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20 Jan

Evgeny Kaprov (Belarus)
New Eastern Europe, April 1, 2013


The Hidden Fruit of the Underground

In Belarus, the most vivid, original and interesting music is based solely below the surface of society. It is not supported by government institutions and is often completely ignored. Yet, dig a little deeper and a thriving underground music scene can be found, with bands that are more often recognised outside of Belarus than inside.

Navigating the music industry is like walking through an orchard. The visible fruit isn’t necessarily delicious, yet they are easy to pick. Just stretch out your hand! Pick and eat; and if you don’t like it – spit it out and pick another one. Yet, there is so much fruit hidden beneath the leaves or hanging high out of reach! To taste them, you have to make an effort to find them.
Music in Belarus, however, is more like a potato plant. The top of the potato plant, the leaves, are the “stage” singers who routinely appear in the state-run mass media. In fact, it seems like the word “stage” was developed during the times of the Soviet Union. This was the way to refer to the artists of any genre who managed to struggle through the Soviet censorship barrier and make their way to the stage. In Belarus, many regard the “stage” as a carpet, inherited from your grandmother. It’s a pity to throw it away, but yet it’s shameful to show it to guests.

Biologists contend that eating potato leaves can cause poisoning and even death. The edible part of a potato plant is hidden and one should look for it. The vivid, original, and most interesting music in Belarus is 100 per cent underground, below the surface, and isn’t supported by government institutions. It is hard to imagine the representatives of the “stage” as being “mainstream” (something corresponding to the European concept of “mainstream” simply doesn’t exist in our country!), as they are busy “consuming” public resources, and spark very little interest amongst the public.

S: Black lists

In Belarus during the late 1980s and early 1990s, rock bands such as Krama, Mroja and Ulis emerged. These groups sang about critical social issues, not in Russian, but in Belarusian. Mroja’s frontman, Lavon Volski, said in a recent interview with www.kulturaenter.pl: “I consider 1984 the real starting point, when Mroja participated in ‘The Week of Visual Arts’. We went on stage and played a rock show in the Belarusian language. Everyone understood that rock music emerged in Belarusian. Of course, we did all this very awkwardly and were rather an amateur band, but with interesting lyrics for the time and up-to-date music. A period of stagnation then came. Belarus became independent. It seemed as though there was nothing to struggle against. Yet Mroja were a team of fighters. We kept on rehearsing and considered our future. When Alyaksandr Lukashenka took over as president, the problem solved itself. Favourable conditions arose, in the form of a lot of new problems which emerged in society. Thus the band N.R.M. (Niezaležnaja Respublika Mroja) was formed, and we have achieved success with this project, which has never before been achieved in Belarus.”

Since then, the quantity and quality of protest rock bands has been on the increase, and their relationship with the state can be described as bad, or non-existent, because the government prefers not to pay any attention to this process. From time to time a “black list” appears with the names of bands and artists whose concerts are prohibited. The humour of the situation is that the officials practically deny the existence of such black lists, although their actions can hardly be missed.

On March 2nd 2012, another mythical black list appeared on the internet, which included Belarusian bands such as Palats, N.R.M., Lyapis Trubetskoy, Neuro Dubel, Krambambula, Naka and many others. Concerts of the blacklisted bands fell through due to various reasons beyond the control of the musicians and organisers. In some cases, the reason for cancelling a concert was said to be an allegedly leaking pipe, an electrical problem, etc.

During a press conference on January 15th 2013, Lukashenka answered the question about these prohibited musicians: “I would like to see those whom we prevent from singing, dancing or anything else. Believe me, I have not given such instructions to anyone. And I presume, if someone criticised the country, and someone else pays for it, let him hear the songs.”

The disgraced rock bands are always looking for ways out. Many of them regularly give sold-out concerts in Vilnius, Prague and Berlin. Eugene Hütz, the frontman of Gogol Bordello, called Krambambula the “Eastern European Mano Negra (a band from France influential in Europe and Latin America during the early 1990s – editor’s note).” And for Belarusian fans, going abroad is the only opportunity to experience a live performance of the group. On the day of Krambambula’s concert in Vilnius, the check points at the Belarus-Lithuania border could barely manage the flow of fans trying to get to the concert by car.

