By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Jarring Trend Ruins Russian Folk Music

In continuation of the story I told (Jan. 6) about Hungary exporting a mixture of folk and renaissance music and dance 20 years ago mainly for consumption by foreigners, I must show you an article I wrote in 2008 about distortions and disturbing trends in the performance of Russian folk music. 

Although the focus was clearly on folk music, somehow this essay happened to take a quick look at the evolution of Russian music as a whole, tracing the different streams of music flowing in parallel trends and traditions, and also noting the revolutionary turn things took after the collapse of the Soviet Union: 

THE HINDU, Chennai
October 31, 2008
Parallel trends and traditions

. . . .  I came to know that a visiting ensemble called Russkaya Pesnya ('Russian Song') had given a performance of Russian folk music in Bangalore on October 14.  This information was given by Ms. Kala Sunder  —  who had studied Russian in Moscow and is a Russian-English interpreter now based in Bangalore  —  to my old friend RJ, who had been her father’s colleague in the diplomatic corps in Moscow. 

She said this event was organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and the Russian Embassy, in the context of an ongoing economic-scientific-techno-cultural exchange between the two countries, under which 2008 is the ‘Year of Russia in India’ and 2009 will be the ‘Year of India in Russia.’

Apparently a dozen cultural events have been organised in the Capital since February this year, and a few in Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore  —  including performances of folk music, chamber and church music, as well as Russian pop, jazz and rock-n’-roll.

All of which sets me reflecting on the evolution of Russian music in the Tsarist and Soviet eras, and the revolution which convulsed it towards the end of the 20th century after the collapse of the USSR.

Historic perspective

The progress of Russian music in the past two centuries has been rather complicated, with the clash and co-existence of parallel trends and traditions;  but the main developments can be summed up by the following remarks which I quote from online sources:

“There are about 150 ethnicity groups in Russia, each with unique traditions, culture and forms of music.  Initially folk music was mainstream, but [later on] Russia adapted to Western type of classical music...   Patriotic songs and music was created during the Great Patriotic War...   Soviet era [also] produced many prominent classical musicians...  

"During the period of Soviet domination, music was highly scrutinised and kept within certain boundaries of content and innovation...   After the fall of the USSR, western-style rock and pop music became the most popular musical forms in Russia.” (, and Wikipedia).

Parallel trends/traditions

It is important to note that the development of Western-European styles of ‘classical music’ during the 19th and 20th centuries (in the forms of opera or orchestral music) in the Tsarist regime, and the emergence of ‘people’s songs’ about rustic collective farms and romantic factories in the Soviet scenario, did not either suppress or substantially alter the folk music traditions prevailing in various regions of Russia. 

In fact, these relatively new trends (which turned into old traditions in due course) had derived considerable inspiration from the ancient folk music of the country, which had continued to flourish side by side with them.

That’s why even in the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet cultural festivals in New Delhi had featured folk music and dance which invariably created the impression of being authentic, although obviously trimmed and streamlined for presentation in concert halls abroad.  But later on we had started encountering ultra-modern Russian music which had somehow sounded artificial and seemed to lack the essential Russian character and nuances.

Jarring element

As Ms. Kala Sunder had lived and studied in Moscow and has a strong Russian orientation as an accredited interpreter, I asked her about her impression of the recent folk music concert in Bangalore.  I must say her answer by e-mail is perceptive, and has a loud and clear ring of truth:

“To me, Russian folk music conveys a sense of vast expanse, of the wide steppe and the slow-flowing rivers.  And often an underlying melancholy and desperation, even as it sets your toes tapping...  The Russkaya Pesnya’s concert opened with numbers with a modern orchestration, complete with a heavy beat and flashing lights that produced a disco-like atmosphere.  It was quite alarming!

"Even folk music evolves to suit contemporary tastes, but this was jarring.  If it was playing to the gallery, the gallery didn’t seem to appreciate it!  But the troupe moved on to more ‘folksy’ rendering and that drew louder applause.  Perhaps this was the wrong audience for this sort of experimentation  —  ICCR doesn’t attract the young.”

This impression is reinforced by online videos featuring the Russkaya Pesnya ensemble and its leader Nadezhda Babkina.  And samples of the music of the Aquarium Rock-n-Roll Band, which has also performed in the Year of Russia in India, illustrate the end-of-the-century revolution in Russian music.

But of course, some immortal songs such as Ochi Chorniye ('Dark Eyes') do transcend the folk music idiom and retain their true Russian flavour no matter in what alien mode they are rendered! 


Postscript, 2013
Frontierless Magic of Dark Eyes!

Regarding that last sentence, which I had scribbled in 2008  --  I had raved about this Russian song in a review in THE HINDU, New Delhi 25 years ago (quoted fully in Articulations Online, Rustic Rituals And Romantic Reveries, Nov. 2012)  --  and in this column a couple of years ago (Articulations Online, Ochi Chorniye, Oct. 2010).

Obviously, I do have a lifelong obsession with this amazing amalgam of art and folk music, which always sounds absolutely authentic, regardless of when and where in the world it is rendered, whether vocally or with instruments only, in whatever allied or alien mode or manner, as long as the performance has the hallmark of excellence.  It's sheer magic which seems to have no frontiers at all!

Why don't you just look for Ochi Chorniye on YouTube, see a dozen or more videos which will appear on the hit lists, and hear the evidence for yourself? 

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