Friday, March 14, 2014

Russia/Ukraine: Samovar Russian Folk Music Ensemble

Samovar Russian Folk Music Ensemble: Hopak Ukrainian Dance

Samovar: Samovar
Samovar: Samovar
Samovar: Samovar

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 celebrated his 90th birthday in March, 2012. Happy Birthday Alex!)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Russia/Ukraine: Iveroni

The Republic of Georgia was in the headlines in 2008, and it wasn't in regards to their music. I first heard Iveroni’s music at the very same time that Russia was aggressively invading the small, independent, pro-Western democracy to subordinate it and remove its freely elected President. After it arrived in my mailbox from their U.S. distributor, Beauty Saloon Music based in Belmont, MA., I immediately put on their album and said a prayer for the refugees who were being forced to flee from their homes in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions. 

Regardless of the tense situation in their homeland, Iveroni is a group of five young talented musicians (Roman Lashkhia, Gieorgi Chikovani, Davit Batiashvili, Davit Gogitishivili, Beka Tcertcvadze). Their instruments are the panduri, bass panduri, salamuri, and changuri. Their traditional songs emphasize vocals, and they relate stories of love, heroism, and brotherhood. Producer Nathaniel Berndt traveled to the old city of Tblisi to record Iveroni on location. Additional liner notes would've been nice to explain more about this group, their music and songs. 

That war with Russia left Georgia's countryside scorched by bombs and tank fire, and I wonder if Iveroni has songs that portray hope and optimism in such dire circumstances. Music often soothes the soul, provides assurance, and it can also inspire people to action. Peace and freedom were eventually restored to the Caucasus Mountains and Russian forces withdrew. We can only hope that the present conflict in the Ukraine is quickly brought to similar resolution.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Russia/Ukraine: Back in the USSR

[ The original TBCOU version -  Back in the USSR]
[ Purchase: Paul McCartney-Back in the USSR]
[ Purchase: current TBCOU version- Back in the USSR]

We've got both covered in the post: Russia and the Ukraine.

I'm crazy about Creative Commons. Create something and share it with the world while you keep the rights you want to keep. For 185 weeks, from 2009 to 2012, every Tuesday the Beatles Complete on Ukelele project released a new Beatles song under a Creative Commons license. Each "cover" included a ukelele among the instruments. I think it was via BoingBoing that I must have first learned about this and then religiously visited the site and downloaded each new [legally] free addition to the collection.

Some were better than others, but it is a collection that I am glad to "own". One of them, of course, was "Back in the USSR". "Own" is in quotes for two reasons: at the conclusion of the stated project wrapup date, the link to the online files became purchase files. That's their perogative I guess, but it leaves me wondering if the files I once-upon-a-time legally collected are now illicit. The second issue that leaves me wondering is that the original Back in the USSR version has been replaced with another that - I'm sorry - is nowhere near as good as the first.

Although I have my own copy of the first, I assume that whatever rights I was given when I saved my own copy back in 2009 do not confer "sharing online rights". However, I scoured the web and found a way to link to the relics of the TBCOU project in the form of an mp3 version they left active but not visible in their "podcasts". Not only have they left it online, but there are links to the "liner notes" from the original posting. They are worth reading. Let me tantalize you with an excerpt:

Presciently, the song begins with the sound of an approaching jet engine, prefiguring 9/11, the 21st Century, and calamity in general. The entire song has jet engine Doppler effect sound design throughout. It’s Scary up there on the Scareplane.
Another drastic disaster occurred the day this song was recorded. Ringo quit the Beatles, left the studio in huff, and went home. Paul’s reaction? He played the drums on Back In The USSR himself.
I cant begin to do justice to those notes: the relationship between the ukelele and the balalaika ...  just follow the link.