On the other hand, actor and musician Leonid Pashkovskiy believes that in the future, the prohibited bands would face the fate of the former soldiers from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel The Road Back: “I am becoming more and more convinced that being a part of the protest scene is not an inspiration. For some it has become a mode of existence; when your art only exists and is perceived due to the prohibition (or largely due to it). Without prohibition some musicians would have nothing to say.”

S: Political connotation
The very essence of distinguishing the Belarusian underground scene is that the musicians who take a strong stand against the government mostly use the Belarusian language as the language of their performances. And in my opinion, by virtue of a wrong stereotype: the Belarusian language means opposition. Young groups adhering to neutrality consciously avoid using the national language in their work, and are even afraid of it.

Yet there are always exceptions. The Mogilev post punk band Akute (formed from the remains of the prohibited punk rock group Gluki) caused a real furore within two years of their existence. They took part in a scandalous film, Above the Sky, opened up for the famous British group Placebo, and recorded two albums which were positively acclaimed by “underground” critics (there are no other critics in Belarus!). The members of Akute have done more to popularise the Belarusian language than many projects under the auspices of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

In an interview with the Belarusian portal ultra-music.com the members of Akute said, “Our music and the themes of our songs don’t suggest any evident political implications whatsoever; except for perhaps the Belarusian language, which itself has a very interesting political connotation, starting approximately from the 1920s. Should we wish to be a political band, we would be one. But it is not because we are intentionally doing or not doing something. It is just happening. For us it is indeed very easy to compose a political chant, a hymn or something like that. A dozen bands like N.R.M. could be started, each one better than the other. But this would just be ‘artificial’ rubbish.”

As a result of the official bilingualism as well as the forcible Russification in Belarus, a language dialect “trasianka” has emerged in Belarus (primarily composed of Russian vocabulary and Belarusian phonetics and grammar). Some bands were careful to utilise this unique phenomenon. In the early 2000s a project named Sasha i Sirozha was created by Sergey Mikhalok, the leader of the iconic Belarusian band Lyapis Trubetskoy, and artist Alexey Khatskevich. With brisk ska arrangements, the musicians performed brutal songs about the lives of two country boys. Lyrics from their texts have turned into aphorisms. The group ceased to exist due to a ban, but their place was taken by another Minsk band Razbitaye Sertsa Patsana (RSP).

Almost all of the members of RSP work in the Free Theatre, which is known amongst the theatre stages of the world, and is also prohibited in Belarus. RSP is one of the few indie-rock bands in Belarus which regularly attracts a full house, mostly thanks to its ability to create a special atmosphere during their performances. However, even in spite of the sold-out concerts, most musicians still can’t fully concentrate on their creative work or abandon their primary employment. In an interview with ultra-music.com, Vladimir Shablinskiy, the head of the concert agency, The Line of Sound, recently commented on the current situation: “Today, the stuff broadcast on the air is of the same format as was played during my days at Radio BA between 1993 to 1996. Of course the singers have changed, but the inarticulate musical substance of the same genre still remains. The taste of a general radio listener without access to the internet is influenced by radio stations. Both young and middle-aged people think that the stuff broadcast by their local FM radio is up-to-date, while in fact it is total rubbish. And here lies the problem that concert organisers have to face [in Belarus]: the desire to bring a band to Belarus which is contemporary, but which only 500-600 people in the country know about.”

This is the basic reason for the fact that the Belarusian capital remains the main and only cultural centre of the state. Although the major target audience of young bands has almost completely migrated to the internet, another problem of underground music is that there are no professional managers, promoters and music video directors in Belarus.
A rare example of professional management is the project of Alexander Bogdanov, who established the promo group BOpromo. Initially, Bogdanov paid attention to the most non-standard underground bands as well as groups who perform in the style of von Trier’s Dogville.

