Sasha Almazova of Non Cadenza (Saint Petersburg)
The Saint Petersburg jazz/soul outfit Non Cadenza is proudly announcing a new album in the world's most northerly city; it bears the same title as an introductory single, issued only two weeks ago. Both publications are called "Neprilichno," i.e., "Indecent." Lead singer Sasha Almazova adds a little context: "Despite the album's title, you won't hear anything improper or slanderous! The thing is that we live in an often absurd world - in a society where everything's either back to front or upside down. Things that used to be forbidden or considered indecent have now become commonplace. The same changes have happened in the artistic world, especially in music."
Our music is deliberately performed [only] in Russian
A new interview with the Russian press has provided more detail: "If you take a look at Russian show business today, your success is probably determined by the number of ringtones you sell... Our story is totally different, however. We're closer to a lot of underground bands, really, in the best sense of that word. I never feel like we're truly successful, despite the fact we're constantly giving shows. I only ever feel like I'm giving 10% of my full resources! I just want to work more and more..."
Popularity, of course, depends upon the categorization of a recognizable, repeatable notion - fame is both qualified and quantified by something audiences want more than once. It requires a name. When it comes to branding Non Cadenza, the band insists on the peculiar designation "Russian soul."
Once more, Almazova steps forth with some helpful background information: "Why Russian soul? Well, all of us in Non Cadenza were raised on Western music. I mean Incognito, Ray Charles, or Earth Wind & Fire, for example. I myself listened to loads of female jazz singers. All that goes back to an African-American heritage. Whatever we produce is going to be filtered through our personal musical upbringing; the kind of singing I like best, the performance style that's dearest to me is soul. There may be lots of nods towards Western culture in our songs, but the music of Non Cadenza is deliberately performed in Russian alone. That's what we mean by Russian soul."
Yarga Sound System (Petrozavodsk)
She continues: "You can't really define us as a bona fide jazz band - even if we've become renowned in those circles. But if you turn to the realm of pop music, people will say it must be jazz, because it's complicated! In other words, complexity immediately gets labeled that way. Whenever you hear a saxophone, that's 'jazz'! We don't seem to fit in anywhere - and that's why I decided we'd refer to ourselves as Russian soul!"
We don't seem to fit in anywhere - and that's why I decided we'd refer to ourselves as Russian soul!
This use of non-membership as self-definition overlaps with another, simultaneous debate regarding the first WOMAD festival to be held in Russia. Founded in 1982, these events - dedicated to a "World of Music, Arts, and Dance" - have been associated with the pioneering efforts of Peter Gabriel and his colleagues: Thomas Brooman, Bob Hooton, Mark Kidel, Stephen Pritchard, Martin Elbourne, and Jonathan Arthur.
Over the ensuing 32 years, WOMAD has celebrated a wealth of traditional and fundamentally non-commercial performance arts at festivals in 27 nations. That list now includes Russia. "WOMAD Russia" just took place in the nineteenth-century, southern spa resort of Pyatigorsk, set among the Caucasian mountains. That address might suggest the proximity of troubled lands, such as Chechnya, and indeed the event did seem threatened by possible cancellation until a couple of large corporate and state sponsors helped to allay fears - or simply pay for security.
Some of the attendees are already familiar to readers of FFM: Inna Zhelannaya, Pelageia, Yarga Sound System, Sergei Starostin, and Nino Katamadze. As the last performer in that list implies, many of these musicians came to Pyatigorsk from the edges of an erstwhile empire, where Russian is fading fast as a lingua franca. The branding of the event as essentially "Russian," therefore, is moot. Arguably the greatest distance was traversed by Zulya, a Russian-born exponent of Tatar music who has long been resident in Australia. She emigrated, in fact, in 1991 - the year in which the Soviet Union quietly fizzled out.
Zulya (originally from the Izhevsk region, now based in Australia)
Born in the Udmurt Republic and raised in Tatarstan, she assembled her own musicians after emigration. They now play under a collective name that mirrors Almazova's convictions about "complex," hybrid songwriting and the odds of mainstream success: "Children of the Underground." Their first collaboration persuaded Zulya, whose surname is Karmalova, to place aside any dreams of an English-language career in primetime media. "I soon decided that so-called 'world music' was my forte. After all, I was a foreigner myself! I hadn't paid much attention to Tatar music before that; I also hadn't yet realized how important it would be for me."
Greater freedom was found in a sense of constant non-belonging.
