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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


The New Folk Music: A Primer
Text Andy Potts

Alevtina at Dikaya Myata

Iva Nova Arty at Ikra Club

Alexei Agafonov of Butterfly Temple

Inna Zhelannaya

Sergei Starostin

olk music conjures images of old bearded men in chunky knit sweaters tapping out the beat with sandaled feet (and socks, of course), right? Well, not around these parts, especially when you’re talking about Russia’s latest reinvention of its folk traditions. Blending old-style instruments with a punky aesthetic, weaving sinuous folk tunes into a heavy metal morass, or merging medieval sound with modern electronic, there’s a new wave of independent Russian music making over the past.

In some respects this is nothing new. Almost from the moment Peter the Great decided that his new European city needed new European classical music imported direct from Italy, Russia has been looking for a way to combine its own powerful musical culture with “foreign” forms. From the 18th-century choral compositions and Orthodox liturgical music of Dmitry Bortnyansky to the work of the 19thcentury Slavophiles led by Mikhail Glinka, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and others, music became a rallying point for the country’s distinctive cultural identity.

Yet today, scanning the airwaves, it can easily sound as though the battle has long been lost. Western-style rock and pop, once the illicit voice of another world, has seemingly achieved an unsatisfactory conquest of Russia’s ears. Banshee balladeers, buxom blondes, strangely ugly boybands, and a universal love of the flamboyantly camp seem to have dragged Russia into the mediocre embrace of Euro-kitsch.

But listen again: Even within the charts, a few acts are starting to return to more authentic Russian sounds. And outside the mainstream, a burgeoning underground of folk-infl uenced rock is straddling a bewildering range of styles from heavy metal to hip-hop. As before in art-music, Russia’s pop musicians are switching from imitation to innovation.

Break out that accordion. Apparently, it’s hip again.

The most audible example is probably Byanka, the self-hailed “Queen of Russian folk R ‘n’ B” and star of the Pistolet label. Simply by incorporating a Russian-style accordion sound into many of her songs she has created a distinctive fusion — try last year’s hit “Pro Leto [About Summer],” with its video clip referencing the Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga and her house on chicken legs. (What, can’t picture it? For a visual of the house, see Marina Lukanina’s article on Russian children’s literature on page 26 of the September 2008 issue of Passport) By using more traditional melody and harmony, Byanka overcomes one of the greatest challenges of Russian pop — shackling the unique rhythms of the Russian language to the alien, foursquare beat of Western popular music.

But for a truly compelling mélange of old and new, it’s time to hit Moscow’s alternative clubs. From the self-consciously artsy Dom to the grungy Proyekt OGI, from hard-rock haven Relaks to the chic Gogol, it’s possible to find bands successfully reworking folk traditions into new and exciting forms.

Take Petersburg female five-piece Iva Nova, among the leading lights of the folk-punk movement. A pair of clarion-voiced sirens singing in close harmony, supported by a demon accordionist weaving a supple melody over a storm of percussion. The sound is intoxicating and energetic from start to finish.

The band’s direction of late adds a harder electro edge to their sound. Flame-haired Amazonian princess Nastia Postnikova combines singing with controlling the sequencer, allowing guitarist, singer, and founder Inna Lishinkovich to share center stage. As a result, their music has become rockier and heavier than ever before, with the delicate word-play of their Chemodan [Suitcase] album lost under a storm of sound and scat singing. However, when the tempo drops and Lishinkovich picks out a tender chord, she draws an audible breath and goose bumps rise throughout the hall.

Ultimately, though, it’s the infectious danceable energy that makes the band a resounding “must hear again” hit. Tracks like “Vedma [Witch],” “Vyun [The Ivy],” new song “Suomilainen Polka,” and the bizarre polyglot “Georgian Jazz” veer off into a high-octane world as if a Slavic Nick Cave had told his Bad Seeds to quit the miserable stuff and play him something he can dance to.

Not that Iva Nova produce the heaviest variant of contemporary folk. That prize goes to the pagan metal fraternity. Prone to interrupting their sets with staged sword fights, bands like Butterfly Temple (their name is in English), Ivan Tsarevitch, and Arkona have attempted an unlikely reinvention of folk music as hard, dark rock.

