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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Bands of the CIS
Text Andy Potts

Alina Orlova


Zdob si Zdub

Vaikuso Kuunolok

Vopli Vidopliassova

Deti Picasso

Vagif Mustafazade


rom two men dressed in what might have been the remains of the dog which attacked them outside Novokuznetskaya metro station to an Armenian Bjork-alike morphing into a female Freddie Mercury as soon as she found a bigger stage, Moscow’s music scene is never short of surprises. And many of the most intriguing have arrived here from the far-flung reaches of the former Soviet Union. Just as Russia’s folk heritage is undergoing contemporary scrutiny on a scale unseen since the mid-19th century, so her neighbors are doing much the same thing with their own diverse range of traditions. Whether your tastes run to a Ukrainian dominatrix Barbie Eurovision star, a Minsk-based drum’n’accordion duo, or blends of classical opera with Azerbaijani folk music, there’s something out there for just about everyone — some good, some bad, and some just plain weird.

The Western Reaches

In Europe we got our first flavor of these acts from the Eurovision Song Contest: Moldova’s debut entry, Grandma Bangs the Drum [Boonika bate doba], was from Zdob si Zdub. This flamboyant folk-rock ensemble was written off as a novelty act after an upper mid-table finish at the song contest, but remains one of the biggest bands in the former USSR. Their stage shows are a manic frenzy of energy, with fur-hatted front man Roman Iagupov leading the way. Along with the classic ingredients of a rock band, Zdob si Zdub bring a variety of folksy wind instruments, mostly played by a genial fat man with a pork-pie hat. And, as the rest of the band takes a well-earned break, Victor Dandes remains on stage to perform pipe solos of surprising delicacy before the mayhem resumes. As with many of these bands, the local variant of the bagpipe puts in an appearance: In Moldova, tartan octopuses are slimmed down and fur covered, slightly resembling an unfortunate ferret.

It was also Eurovision that unleashed Ukrainian folk-disco on an unsuspecting world, thanks to Ruslana’s winning entry in 2004. Her Wild Dances may have triumphed due to her revealing leather outfi ts as much as her music, which blends traditional music of the Hutsul people of the Carpathians with a primeval beat, but they quickly established her as the marketable face of Ukrainian pop. Which is a bit tough on bands like Vopli Vidopliassova or Ten Solntse. The latter groups have combined original folk tunes, folk-infl ected motifs, and traditional instruments to create an absorbing rock hybrid. Vopli Vidopliassova’s brand of ska-influenced folk-rock has made them regular and popular visitors to Moscow’s clubs.

But it is perhaps Belarus, the land often dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship, that has provided some of the most distinctive bands of the musical genre-bending world. Anyone familiar with the local folkrock scene will have come upon Osimira, renowned for their “ethnographic” shows based on Kryvian folk. A typical evening starts with two guys in furry loincloths taking to the stage. Gradually joined by more musicians, including a violinist in a red dress with cheekbones to die for, they produce a pipe-heavy music, and the percussion section powers up a huge noise. In the studio they veer toward electronica as part of the side-project Pragnavit, inspired by ancient pagan Belarus and swathed in sounds of nature. Like the concept, the results are slightly piecemeal, ranging from slick contemporary ambient to 1970s whale-song meditation tape.

But nothing like Gurzuf, a bizarre drum and accordion pairing. On paper it looks like it should be a disaster, but the sheer virtuosity of accordionist Yegor Zabelov overcomes any gaps in the sound. Shy between songs (though blessed with the same epic cheekbones as the Osimira violinst mentioned above), he comes to life when performing, whipping up a storm of sound which is by turns densely choral, bewilderingly polyphonic, jarringly dissonant, and intermittently melodic. The pairing is a spin-off from “freak cabaret band” Serebryannaya Svadba [Silver Wedding], which is itself worth hearing for their reworking of French chanson.