Today's listener usually rejects whatever he's not familiar with. He has no faith in folklore
To some degree, the issues surrounding Zulya are reflected in the career of Inna Zhelannaya, another WOMAD attendee. Her initial steps in professional music also coincide with the end of the Soviet system, when Zhelannaya was involved both with rock group "Alians" and the widely respected folk archivist Sergei Starostin. By the mid-1990s, her material had been included on an international compilation that also involved Peter Gabriel. Little by little, a rationale behind her WOMAD attendance took shape. Indeed by the end of that same decade, she was garnering public attention at the top of various world music charts.
In a new interview, Zhelannaya has spoken with great admiration of the few remaining ethnographers who wander the Russian countryside, gathering examples of oral performance from aging villagers. How, though, to make that folk tradition more relevant for a younger generation? How, in simple terms, to make Russian music nationally pertinent today?
"We take those archival recordings - heaven only knows how old they are! - and we reinterpret them. With the help of modern technology we try sticking them in the ears of your average, modern listener! That same listener will protest, of course... He feels a kind of internal dissonance: something seems alien. People usually reject whatever they're not familiar with. They have no faith in folklore."
Inna Zhelannaya (Moscow)
There's a potential and unnerving, even "uncomfortable" autonomy to be found in whatever lies beyond the familiar classifications of generic tags, towns, and maps. In essence, Zhelannaya is offering an encounter with things uncanny. In a heartening manner, therefore, it's both good and gratifying to see even the cliched phrasing of Russian TV celebrate the appeal of whatever's not recognizable. One recent television documentary concerning Inna Zhelannaya's work in Russia admitted: "Critics find it extremely hard to define the stylistic trajectory of her work. It's an amazing mix of progressive rock, industrial, trance, psychedelia, and jazz. First and foremost, though, it's Russian folk music gathered from various regions around the nation."
Critics find it extremely hard to define her stylistic trajectory
That which is truly national has little patience for the lines, borders, and fixed boundaries that purportedly make a nation.
With all that in mind, it seems reasonable to ask whether any other of the Slavic participants at WOMAD Russia viewed "national" registers in the same way - as the product of some pre-national, even imagined habitus. A logical contender would be Troitsa ("Trinity"), the Belarusian outfit founded in 1995 by Ivan Kirchuk. Currently he is supported by colleagues Yuri Pavlovski and Yuri Dzmitriev. In their promotional materials, the trio have always been keen to avoid two likely, even predictable stereotypes: an assumption of overt patriotism and, conversely, the homogenized workings of "world music."
Somewhere between jingoism and globalized vagaries, Troitsa opt for what they call "folk fusion."
"Folk-fusion is a style that unifies various traditions, tools, and performance modes - together with a wide range of instruments. Troitsa weave modern sounds and rhythms into the traditional Belarusian song. The ensemble's members use instruments from almost every continent: Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe." Readers are then informed that if music were made on polar ice caps, it would also be included. In slightly more serious terms, these three men feel most at home with material that has no fixed home.
Pelageia (Svetlana Khanova, Novosibirsk)
Listeners in Belarus concur: "Over and above his efforts within Troitsa and his solo projects, Ivan Kirchuk regularly publishes field materials taken from his own ethnographic expeditions. They help to enrich the treasure chest of Belarusian culture, which grows richer and brighter with every year." In other words, these performers "enrich" a given heritage by interweaving it with disparate styles and places. The general tendency is towards variegation and diversity... all the way to Antarctica, if possible. And we've already seen that for several of the WOMAD performers, that same heritage is viewed as something prior to political geography.
Taken as true, those two bullet points lead us to suggest that one of the most harmful influences upon a national folk canon is the modern nation itself.
Instruments from almost every continent
The songs showcased in Pyatigorsk emerge, supposedly, from a time before passports and visas. Or at least they're imagined that way. They belong to no fenced, politically delineated realm. This appeal of non-membership, a liberty born of rejection, is apparent far from the stage at WOMAD. Throughout the history of twentieth-century Slavic popular music, both jazz and folk performance have been lumbered with all manner of cliches. If we travel back to the grimmest, most ideologized years of "light entertainment," censors in the Soviet 1930s were happy to brand jazz as the product of bourgeois cafes; folk performance, on the other hand, was crudely manipulated in order to generate themes of a "progressive" peasantry.
Better, against the backdrop of all that purposeful bluster, to reject categorization. The limitations of generic custom are swapped for nothing in particular. Presumptions are swapped for potential - for anything and everything.
Troitsa (Minsk): Yuri Pavlovski, Ivan Kirchuk, and Yuri Dzmitriev (L-R)