Often the effects are more visible than audible. Butterfly Temple take to the stage in Ukrainian-style peasant shirts, Ivan Tsarevitch are fronted by a Cossack take on Richard III, and Arkona embrace medieval warrior chic. There are few attempts to use folk instruments, though melodies carry a hint of the modal harmonies of ancient Rus. And it is a semi-mythical image of ancient Rus, the polity that pre-dated tsarist Russia, that provides much of the lyrical inspiration as well as a good deal of the nationalistic controversy which follows these bands. The faint-hearted may prefer less extreme versions such as and their regular Folk-Insanity parties.

Far less controversy surrounds Kostroma folk-hip-hoppers Komba Bakh, despite the similarly patriotic lyrical bent of “Trety Rim [Third Rome]” or “Ya Russky [I’m Russian].” Musically they are odd, with live sets typically alternating acoustic hiphop numbers with “pure” folk, often betraying a Belarusian infl uence. Adding mandolin-style strings and flute to the mix reinforces a folksy feel, while lyrics are delivered with rather more irony than the po-faced metallers manage (which may explain the lack of knuckle-dragging fans).

So far, few folk-fusion artists have found their way into the CD racks of Soyuz and similar chain stores. Among the best of those who have are Melnitsa [Windmill] and Inna Zhelannaya, though the similarities between these two acts end there.

Inna, previously leader of the Farlanders, has pursued her own path, sometimes described as “prog-psychedelic- folk,” which blends jazz and electronica with simple, traditional tunes. Allied with her powerful voice, the effect is spectacular — especially live. Surrounded by an ever-changing array of top-notch instrumentalists (currently including sax star Oleg Maryakhin), her sound never gets stale, and a typical set offers incredible variety. Inna switches effortlessly from the vague, wispy contemplations of “Zima [Winter]” or “Mysli [Thoughts]” to the ethno-Depeche Mode synth meltdown of “Rusalki [Mermaids].” She still has time for collaborations with Tuvan throat singers Huun Huur Tu and live shows with her mentor, legendary folk artist Sergei Starostin, which are a special treat. Catch Inna at IKRA on Oct. 5 and PodMoskoviye on Oct. 25

Komba Bakh DOM

Melnitsa take a different path, sharing a sound with British ‘80s girlygoths All About Eve. Fronted by the multitalented Khelavista, they represent the most accessible branch of contemporary folk. Think longhaired girls in smocks and flowers in their hair forming a large circle around an outdoor stage and you’ve pretty much got a Melnitsa gig. Which is no bad thing. Sadly, they are taking a sabbatical while Khelavista pursues several solo projects, but in the meantime former singer Alevtina continues to use some of their songs in her own live sets.


Despite its community-center ambience, Dom (24 Bolshoi Ovchinnikov Pereulok, bldg. 4, tel. 953-7236, 953-7242, M. Novokuznetskaya, is one of the best places to hear interesting folk-fusion and other artistically inclined acts from all around Russia and the rest of the world. Tickets start at 300r but climb steeply for international guests. The in-house CD shop is among the best in town.

Relaks (7 Ul. Melnikova, tel. 970-3633/675-9146, M. Proletarskaya,, Tochka (6 Leninsky Prospekt, bldg. 7, tel. 737-7666, M. Oktyabrskaya,, and Plan B (7 Ul. Sovietskoi Armii, tel. (903) 755-9493, M. Novoslobodskaya, are hard rock clubs that oft en showcase pagan- and folk-metal groups.

Gogol (11 Stoleshnikov Pereulok, tel. 514-0944, M. Kuznetsky Most, and Bilingua (10 Krivokolokolny Pereulok, bldg. 5, tel. 623-9660, M. Chistiye Prudy, are two of the nicest cafe-style venues, with midrange prices and a wide range of local bands in all genres.

Proyekt OGI (8/12 Potapovsky Pereulok, bldg. 2, tel. 627-5366, M. Chistiye Prudy,, Zhest 13/16 Bolshaya Lubyanka Ul., tel. 628-4883, M. Lubyanka,, and Kitaisky Lyotchik Jao-Da (25/12 Lubyansky Proyezd, tel. 623-2896, M. Kitai Gorod, are typical grungy, studenty basement bars with low prices and an intimate atmosphere — usually the places to catch these bands at their best.

IKRA (8 Ul. Kazakova, tel. 778-5651, M. Kurskaya,, the city’s best mid-sized club, can be a bit lifeless without a decent-sized crowd but consistently books the top acts from outside the mainstream.

PodMoskoviye (1/42 Ul. Klementa Gotvalda, tel. 540-5095, M. Podolsk,

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