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Otava Yo: Svirels and gusli win the world

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Otava Yo: Svirels and gusli win the world


Sergey Vinogradov

Norway's Dusia, China's Marusia... A group of professional folk musicians from St. Petersburg Otava Yo should be in charge if Russian names to become popular in the closest future. Oi Dusya, oi Marusya song has become a hit last year. Its video version was called The Best Music Video at the New York Cinema Festival. Otava Yo hit the world stage back in 2015 with Sumetskaya song and music video. Just on Youtube the video was watched 14 million times, which is an absolute record among Russian folk groups. “Now I want to learn Russian,” one of the listeners wrote. Some tell it to the musicians personally.

Otava Yo toured 30 countries – from Portugal to China attracting vast audience, mostly locals. Musicians plan to perform in Bulgaria, Latvia and Japan in June, while in July French and Finns to will dance to their tunes. Russian guests of The 2018 FIFA World Cup will see and hear them, too. Before the hot, full of performances summer one of the Otava Yo founders Alexey Belkin tells Russkiy Mir correspondent in which countries people are more sensible to Russian folk songs, and why the group never perform much requested Kalinka song.

Ц How did you become a musician?

I started playing guitar when I was around 20. One friend showed me three chords, the other one tuned a guitar. I played for a about a week, until it went out of tune. Then was a big break after which I decided to engage seriously in music. Irish music inspired me to play folk motifs. In 1990s I've listened to a lot of Celtic music. Also I've stumbled upon punk version of Oy You Porushka Paranya folk song, and got really excited about it.

Ц Did you expect that Sumetskaya music video is to become such a hit worldwide?

Ц We didn't expect such popularity of course. It's became an instant hit, numbers were growing before the eyes. We try to do our best in all our videos. When we were shooting Sumetskaya, it felt great. In this case many things clicked Ц music, style, a collaboration with guys from Buza team that make various amazing movements.

Ц†Do you read what people write about you? Your music video became for many the window to the real Russia.

I would agree, unexpected image of Russian people is shown in this video. It's unusual not only for foreigners but for Russians as well. What people abroad know about Russia? Vodka and bears. We have no vodka, no bears, but there's a drive. I won't lie, we didn't think of shooting in Sumetskaya Russia for foreigners. I wouldn't divide between us and them. People are touched by the same things. It's not that if you're French than you're interested only in fried frog legs. There are things that unite us, nevertheless we speak different languages. We performed in Iran which is culturally and geographically very far from us. There we've bumped into a guy who knew English, and immediately found many common topics. We have many differences between our nations but the major part of them are external. From inside we are all very similar.
You would be surprised but we've never played for Russian immigrants. Locals are the regular public. Usually there are about 10 Russians out of 500 spectators. Although we sing only in Russian, it's interesting that we don't have any language barrier. Our songs are well-understood. I can't recall that people were meeting us with dead silence. People always feel energy that comes from the stage.

Ц In Sumetskaya video you are dressed in undershirts and hats with ear flaps. Is it some kind of joke for insiders?

There was a moment when we've got enough of Celtic music. Then the idea to play Russian folk songs with Celtic flair was born. Pretty famous but rarely played. We've issued an album and decided to make a photoshoot in kilts, undershirts and hats with ear flaps. At the end we've changed kilts to pants. We were fooling around causing mischief, it was a kitsch. Of course we don't dress like that for a stage. We dress up in ethnic-stylized clothes.

You like to mix Russian folk with ethnic music from all over the world. There are some elements of Scottish motifs in Sumetskaya, while in Oi Dusya, oi Marusya at some point one can hear Lezginka (a general name for Caucasian dances). Do you want to show that all folklore comes from a unique root?

Everything is much more simple. We pick up whatever we see around having the feeling what would be acceptable or not for a specific song. When we were recording Oi Dusya, oi Marusya it felt like doing a solo on bagpipe, and we did it. It was not for ethnography reason, we feel free to express ourselves.

Ц How did you get bagpipe and gusli?

Bagpipe was left after our experimentations with Celtic music. When I've decided that bagpipe doesn't match Russian songs, I've got acquainted with gusli. Before that I've mastered my svirel and bugle techniques. My father-in-law plays Latvian gusli, he learned from a Novgorod musician. I took few lessons, and got engaged. The instrument sound was awesome, not worse than balalaika.

Ц You've started to translate Russian lyrics to English for your music videos. Some phrases turned out to be funny in translated version...

We've taken a special care about that while reading comments. Some write: УI don't understand a thing, but it's cool.Ф We decided to give our foreign audience a chance to know what we sing about. Many were surprised, they didn't expect nothing of the kind. For example, they didn't expect that ditties from Sumetskaya were performed in villages before the fist fights. During our tours abroad we don't give any word-per-word translations. We also never sing in English but I give short, non-lecture type of explanation before each song.

Ц†What kind of public you have abroad?

You would be surprised but we've never played for Russian immigrants. Locals are our regular public. Usually there are about 10 Russians out of 500 spectators. Although we sing only in Russian, interestingly we don't have any language barrier. Our songs are well-understood. I can't recall that people met us with dead silence. People always feel energy that comes from the stage. They sing along, dance, applaud, sometimes even scream. We know that our concert called a success when grown-ups enjoy to the fullest. Probably the folk movement was never interrupted on the West, and people have a habit to attend such concerts with passion. We've issued three albums abroad, now we're talking about new releases.
So you never sing in other languages?

We don't have that goal. Once we've performed one song in French, and another time one song in Latvian. It had a success in Latvia Ц finally Russian music band sings in their language. Fore me it wasn't hard, because my wife is Latvian and I speak the language a bit.

- In which countries people are more touched by Russian songs?

Ц Germans are excited about our music, Dutchmen get turned on very easily. All tickets were sold-out for our last concert in Amsterdam. Indigenous people in Baltic countries love us. Most of the Russians usually don't know a thing about our performances, and then ask, УBut why we didn't know anything about you?Ф

Ц Does the public ask you to play Kalinka?

Ц We're going soon to Japan. The promoters forwarded us the list of five songs that they want us to play, Kalinka and Katiusha included. He have refused because they don't make a part of our repertoire, and our concerts are not the call desk. We've got our own music concept which doesn't embrace these songs. I can't rule out that one day we find our own approach to these songs. For example I've heard the Cossack's version of Katiusha for three voices Ц it was fantastic.

Ц Do you keep up folk traditions also in your everyday life?

It's not that easy in the city. We have clay dishes and like to use them, but they don't want to befriend our dishwasher! (laughing). Sometimes my wife bakes bread at home. What else.. We don't drink alcohol, don't smoke. We try not to argue, the cursing is prohibited in our band. Without doubts, traditional music have had some effect on us. The folklore makes us better.

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