Volga: The Unique Beauty of "Tough" Folktronica

Russia's most famous and fashionable exponent of folk music, Pelageia, recently said of Anzhela Manukian, vocalist with folktronica kingpins, Volga: "She's an absolutely crazy woman - in the good sense of the word! She's a really cool singer. She represents a widespread situation today... since Russia has no idea who its real heroes are. People here simply don't know enough about these kinds of performers."

She's an absolutely crazy woman - in the good sense of the word! She's a really cool singer. She represents a widespread situation today... since Russia has no idea who its realheroes are. People here simply don't know enough about these kinds of performers.

Pelageia, showing admirable optimism, nonetheless believes that a market exists for these "unknown heroes" of modern, groundbreaking sounds - based on the songs of the past. "There are lots of people in Russia who are willing to listen to a different kind of music - not the stuff that's coming from limited radio or TV formats. These folks are perfectly capable of choosing what they'd like to hear. For some strange reason, the individuals who run radio stations usually decide what we 'ought to hear,' and they therefore decide what we will or won't like, also... Somebody, for example, made the decision to play MakSim 50 times a day, and therefore make her popular. If, however, the same radio representatives played Volga 50 times a day, then they'd not only be popular, they'd be nurturing the seeds of something proper in the public, too!"

Volga, apparently blessed with this magic skill of "cultural nurturing," have been the subject of our attention on several occasions, beginning in the Fall of 2008, when we wrote:  "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 electronica/world music, Russian or Slavic folk – it doesn't even fit into ‘pagan’ music."

Formed in 1997, the band has just released a free-for-download EP as harbinger to a new album. Entitled Kumushki p'iut ("The Good Women Drink"), it comes with the following text in Russian. "The Moscow ethno-electronic project Volga is offering up three new tracks. Anzhela Manukian remains the band's singer, composer, and ethnographer; she maintains her penetrating, lyric voice with its mystical, enticing overtones. Anzhela's task is to gather and rework authentic Russian texts in the context of her dual background, both as a chamber and jazz vocalist. She has acquired an expertise in the vocal techniques not only of Russian folklore, but also of the ethnic heritages of Altai, Central Asia, the Northern Caucasus, and Balkans."

This academic background is furthered explained: "Manukian has long had an interest in Russian folklore. She has made serious studies of specialist literature and archival documents, too; these sources come to life in her various folk projects. They find expression not only in her collaborations with people such as Sergei Starostin... but also with the duet Species of Fishes and 'art-group' Sever. With the wide range of her vocals and other facets of her creativity, Anzhela amazes the public."

These qualifications may sound more like self-justification than self-promotion, but they are certainly embraced with gusto by some factions of Russia's folkloric community, especially in the realm of event and festival organizers. Last month, for example, Volga played at a folk festival in the ancient town of Aleksandrov, shown below. "The event offers a historical trade-fair, music from the stars of folk-rock, and Russia's State Tournament of Historical Fencing for Women[!].  It all ends with a beautiful evening firework show! One of the festival's main attractions is the fairground, where long rows of stalls stand side by side with gaming arenas, competitions, and other marketplace fun! You'll have the chance to see how ancient craftsmen once worked: blacksmiths, toy-makers, carvers, and you'll also have the opportunity to take home lots of souvenirs yourself!"

Somewhere in here, amid the profiteering and the puffy shirts, is the music: "The main town square will host the well-known group Volga, led by Anzhela Manukian. Volga have won various international competitions and headlined overseas folk festivals, too. Ian Anderson chose Volga to perform with Jethro Tull in the Kremlin...."  If the band's opening PR text stresses the academic credentials of Volga, then this second, promotional blurb for events such as the Aleksandrov Fair sounds suspiciously touristy. Placed side by side, the two texts and their discordance all speak to the tricky positioning of folk music in Russia.

The main town square will host the well-known group Volga, led by Anzhela Manukian. Volga have won various international competitions and headlined overseas folk festivals, too. Ian Anderson chose Volga to perform with Jethro Tull in the Kremlin....

