksei Borisov (keyboards and guitar), and it's all enhanced by the percussive talents of Uri Balashov.

They define themselves as: "A fanciful blend of postindustrial electronics and archaic percussion, coupled with the boundless and finely-nuanced voice of Manukian, chanting her melodic interpretations of Russia's ancient ritual songs.  The former style might have rough analogies in Western experimental music, but the project as a whole doesn't really fit any traditional categories of elektronika/world music, Russian or Slavic folk - even 'pagan' music."

A good indication of this unique mix comes from the first of three recent tracks: "Rubakha" (The Peasant Shirt").   A great big, touristy cliche of Russian folkways, the motif is nonetheless turned to very novel effect.

This sonic revisionism is all lovingly fashioned so that listeners can "ascend beyond the mundane, into a world of mysteries and forest spirits - to a whirlpool of cosmic resonance where we can reveal new facets of our consciousness."

Psychedelic, indeed.

Formed in Moscow in 1997, the band have managed eight releases; a ninth is due very soon.  This impressive catalog from four space cadets is grounded in an equally industrious, meticulous approach to the gathering of materials.  Not only are the widest number of regions possible represented in Volga's discography, but the band - especially Manukian -  works hard to respect the local dialect and even intonation of the originals.

The band popped up in recent, related post yesterday, which led to this contribution.  In that earlier text we mentioned how Volga's use of these romantic, yet precise references comes from affection, rather than any ideological or teacherly purpose.  This is sensed in the number of diminutives throughout Volga's tracklists, such as "Vdovushka" here ("The Little Widow").

And so for all the spacey talk of "expanded consciousness" or flights of fancy, there's a very grounded aspect to what the band does.  It's fair to say that most of the folkloric or rural elements in Russian rock music today are used for two purposes: they suggest either an "Orthodox" outlook or knowledge of "Lord of the Rings" verbatim.

The former tendency is then mixed with centrist politics by bands who shall remain nameless, or loses itself in weekend fan-clubs that dress up like goblins in order to hit each other with garden implements.  In St Petersburg, for example, it's not uncommon to see pensioners heading off to dacha vegetable plots with the occasional teenage Hobbit or princess warrior in their midst.

As this image shows, though, Volga are busy doing something else with folk culture.  They're creating "a fusion with techno, trance, and breakbeat.  It's all mixed with elements of noise and the sound of archaic instruments.  The result is a danceable, ritualistic music - with a touch of pagan psychedelia."

While much of Russia's past is being dragged into one city's policy or - conversely - exiled to places of extreme fantasy, Volga are vivifying ancient traditions.  The band is making them relevant and subject to constant reinterpretation, thus making it harder to speak of the "folk" as one entity.

Final word should go to the four musicians, who - through their performances - hope that "a healing takes place for a Russian world that's fast losing its identity."  Music, en route to wellbeing, can offer a "revitalizing connection with the magic of old Russia... leading to a sense of harmonious coexistence."

It's that overarching, ever-changing air of "celebration and connectedness" that should stop the svelte tractor-drivers in our first picture from jumping up and down in the name of "one culture."  It should stop them dressing up as Xena, too.

Audio

Volga – Rubakha
Volga – Tausen
Volga – Vdovushka

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