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May 17, 2004

Book tells why Russians get the blues

By Jennifer McNulty

Like jilted lovers easing their heartache, Muscovites in the postcommunist era flocked to nightclubs to hear the blues. The soulful music spoke to their struggles following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The blues craze took hold when it did because its sound resonated with Russians--despite their inability to understand the English lyrics--said Michael Urban, a professor of politics. Here, participants and fans at the 2002 Efes Pilsner Blues Festival gather for an after-hours jam at the B.B. King Blues Club.
Photo by Andrei Evdokimov

The blues has a unique power to ease suffering and give hope to the downtrodden, says political scientist--and lifelong blues fan--Michael Urban, author of the new book Russia Gets the Blues: Music, Culture, and Community in Unsettled Times (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

“The distinctive sound of the blues conveys both raw feelings and subtle emotional shadings,” says Urban, a professor of politics at UCSC. “Russians ‘get’ the blues. It resonates with their experience.”

Since the fall of communism in 1991, Russians have had to cope with enormous social upheaval and displacement. Like blacks in the United States, they’ve had to rely on their own hope and individual determination amidst circumstances that offer little reason for optimism, says Urban.

“Like the blues aesthetic itself, Russians have summoned the will to surmount their troubles and endure,” said Urban. “There is an optimism at the heart of the blues that reaches deep into the Russian spirit. It’s a kind of food for their souls.”

Based on interviews with scores of Russian blues musicians, fans, and promoters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia Gets the Blues captures the appeal of American-style blues, as described by this enthusiast:

I like the idea of waking up with a terrible hangover, finding all my money and my woman gone, and thinking: “This isn’t so bad.” Blues is like that; experiencing terrible things but at the same time surviving them, and knowing that you are able to survive them. It makes you feel good about yourself.

--Sergei Mitrokhin, politician

Urban, an expert on the Russian political system and an amateur blues guitarist, collaborated on the book with Moscow music promoter and radio disc jockey Andrei Evdokimov. The blues craze took hold when it did because its sound--rooted in the African American experience nearly a century earlier, resonated with Russians--despite their inability to understand the English lyrics, said Urban. The blues craze grew until the Russian financial crash of 1998.

“I’m certainly not the first to say that the blues is powerfully emotive music, with hollering, screaming, and moaning,” said Urban. “When you think about the history of the blues in this country and in Russia, politics are very present in the music. The blues is a powerful political force.”

Music’s political power is perhaps most evident in the message of racial tolerance embedded in the Russian blues community. “Russia is a very racist place, despite the fact that the Soviet regime lectured against racism for 70 years,” said Urban. Blues players, by contrast, combat racism through their reverence for the music and the suffering of the people who started it, said Urban. “Because they associate with blacks, they’re saying, ‘We don’t recognize racism.’ It’s a new role model for people, and that’s part of social change.”

The blues also offered a welcome alternative to the bland Western-style pop music that was filling the airwaves--and filling many Russians with disdain, said Urban. Distinguishing themselves from the discredited Soviet past, these new converts embraced the blues and vowed to protect it from the crass commercialization of capitalism.

A few Russian musicians have begun writing their own blues songs, but the “blues boom” collapsed in August 1998, when the Russian ruble lost two-thirds of its value in three weeks. Many of Moscow’s nightclubs were forced to close, and the shortage of venues for live performances undermined the fan base. But two of the capital’s biggest radio stations continue to broadcast blues shows every week, and Urban says hard-core fans and players are keeping the music alive.

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