Pelageia deserves loud credit for returning serious, emotionally engaging pathos or drama to the folk tradition, stealing it back from the sugarplum stagings of TV and, in fact, Soviet habit. Socialist media was always happier with rosy-cheeked milkmaids than with witches or other symbols of subversion. Far from the Moscow's TV towers, though, these ancient narratives continued to play a very different role; Russian folklore was - and a remains - a traditional means of coping with often horrifying climatic, geographic, or social challenges; it frequently is not the sphere of children's bedtime stories.

Volga, traveling further down the same dark road into an unpredictable forest, usually promote themselves in ways that stress this scary aspect of folklore even more clearly. "Volga's music is grounded in a synthesis of dance beats with traditional Slavic polyrhythms. It's all combined with atmospheric, ambient electronica and [industrial/abstract] noise, plus acoustic percussion and 'ecologically pure' melodies. The words of their songs are authentic texts taken from various times between the 12th and 19th centuries." The ensemble conjures a daunting sound for an equally daunting time-span; these, once again, are not the tools for lulling children to sleep. Likewise, their very inclusion in a medieval fair seems bizarre.

There's a logic here, consequently, that folklore - especially in the darker, more disturbing forms of folktronica, acts as a barometer for acceptable degrees of social honesty. By that we mean the following: if the nation is willing to admit the true, disconcerting scale or seriousness of civic failings, often far from the capital, then the same country will surely be ready and willing to accept traditional tales of woe. Those tales will have actual, believable points of reference in real life, all over the land.

But if, conversely, a warmed-over conservatism prevails in widespread/state media, endlessly intent on glossing over those same provincial woes, then folklore - i.e., the tales from those provinces - will be reduced in national television to charming verse about pixies, gnomes, and Easter eggs. Nobody will admit to dangers that lurk behind the bushes, either in political or musical narratives.

In other words, whatever hides in distant forests can either be admitted to and dealt with... or sidelined by hordes of smiling, delusional squirrels.

For these very reasons, Manukian recently said: "You won't see Volga on national TV in this country for the next fifteen years or so. And as for radio, you'll only hear us in the kind of shows that run long after midnight." That does not bode well for an open debate of related civic issues from those same dog-eared villages, yet here we return again to the suggestions made by Pelageia at the outset. Acceptance of these traditions, their bold drama, and modern relevance is a matter of slow acclimatization; musical "norms" are not objectively existent in any a priori fashion.

They are made and remade every day by habit. And so hope endures.

Just as gradual admissions or increasing knowledge of Russia's shambolic workings, across the oft-ignored countryside, might actually help to establish better, more honest civic machinery nationwide, so the slow inclusion of a sonic shambles(!) would reveal a broader, healthier and more honest soundscape, too. Put differently, aesthetic norms - in Pelageia's words - of "proper," self-respecting creativity would no longer be established by foreign models or glossy, centralized corporations with no moral objection to epic levels of payola.

The gnarled, tangled roots of future creativity would come to light, unsightly though they may be... The fog of foreign dry ice would also lift.

Manukian noted exactly this process of slow, initially painful(!), antidotes against foreign pap... When Volga took the stage as warm-up to Ian Anderson, the local public was not initially happy. "Volga's a fairly tough outfit to listen to, at least from the point of view of your typical individual - who's had no warning! People with a normal, i.e., classical attitude towards music would have problems, too... When we took the stage, though, by the time we got to the tenth bar, folks in the audience started listening in perfect peace and quiet to ancient charms or protective spells, all set to music. After each and every song they were soon applauding with evident pride for this kind of Slavic, epic performance."

Ten bars are all that's needed: the brief distance between denial and "evident pride." Pelageia should be armed with handfuls of CDs to be secreted around national radio stations. In a time and place where patriotism informs politics - and therefore national, state-run media - with such evident import, one would like to think that Russia's best-established, most serious exponents of folktronica, of a modern, vivid heritage, would at least be afforded some decent furniture. There remains much work to be done.

Audio

Volga – kumushki1
Volga – Mala nochka_01
Volga – Zacharovan_01

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