Sunday, December 3, 2017


Russian folk music spans many ethnic groups and cultures. Each group has their own varieties and music and dance. Folk music is still quite popular and is often tied with many of their cultural celebrations. However, during the Soviet era, folk music was seen as something different. It was either for the people (democratic) or for the working class (proletariat). Art music was often seen as being higher-class. Traditional folk music was even pushed as an alternative to other Western music. 

This is a contrabass balalaika. File this instrument under "Size doesn't matter."

In the earliest days, the Russian Orthodox Church banned musical instruments, saying they were from the devil. (No, just the woodwinds. Just kidding, I love my woodwind-playing friends.) Singing became the preferred means of music (they obviously have never heard what I call Old Lady Soprano), used for both singing religious songs and songs about village life. It’s no wonder that Russia has developed some of the world’s finest choral ensembles. Some of the more common instruments include the balalaika (a triangle-shaped, 3-stringed instrument), domra (Russian version of the mandolin with either 3 or 4 strings), gudok (pear-shaped bowed instrument), a couple of different kinds of accordions (bayan, garmon), svirel (Russian flute), volynka (Russian version of the bagpipes), zhaleika (Russian clarinet/hornpipe), and several different percussion equivalents. 

There are several types of Russian folk dance. One of the more common types is the khorovod, a circle dance where dancers hold hands and sing. Others include a bear dance (where dancers dress as bears), the kazachok (of Russian and Ukrainian origin, literally “Little Cossack”), the kamarinskaya (a quick tune accompanying a squatting dance called the kazatsky), and the chechotka (a tap dance typically in woven shoes made from bast [fibers from the bark of certain trees]). Russia is also well known for its ballet schools. And of course, it's acrobatic Cossack Dance.

As far as classical music goes, Russian classical music goes back to court music and religious music. It wasn’t until Mikhail Glinka focused on secular music and wrote some of the first Russian operas. Along came a group of composers known by the nickname “The Might Five”: Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Cui, and Balakirev. One of the most famous composers is Tchaikovsky, and perhaps his successor Rachmaninoff. The 20th century brought along composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Scriabin, and Shostakovich. 

As far as modern music goes, I found several that I liked. I had long been a fan of t.A.T.u. since they first came out on the music scene. They gained a lot of attention because no one could really figure out whether they were lesbians or not (gasp!). Their music is half pop, half techno. And that’s what I liked about it. 

Another group that has made the news many times is Pussy Riot. When I first started hearing about them, it was kind of awkward because of their name, but now, thanks to “grab ‘em by the pussy,” it’s no longer quite as awkward. They’re quite open about their opposition to the Putin and Trump administrations. I really wish they’d make a full-length album. I love their style. I'd totally buy it.

I came across quite a few indie and alternative bands that I could get down with. I’m just gonna list them here: Mumiy Troll (kind of reminds me of the Brazilian band Skank in a way), Zemfira (a good example of creating catchy songs with the minimal number of chords possible), Splean (for the most part, tends to be a little slower), Bi-2 (sounds like they would be good friends with The Smiths. Maybe.), Zveri (a little harder, with a 1990s sound), and Korol i Shut (definitely a harder sound on this one, almost punk at times but then they’ll change up to a classical/folk sound). 

I listened to Leningrad, who has almost a gypsy punk/spa sound, eerily a lot like Gogol Bordello (who I’m a big fan of). There’s one song that uses asterisks in it, indicating it’s a bad word, but it’s in Russian, so I have no idea what it is. It’s a little anticlimactic. Another ska band I came across is Distemper. Pretty catchy stuff.

One metal band I found is Mechanical Poet. They mixed a lot of strings into their music as well, maintaining a goth sound to their music. And like t.A.T.u. and Pussy Riot, they also sing in English. Arkona is another folk metal band I came across as well.

There were even a couple of hip-hop groups I listened to. Bad Balance is one I listened to. The flow and rhythms were pretty good and the underlying music was pretty catchy. The same is true for Vlady & Kasta. Kirpichi is a little different because the music underneath is closer to rock beats, although they will use other styles.

I even found a Russian reggae band: Jah Division. I’m a fan of global reggae, and it always amazes me that everyone adds a little bit of their own flavor to it. In this case, there is a very prominent Russian flair to it.

There are also several DJs and electronic artists out there that span many different sub-genres. A couple that I listened to was Serebro (more club dance style crossed with pop) and Otto Dix (like a cross between folk metal and electronica. Rob Zombie meets The Nightmare Before Christmas).

Up next: the food

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