You would have to think that a huge, ethnically diverse and culturally rich country such as the Russian Federation would be rich in folk art. And you’d be right. You’d also imagine that when it comes to folk music, there would be more to it than balalaikas and “that weird throat singing thing from Siberia.” And you’d be right again. This amazing and extensive new set of contemporary folk music from the German label and distributor CPL Music, Folk & Great Tunes From Russia is your proof. There is some throat singing – which I happen to enjoy – but as far as I can tell there’s nary a balalaika in sight.
This two-CD set of 35 selections of modern “Russian” roots music shows what a rich, varied and vibrant folk music scene the country has. As in countless other places right now, musicians there seem to be bursting with ideas. Some are reaching for their own roots and making totally traditional folk records, others are adding touches of electronica, or resurrecting ancient instruments and embracing new ones, they’re singing and playing old songs in new ways and new songs in the old ways.
I was already familiar with a couple of the acts represented here, particularly Dobranotch and Vedan Kolod. As it turns out Daryana Antipova of Vedan Kolod was a driving force in this production, as label chief Christian Pliefke says in the liner notes, which he co-wrote with her. It started from “the idea to put together a sampler of Russian music,” and as Prof. Tolkien once said, the tale grew in the telling. “Daryana started sending me a whole host of fascinating artists and I was so impressed and, frankly, overwhelmed, that I was happy to put her in charge of the project,” he says.
Quite a few of the acts here come from the Moscow area, and several represent indigenous peoples in the Urals, Siberia, the far North and elswehere in the vast Russian territory. And there are a few from other locales including Omsk and St. Petersburg, where the new music is called Petersfolk.
I’ll start with what are emerging as my favorites, which come in different styles from various regions. One of the perkiest is Taisia Krasnopevceva with a song called “Stradaniya.” She’s Moscow-based, and the song is traditional with a modern arrangement, sung in a lilting style with no instruments, just two other singers in harmony or perhaps herself multi-tracked, providing a “taka-tin-taka-tin” kind of wordless vocalising. She’s an award-winning musician in a lot of folk settings (and plays hurdy-gurdy in addition to singing!), but this song seems different than much of her music that I could find online.
Vedan Kolod has two tracks here. This internationally popular group makes music from the Krasnoyarsk area of Siberia. As far as I can tell both the songs, “Wreath” and “Witch,” are traditional and use traditional instruments like skin drums and jaw harps and zithers. I like them both but I love “Witch,” which starts off the second disc and has some sort of drone like perhaps a hurdy-gurdy, and polyphonic singing by Antipova and her two band mates. Mesmerizing and energizing music.
“You can never stand still!!! You must always move forward!!!” appears to be the motto of the Mordovian ethnographic ensemble Merema. They also have two cuts here. Both “Gorkan Nastas” (Disc 1) and “Kelgoma min inzinke” (Disc 2) are traditional songs with mixed-sex (but mostly female) polyphonic singing – the latter in particular reminds me of some of the Ukrainian and other Slavic music I’ve heard.
I seem to be getting in a rut here with traditional polyphonic singing, so I’ll mention the stunning song “Rusalka” by Moscow singer Alyona Minulina. She’s set these traditional lyrics in a modern arrangement and sings in a style that seems to blend trad and modern. She’s backed by a thoroughly contemporary ensemble that includes what I’m guessing are the polyphonic pan flutes known as kugikly, vocal scat-like percussion, piano, electronica, and electric bass. I can’t find out anything about Eduard Andrianov except an Instagram account, but I’m intrigued by the song “Kama Island,” which again features traditional lyrics by a female ensemble in an ultramodern setting of synths, a bed of electric guitar chords, and dancehall bass and drums. He’s listed as being from Perm, a city near the Urals. Varvara Kotova is the powerhouse singer who fronts the Moscow group Varevo. Their very polished “Molodaya” is a beautiful rootsy song with subtle electronic touches, droning accordion and bass.
Both discs are well sequenced. As a generalization, they lead off with acts that blend traditional and modern to varying degrees, then finish with a blend of very trad and ultra-modern tracks. So on the first disc we get a mix of the likes of the Yakutian group Ayarkhaan that blends deeply traditional ambience and chanting with synth strings and a driving dance floor shuffle beat; the traditional Tuvan throat singing and standard singing of Huun Huur’Tu frontman Radik Tulush, backed by bowed strings and electric bass; the driving big band folk of Dobranotch with elements of klezmer and Balkan played on clarinet, blatting tuba, clattering percussion, wheezing accordion and multi-part male vocals. Toward the end of the disc come the howling “ethno-electronica” of Sage, a bombastic yet mesmerizing melange of didgeridoo, vocals, throat singing and electronics; a project called ShooDJa-ChooDJa whose lead singer’s day job is as a kindergarten teacher – their “Akashka gur” is a trad tune and lyrics in a setting that blends what I think of as New Age and experimental electronica – elements of TMBG, Björk and Mitski. In the middle of these is Dmitry Paramonov, a highly regarded maker of the gusli, a traditional zither or psaltery that comes in many shapes and sizes but resembles what we call a hammer dulcimer. He accompanies himself on one of his instruments as he sings a lengthy song called “Egory,” an ultra-traditional, even stark arrangement that is transfixing.
Disc 2 has one more each from Ayarkhaan, Dobranotch, Vedan Kolod, Radik Tyulyush and Merema, all quality tracks. There’s more Petersfolk here, including the electro-ethnic jam “Caravan” from EtnoZapil. This live version is one of the few videos I was able to track down of songs that are actually on this album.
Also from St. Petersburg comes Karelia with their song “Hot Sun,” which is like a slice of late-70s Topanga Canyon folk, complete with flute. The singer has a totally amazing voice and the song itself is stunning. (This group is not to be confused with the “Karelian Folk Ensemble” which tours the world with traditional music from this republic next door to Finland.)
On the more traditional side are the vocal ensemble Beneath The Clouds, whose “Nightingale” sounds very much like American shape note singing; and Grey-haired Ural from the Perm area, which combines standard and throat singing with plucked and bowed stringed instruments, flutes and some percussion.
Groups like Zubcy and Juncti, both of Moscow, combine trad with modern elements. The very post-modern Zubcy’s “Zakl Zag” blends ambient sounds, Tver’ horns, electronica and more, while Juncti’s “VPM” starts with strummed acoustic guitars that give way gradually to samples, behind lilting folksy vocals. Those taking folk music farther away from tradition include Kosmonavty , bombastic prog-folk-rock from Moscow complete with (possibly sampled) trombone and violin; the Tatar group Juna, who only seem to be a Portland indie-folk collective that somehow ended up in Russia; Staritsa, who I think of as The Decemberists of Belgorod, making folk-rock with male-female harmonies, electric guitar solos, accordion, and ethnic instruments – you can listen to this track on their Bandcamp page; and last but not least Gilead, Omsk’s answer to Jethro Tull. I mean, srsly; check out their Facebook page. Their song “The Witcher” is post-folk prog rock with a heavy Medieval vibe.
Folk & Great Tunes From Russia though awkwardly named, does a bang-up job of sampling contemporary Eurasian folk music. Listening to this two-disc set with its ample liner notes and lots of links to follow is a major time commitment, but if you are like many of us right now, you have lots of time on your hands. So snuggle up with your comrade, your shot glass and bottle of vodka and give it a spin.
(CPL Music, 2020)