Bard music still brings Russian immigrants together
Filling a cramped, makeshift basement performance space, some 40 Russian immigrants have come to Sammamish for an evening of music from home.
They're the guests of Dmitry Vasilevsky, 31, a Microsoft programmer and longtime enthusiast of bard music, whose Eastside home is a stop on a tour by Master Grisha, the popular duo of Boris Kiner and Mikhail Tsitrinyak. The Moscow-based musicians have spent the past six years entertaining Russians at home and abroad and in all kinds of conditions.
Mike Urban / P-I
Bard musicians Mikhail Tsitrinyak and Boris Kiner (obscured from view) of Moscow entertain Russian immigrants in the Eastside home of Dmitry Vasilevsky.
This evening, the two men start their three-hour performance with impromptu theatrical humor, describing life on the road back in the Motherland. In town for just a night, they are part of a growing movement that stretches from Moscow to New York and, more recently, to Seattle.
Organized by local enthusiasts, many of the concerts by the bards, like this one, take place in basements and living rooms at the homes of Puget Sound area immigrants from the former Soviet Union and, as bigger names join the lineup, at the University of Washington's Meany and Kane Halls and Bellevue Community College.
To the outsider, bard sounds like a mixture of everything: folk, romance, ballads, kumbayas, Jewish wedding songs, anything that will go with an acoustic guitar. The basis of it, enthusiasts say, is that the performers are mostly amateurs -- usually, for some unknown reason, scientists and mathematicians -- and that they sing songs of poetry, emphasis on the poetry. Some, like Kiner and Tsitrinyak, are making it a profession.
Bard players get their reputation by writing music to the texts of famous and not so famous poets or writing poetry and music themselves.
Guitars are always acoustic. There are rarely more than two bards performing at once. And voices, well, they're supposed to be good. But not always. Sometimes it's the poetry that's striking, and the music takes the back burner.
Then there are those -- like Puget Sound's best known bard performer, Leon Pozen, 36, another programmer at Microsoft -- who write nothing original at all, but stunningly perform the music and text of others.
Pozen's reputation stems from his presentation style: Not only does he have a good voice and a command of the guitar, he knows how to properly sing the words and melody so it's understood the way the author meant. In the complicated and oftentimes esoteric world of poetry, especially Russian poetry, this is not always an easy task.
Last year, some 300 folks turned out to hear him croon at Bellevue Community College. In his hometown of Kiev, capital of Ukraine, where his two-decade love for the genre is well-known, nearly 1,000 people attended a performance.
Like other bards, he will quickly point out that it's not just about the music but about the entire music scene. Bard lovers gather not just to hear the music and kick back to some poetry, but to mix and mingle.
"The concert is only a part of the bard scene," Pozen said. "It's a lot about the people who get together, mainly intellectuals. Back in the former Soviet Union, I used to belong to a bard club. We'd get together twice a week and sing each other songs. On weekends, we'd go camping and take the guitars. We participated in bard festivals."
Mike Urban / P-I
Boris Kiner, right, says of bard: "Folk has rules, like country or jazz. In bard, there are no rules." The duo, known as Master Grisha, has spent the past six years entertaining Russians at home and abroad.
"It was like Woodstock," he said. "But there was no electric guitars or marijuana. Our high was just playing the music."
Bard music originated in the 1960s, a time well known for underground rebellion against the Soviet system, much of it among artists and writers. Bard was popular among those who liked to hang out with their friends where no one could bother them, usually in a forest, at a time before the appearance of private nightclubs and cafes, malls and cinemaplexes. It was as much about the hanging-out experience as it was about love for the music and poetry that went with it.
It also stems from the former Soviet Union's love for music. For Anya Byrago, 35, a computer programmer from Kirkland who immigrated to the United States 10 years ago, singing was a part of her childhood.
"My mother sang to me a lot. We sang songs in school, at birthday parties, all around us there were always acoustic guitars. It was a very popular instrument. As high school and university students, we spent a lot of time going to the forests and camping. We sang songs around the campfire at night."
Four years ago, she became one of the first Puget Sound bard music organizers, often playing host to concerts for 30 or more people in her living room.
"I can't play anything," she said. "But I love to listen to it."
The tradition, she acknowledged, is not necessarily carrying on. She's tried to introduce her 7- and 10-year-old children to bard, she says, but they prefer Britney Spears.
Like many local enthusiasts, she made the 500-mile trip to a large camping ground near Selma, Ore., this summer, where some 700 Russian-speaking and -singing bard lovers from the West Coast gathered for an annual weekend-long bard festival of camping, guitar strumming and performing.
In New York, biannual festivals attract up to 4,000 bard lovers. But the biggest bard festival, of course, is held in Russia. Each year, on the first weekend in July, more than 300,000 bard fans pack their tents, acoustic guitars, food and drink, and head out for a grand weekend of song and sun.
Bard performers aren't the only ones discovering Seattle's small but growing Russian language entertainment market. As the former Soviet Union opened its doors in the early '90s, Russian entertainers found eager immigrant audiences and lucrative contracts in large Western cities such as New York, Paris and Los Angeles.
Now the Seattle area, home of tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, is drawing its own small but steady stream of Russian artists.
At Vasilevsky's house, the long concert is over by 10:45 p.m. and guests quickly move to the dining room table for the traditional potluck feast after the show. Within minutes, they are discussing -- and arguing -- over what the definition of bard is. At the end, they conclude that there is no conclusion. Bard can be anything, really. Dylan's name comes up a lot, but they hotly deny that bard is folk.
"Folk has rules, like country or jazz. In bard, there are no rules," said Kiner, adding that in the days of communism, poets and musicians had to have diplomas from official performing art institutes in order to get a space in the state-owned concert halls. Those with no credentials who just wanted to write and sing had to create a movement of their own.
They don't just write about Russian themes. There are Russian bard performers, for example, who write music to translated versions of Shakespeare's sonnets. And there are songs about life in America.
Vasilevsky, who records the concerts performed in his basement, plays one from his massive collection of discs. It's a funny upbeat tune about an American cowboy in Montana who decides to go work on a collective farm in the Soviet Union where life is great and jeans, supposedly, are free.
"I've been playing bard music my whole life," said Sergey Zrazhevski, 42, a massage therapist who immigrated to Kirkland four years ago. Now, alongside Pozen, he performs gratis like many bard players for local audiences in homes and concert halls. Lately, he said, he's been inspired by the works of the famed Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. "I think I can relate to his feeling a stranger in a strange land, only he felt like a stranger in his own country."
By KIM PALCHIKOFF
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 12.09.2002