Saturday, February 20, 2010

From Russia (and back again) with love - Zulya and the Children of the Underground

Given the last two days’ references to revolutionary matters, I guess it was inevitable that I would turn sooner rather than later to the music of Russia and, while Zulya Kamalova is a Melbourne-based singer, with a Tartar rather than a Russian heritage, her album Валсь пустоты (и другие песни на русскую тему) (The Waltz of Emptiness [and other songs on Russian themes]) is sung entirely in Russian and, in any event, is so good that it is really inexcusable that I have left it this long to write about it here.

In fact, even well before my still relatively recent Road-to-Damascus conversion to non-classical music, Zulya and her band, The Children of the Underground, had come to my attention, and taken me by storm, right from when I heard them one afternoon on ABC Classic FM.

But, despite the crystal clear purity of Zulya’s voice, sad or vivacious, vulnerable or invincible, at less than a nanosecond’s notice, this music has its roots much more in Russian folk, than in anything vaguely approaching Western classicalism. In part this comes from the unmistakeably Russian flavour produced by the Children of the Underground themselves, with their mandalaika, piano accordion, and bits and pieces of exotic tuned percussion, like xylomarimba and berimbau – which sound great, whatever they are – but it comes, too, from the rhythms and tonalities of the songs, often shaped by earthy beats that conjure up images of peasants dancing on the steppes, or on the veranda of a dacha, yet with folk-like tonalities, never hovering far from a minor key, nor from that sense of hardship and melancholy that we so often think of as characteristically Russian. Listen «Не все ль равно?» (“Does it matter?”), for example, to see how easily it all comes together.

And yet this music is much more than just reworked songs from Russian folklore. The songs are very much created as music of the here and now, songs of a modern world, albeit one with a long and treasured memory of its rich, though hard, culture. Listen, for example, to the album’s opening «Всё» (“Everything”), with its smooth, cool, almost jazz-like verses against its lively folk-dance chorus, almost making you think of those Cossack dancers that used to tour the West from the USSR and show us that, despite everything we were led to believe, there was more to Russia than an iron curtain after all; or to the wistfulness and dispossession of «Дети подземелья» (“Children of the Underground”) – clearly a song that is meant to capture much of the essence of what these musicians are about – to a sprightly, restless beat and a melody that leaps and jumps in and out of what might once been its safe, sure folk home.

There are some songs of almost unbearable beauty here, too, like «Неспроста» (“Not without reason”), where Zulya’s voice soars effortlessly well above the stave, in a simple, pensive song about the heartache of waiting for love, believing in it, but afraid of it, too. It’s a song, with its soul steeped deeply in sorrow, and yet still believing and hoping that it has a purpose, that could come only from Russia. Nor could the bigger-than-life existential crisis of «(У) меня нет дома» (“No(t) home”), come other than from Russia, sad and yearning, but growing into a massive choral anthem to homelessness and hopelessness that somehow manages to never become entirely bleak, as if the soul, even when it is at its most lonely, feels itself to be part of something bigger and grander.

Валсь пустоты (и другие песни на русскую тему) is an album of amazing music – music that sounds both old and new, like a modern telling of an ancient, eternal tale. And yet, despite its sense of the eternal, it seems to have a sense of transience about it too, to no small degree driven home by the sounds of trains, and station announcements, interspersed between many of the songs. This is a world where everything is rushing past, and where the enduring things could easily pass us by if Zulya and her band were not here to help us notice them. These are the Children of the Underground, after all – as much children of the eternally restless lower depths of life as of the Russian Metro.

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