The Caucasus

The proud nations of the Caucasus boast varied musical traditions. Azerbaijan, for example, likes to credit itself with originating the idea of folk-fusion with the premier of Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s “Mugham-opera” Leyli and Majnun in 1908. Hajibeyov took a Romeo and Julietstyle love story, stretched it over a traditional western operatic framework, and added arias in the ancient mugham style, beloved of wandering bards for centuries. That set the tone for a century of innovation in Baku, with Vagif Mustafazade pioneering mugham-jazz at a time when the Soviet frowned on the infl uence of “decadent” Western musical styles.

More recently, though, the neighbors have taken up the trend. Armenia’s Deti Picasso, fronted by brother and sister Karen and Gaya Arutyunyan, blend ethnic sounds with rock and psychodelia. On a small stage, Gaya adopts a marionette- like persona at times, with small, jerky movements that call to mind her kooky Icelandic soulmate, Bjork. At a larger venue, however, the caged animal is unleashed, strutting and stomping like a rock god and reminiscent of Freddie Mercury “if he came from Armenia and wore a dress,” commented one showgoer. Which is perhaps less unlikely than it sounds! Their second and fourth albums, Ethnic Experiments and Turbo Maririk, turn up the amps and rock, largely in Armenian; the third, Mesyac Ulyboc, uses a string quartet and develops a gentler, more lyrical sound in Russian.

Across the border in Georgia, trends have been more electronic. The likes of Assa and especially Sameba have taken the wild dances and delicate love songs of the high peaks of the Caucasus and woven them into a mix of club beats and ambient soundscapes. While both acts are hard to find in Russia, Sameba’s eponymous 2001 release is defi nitely worth seeking out — anyone who enjoys the likes of Banco de Gaia or even the morphing monks of Enigma will find something to relish here.

The Baltics

In the late 1980s, they talked about the singing revolution in these parts, with Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian folk festivals becoming a focal point of resistance to Soviet rule. Perhaps surprisingly, though, contemporary pop in this region tends not to retain a strong echo of that era. The Eurovision acts that put these states on the musical map were more Mediterranean than Baltic in sound, and bands like Latvia’s Brainstorm sound more like art rockers Mumiy Trol than folk rockers Kalinov Most.

Latvia’s Dzelzsvilks are among the most interesting of the acts who do attempt to fuse old and new: The title track from their most recent album, Uija Uija Nikni Vilki, is an engaging sea shanty, while other songs work the plangent cadences of Latvian folk into a gentle rock framework. It’s all a bit like Counting Crows.

As for the neighbors, Estonia’s Vaikuso Kuunolok claim to be creating a 21stcentury folk music. Unfortunately, on the evidence of their festival shows in Russia this year, the Tartu-based band are more interesting when they focus on the folk and tone down the fusion. Too many good ideas became self-consciously arty, and difficult to hear. Th ere are better prospects to the south, where Lithuania’s polyglot Alina Orlova has been steadily winning fans across the former Soviet Union with a blend of singer-songwriter angst in the Tori Amos mold coupled with traditional Lithuanian sounds. She’s a regular visitor to Moscow, with a recent well-received gig at IKRA.

Central Asia

As the moment, the so-called ‘Stans are perhaps less fertile ground for musical innovation. This isn’t to say that rock music hasn’t penetrated into the heart of Asia — Kazakhstan, for example, boasts an enthusiastic heavy metal scene. But for various reasons, traditional genres have tended to remain precisely that. In some cases this has been an act of political will. Countries like Turkmenistan have spent much of their post-Soviet history creating a national self-image. In practical terms, it makes it hard to blend traditional and modern when the traditions are still being created. Further east, the cultural infl uence of China is much stronger than that of Europe and the U.S. Not surprisingly, then, the Chinese model of producing entirely Westernstyle rock bands — such as the Beijingbased Nirvana sound-alike Cold- Blooded Animal — is more commonplace in these countries.


All have extensive download sections with MP3 and video clips and some English-language material.

There are similar resources on, but only in Latvian.

Ruslana’s photo album is perhaps the highlight of, while contains an extensive discography in Ukrainian.

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