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"Minorities But Not Minor!"
Anton Apostol talks with Andrew Cronshaw about a treasure trove of folk music.

Kyrgyz Music from Bishkek

This is an extraordinary project. So far, since late 2019 Moldova-based Antonovka Records has released 96 digital albums of field recordings of the vocal and instrumental traditional music of largely minority peoples. These aren’t from some kind of archive; nearly all are recorded since 2017 and new ones are still being recorded and released - the number went up even while I was listening through to this vast collection.

The majority are from peoples, most of them minorities, spread across the present-day Russian Federation and the earlier Soviet Union and its neighbors: Chuvash, Karelian, Kyrgyz, Karachay, Chechen, Dungan, Uyghur, Laks, Avar, Kryashen, Ukrainian, Russian, Mordvin, Bashkir, Ingrian, Veps, Udmurt, Mari, Adyg, Hunza, Nagaybak, Kalmyk, Yezidi, Tatar, Belarusian, Buryat, Tushetian, Golendra, Georgian, Armenian, Ahiska Turkish, 'Polish' Old Believers in Altai, and more, but there are also several from Rwanda (particularly of players of the Inanga trough-zither), ngombi playing from the Central African Republic, and music of the Wakhi and Hunza people of Pakistan.

Music of Tver Karelians, Russia

Anton Apostal After “Blimey!” my first reaction was “Who’s doing this and where are they getting all these recordings from?” So I emailed the creator of Antonovka, Anton Apostol, with some questions about that and more.

Russian-born, and until recently based largely in Moscow, Apostol relocated to Serbia earlier this year because of his telecom job. The Moldovan connection is via his father. I’d mentioned to him that it’s unusual to get releases from a label in there.

"Currently Russia is under sanctions, which have also affected the label. But we want to continue delivering our music internationally. So, we changed our official location to Moldova. Even though we do not yet have any records from there (but I hope they will appear), and I don’t even speak the Moldovan/Romanian language myself. Quite a lot of Russian companies and artists are doing similar relocations at the moment.

And there is another curious aspect, which you noticed. People are used to the fact that ethnic music is usually researched by labels from highly developed countries, like UK, USA, France, Japan etc. Labels in the rest of the world (such as the Mahoor Institute in Iran) could be quite big and serious too, but almost never cross their native country borders. So, it's our chance to pioneer that field in some way. Moldova is probably the poorest country of Europe  at the moment. No one would be surprised by music from, for example, Rwanda released by a French label. But what about by a Moldovan one?”

I asked how Antonovka began.

“I'm a telecom engineer by profession with no formal education in subjects like music, audio production, ethnography etc. Moreover, I have no ear for music. But I have a passion for it. And I can play guitar and balalaika at amateur level.

It started as an interest in listening to folk music during my student years, collecting CDs (at that time there were no music streaming/downloading services yet). Later, I visited different countries, both on business trips for my main job and as a tourist, and this interest developed. I met local folk musicians and musical instrument makers on occasions, took some photos and videos (sometimes putting them onto my blog), and sometimes bought the instruments. Eventually, I started to record, and the label started.

The first field recording was made in 2017 in the country of Georgia, and the first release came out in 2019. Approximately 80% of our catalogue are recorded by ourselves in the field. We travel as a small team of from 1 to 3-5 people, and I do the audio recording myself. The other 20% of material is provided by the artists themselves or our partnering labels or ethnographers. So, sometimes our copyright string looks like ‘Antonovka Records / 3rd Party Label or Person’.”

Music of Kist Chechens from Georgia

The label seems to be focusing on minority cultures, and is that the intention, to bring their music and culture to a wider public? He clarifies:

“Yes, but to be precise - we try to record as many ethnic groups as we manage to reach, both main and minority. That it appears to focus on minorities is simply mathematical. Let me explain by example. Let's say, we come to a region, where Russians are 90% of population and the rest 10% are Tatars, Chuvash and Erzya Mordva. And we record one album per each of those people. So in the amount of our releases Russians would count 25% only, while the minorities 75%.

And yes, of course we intend to bring it to a wider public. We do not have a big number of listeners on Spotify really, but at least all this music becomes available and discoverable for the whole world. The motto would be - Minorities But Not Minor!”

Kalmyk Instrumental Music

With field recordings, particularly in countries without efficient royalty rights organisations, and where sending money across borders can be tricky, there’s always the question of copyright and payment of performers.

“For the copyright - we send the processed audio files and photos/album cover art back to the artists and allow them to use those as they want.

For paying - there’s no single answer, it depends. For example, if the artists earn their living from the music and we can afford to pay, then we may pay for the recording session. On the contrary, some musicians may take it as offensive if we offer to pay them for music.

Concerning digital sales - the general rule is that we pay, if it makes a reasonable amount. Streaming pays very little. But when, for example, we got a couple of hundred dollars for licensing one of our albums for a radio show, then we sent the performer her part of the royalty.”

At the moment, recordings are only available digitally, although Apostol says he hopes to have CDs in the future. There’s a sampling of tracks within this feature, but it’s impossible to give more than a hint of the variety of Antonovka releases in one article. They are, as Apostol says, on the streamers, but the best way to see and listen to the whole panoply, and read about the music, peoples and performers, is to go to its Bandcamp page; and indeed there, unlike on the streamers, one can buy downloads, and so directly support this remarkable label and those it records.

An Antonovka Sampler

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