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
Since the fall of communism in 1991, Russians have had to cope with
enormous social upheaval and displacement. Like blacks in the United
States, theyve 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. Its 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 isnt
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.
Im 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.
Musics 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, theyre saying, We dont recognize racism.
Its a new role model for people, and thats part of social
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 Moscows
nightclubs were forced to close, and the shortage of venues for live
performances undermined the fan base. But two of the capitals
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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