Due to his efforts, the cabaret band Serebryanaya Svadba have become one of the flagships of Belarusian music abroad, with regular performances in Germany and France. And the Russian version of Rolling Stone magazine has begun writing about the electronic project Kassiopeya, the boogie band RockerJoker, the psychedelic folk group НАГYАЛЬ (Nagual) and the post punk band Petlya Pristrastiya, calling these bands “a Belarusian breakthrough”.

The Minsk indie-rock band, The Toobes, is known as the best live group in the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Its members actively participate in Polish, Swedish and other European festivals, and share the stage with the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Beady Eye and Deep Purple. Paradoxically enough, the history of the Belarusian music has seen a lot of instances when artists which attract 200 people to concerts in their homeland, get to become the headliners of European festivals. This is even more relevant to such extreme genres as death metal, deathcore, post-hardcore, and the traditionally strong genre in Belarus – folk-music.

Among metal bands, Gods Tower, RaSta and Vicious Crusade have been well received in Europe. One can distinguish them as young, yet very promising hard-core groups. They have already signed contracts with various Western labels, including Rogue Records America, but are still treated as dark horses in Belarus. This list also includes Dead Silence Hides My Cries, Main-de-Gloire and BFI.

S: National pride?

At the last Koktebel Jazz Festival in Ukraine, I was approached by a young man who asked for a few hryvnias to buy some bread. His face was covered with a thick and untrimmed beard, but he was dressed neatly and tidily and had a big backpack on his shoulders. His appearance cleared my suspicions that he was a beggar, and together we strolled to the closest shop to get some bread. On the way he told me that he came from Kyiv and that he had hitch-hiked throughout the whole territory of the former Soviet Union. He then asked where I was from, when I said Belarus, he started humming Tuman yarom – a Belarusian folk song. The version he hummed was that of the folk fusion band Jambibum. According to him, this version of the song is one of the hymns of committed hitch-hikers in the former Soviet Union, and virtually all of them know it.

A few years ago, despite being one of the most interesting folk groups, Jambibum started to stagnate. After successfully participating in the Polish Union of Rock, the Flader Pop Festival and the German Rock 4 Peace festival, the band ceased giving concerts in Minsk, and almost all of the members of the band emigrated to other states in the CIS. Only the flautist, nicknamed Grusha, stayed in Belarus. Grusha is a contemporary example of a shepherd playing his pipe. Having no musical education and being illiterate in musical grammar, he created the wind parts which even Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull would be envious. Grusha now makes his living by busking in the tunnels and underpasses. According to rumours, the money he earns is sufficient to pay not only for his rent and food; he also sends a share of it to his parents living in his provincial hometown.

An example of the relationship between Belarusian officials and Belarusian folk-musicians, which one would think to be a source of national pride, is the band Troitsa. For almost 20 years this ethno-trio has toured half of the world and merited the title of one of the best folk groups on the planet. The musicians create songs that traverse cultures, using unique instruments from different countries. The instrument collection of its leader, Ivan Ivanovich Kirchuk, numbers around 250 of various unique pieces. Officials in Belarus, however, ignore Troitsa and call them an underground band.

However, notwithstanding all the unfavourable conditions, factors and conventionalities, the musical life of the Belarus hasn’t disappeared. The process continues. New artists and bands appear; and they record something without any real hope of becoming famous or popular. Why? Just because there are always people who find it an interesting thing to do. And in my opinion, the hidden fruit and the underground “potato” of Belarusian music is well worth digging up.

Translated by Olena Shynkarenko

Evgeny Kaprov is a journalist with the Belarusian music portal ultra-music.com.

Originally published: http://www.pocketmags.com/viewmagazine.aspx?catid=1032&category=General+Interest&subcatid=260&subcategory=News+%26+Current+Affairs&title=New+Eastern+Europe&titleid=1546&issueid=56269&issuename=Issue+2+%28VII%29+-+2013