I like listening to ethnic dance music because it inspires me. I hear melodies built on scales not common in western music. I perk up when tempos change. I imagine dancers moving to unique rhythms. Often called the "National Dance of Ukraine," the Hopak isn’t constrained by tempo or melody. That’s probably because it’s supposed to evoke improvisation that allows dancers to express themselves. They also usually end fast and furious, some even with lively Ukrainian marches.
When I first heard the Samovar Russian Folk Music Ensemble, it brought back memories of my many visits to the Northwest Regional Folklife Festival at the Seattle Center. That’s where I first heard the emotional, danceable tunes from the Ukrainian tradition. Based in Washington, D.C., the Samovar Russian Folk Music Ensemble formed in 1996. They play at venues like the Smithsonian, Hillwood Museum and Gardens, Russian Embassy and Ambassador's residence. Whether serving up polkas, waltzes, hopaks or songs, the group has established a cohesive sound emphasizing vocals, balalaika and accordion.
The two women vocalists (Anya Titova, Olga Rines) are folklorists with a strong calling to preserve messages of their traditional musical heritage. On their 2007 album, Some More of Our Best, songs are driven by feelings of the heart, with many allusions to the trees, river, garden, moon, fields, flowers, sea and wind. In some cases, these natural elements calm one's heart. In other cases, they serve as parties in conversations and lyrical discourses that may question or provide advice. The CD jacket includes both Russian (and English translations) for all of the songs.
Instrumentally, Samovar features Michael Nazaretz (accordion), Yelena Rector (prima domra), Rick Netherton (contrabass balalaika), and Ilhan Izmirli (alto balalaika, guitar). Netherton's showcase piece is "Korobushka" (Little Peddler Box) with his walking bass line and a featured break. The spotlight shines on Nazaretz when he becomes the sole accompaniment to Anya Titova's singing of "Odinokaya Garmon" (Lonely Accordion) that poignantly asks "Why are you roaming the whole night alone? Why are you keeping the girls awake?" The CD's closing tracks refer to gypsy songs. Samovar probably enjoys going to the forest where they can sing, dance, drink wine and eat borscht and caviar by a river.
The Hopak has parts where solo dancers, usually male, perform amazing acrobatic feats such as jumps, kicks, squats and spins. Other parts have everyone moving in unison. As in many Ukrainian dances, the dancers, especially the women, don’t stop moving until the dance ends. Because of the energy required to perform a successful Hopak, the dance is usually performed at the end of a program. Accordionist Nazaretz tells me that their arrangement intersperses the basic folk tune with three interludes, all written a decade ago by their mandolin player at the time, Alex Gakner. (Alex is celebrating his 90th birthday in late March, 2012. Happy Birthday Alex!)