The global press oversimplifies Russia and its sprawling diversity in order to paint a picture of one monolithic nation. The reality is far more complex, as Russia is home to approximately 190 different ethnic groups. Across Russia, there are thirty-five official languages; but even this is not the whole story, as over one hundred minority languages exist in Russia. Such languages are under constant threat in a globalizing world, as native users of these minority languages find their communities encroached upon by mass media and members of villages move away.
There is also state pressure towards conformity. Russian president Vladimir Putin issued an executive order in July 2020 to mark Russian as the official language of the “state forming people.” The idea encapsulated in this phrase is that Russians were responsible for creating the country, whilst ethnic minorities would be recognized as “compatriots” having the right to seek Russian citizenship -- providing that they speak Russian. Minority languages are also being taught less. Hence, the two releases reviewed here are vitally important documents concerning peoples' desire to preserve their languages and culture. Both recordings by Merema and Tarai are resolutely modern, and they could not sound more different.
Tarai's six-song Empty Drum has a starkness to it that might remind the listener of post-punk; the band refers to itself as an indie, post-folk band. There is rubbery bass playing (courtesy of Einar Muoni), skittering synthesizer and glistening electronic washes (Petr Suškov), and guitar and vocals (Aleksandr Aidarov). The band's roots lie with the Chuvash people, a group that lives in the Volga River region in central Russia (Chuvashia, or the Chuvash Republic). The Chuvash language reaches back 2,500 years. Tarai are now based in Tallinn, Estonia, which provides them with an opportunity to reflect on their homeland. As Aidarov says, “Should I abandon my mother tongue in the name of economic benefits?”
A strong sense of identity and purpose shine through the songs. The group manages to meld melodies that sound progressive, but which are also redolent of Central Asian rhythms and vocal mannerisms. One might feel that this is pop music, sweetened around the edges, but it is the lyrical content that particularly reveals the rough struggle and hope concerning the Chuvash language. Tarai created Empty Drum in collaboration with Chuvash national poets, and many of the songs have a haunting quality to them.
The first track, “A Knowing Person Knows” (lyrics by Petr Eizin), is a call to live an honest life that features a driving, airy rhythm.
Elsewhere, the song utilizes Chuvash words for 'a man' that have Mongol and Chinese origins concerning virtuous qualities lacking in many people. The title track “Empty Drum” and “Ulatimer's Gate” best exemplify the niche that Tarai has created for themselves, sounding like a fusion of Central Asian music with a modern sensibility. “Empty Drum” (lyrics by Viktor Avanmart) is laden with political allusions: described by the band, the song asks what happens to an empty drum when it gets old. The instrument of power has gone, but the fear of it remains:
The song casts a wary on eye on older generations of Chuvash who do not want to develop their language and culture; they merely make noise: “Empty drum knocks again and again/Accordion and bagpipe are silent, no voice/Restless and brave bang-bang-bang/It calls you somewhere: yesterday, today, tomorrow.”
“Ulatimer's Gate” is another standout, referring to 'Vladimir's Gate,' the sending of ethnic minorities off to war and the suffering experienced by those who survived. The poetry by Lyubov Martyanova mirrors that of traditional Chuvash folk soldier songs. Tarai's music here compliments the lyrics with a stepping, spacious dance rhythm, and otherworldly funk taken to new heights by Aidarov's vocal embellishments.
One traditional folk song closes Empty Drum, the spare “A Rustling Birch.” Over a drone and an occasional sharp guitar note, Tarai notes that the song likely originally accompanied the unveiling of a tombstone. However, many Chuvash songs maintain a melody, but the words are changed and re-interpreted so that they suit other occasions over time. Nature images abound, with leaves, bees, and flax waiting to be harvested passing through the verses. There is a sense of a rootedness in place and of community, with the song ending as the singer asks who will come out to send us back home? Overall, Tarai provide us with an intriguing short album that feels both contemporary but occupying a different space and time.
Merema take the listener on a journey amongst Mordavian villages located between Moscow and the Volga. Merema began in Saransk, the capital of the Republic of Mordavia, in 2010 as an “ethnographic folklore studio” with the intention of preserving the languages and traditions of their region. (Today, only forty percent of those in the Republic identify as Mordvins/Mordavians, with Russians now in the majority.) Amongst Mordavians, two groups exist: the Ersja and the Moksch, each with their own written language. Merema are deeply involved in field research in their homeland, and when they perform, they do so in traditional costumes, out of respect for their ancestors.
Five members are listed in the Merema group, although the band photo on the cover of Eryamon' Koytneva (Spiral of Life) features seven individuals. Visually, the band hearkens to the past, and the liner notes after each song in the accompanying booklet indicate where the song was gathered and/or recorded. But, it's their sound that is likely to stop many listeners in their tracks.
The band produces a massive wall of sound that will easily appeal to lovers of the Swedish band Hedningarna. For example, opening track “Kozon' Kazanes' Stroyatots' (The Building of Kazan)” begins with a didjeridoo drone, and as with Hedningarna circa the early '90s, listeners are treated to female vocals chanting and singing in harmony. The drone is enticing, but as the percussion kicks in, one also hears a flute being played in a breathy style quite similar to that found in Swedish music such as Groupa or Hedningarna. Immediately, the soundscape is familiar yet strange.
“Lisede Rasket Karshozonok (Come, kin, meet us)” is a celebratory wedding song from the village of Podgorny Dol, and the palette widens considerably with electronic manipulation, intriguing synth rhythms, and a buoyant bass line. “Mastyan Chi, Paro Chi (A Shrovetide day, a fine day)” enters with a spoken intro – “A Shrovetide day, a fine day/Take the winter away!,” followed by massed vocals depicting a scene primal and weird.
This all occurs over scraping percussion and stretched skins, the band egging the music on like participants in a ritual.
“Kostyan Annyunyas” puts me in mind of the Finnish band Värttinä, and the song is a bizarre tale that moves from the stealing of linen, to a confession to the theft by a woman, to weaving linen, and thence to a passage of death imagery and suffering from a curse: “Oh, after washing…/Oh, in her other hand she has a candle (oops)/from the head of the deceased…Oh, a candle from the head (ah)…/-Oh, I'll curse Kostin (oh) Annushka, I'll curse!”
Much of Eryamon' Koytneva is upbeat, sweeping up feet with a trance-like intensity. This is certainly true of “Vay Tyadyanay – Avanyay (Vay my mother – my darling),” which is sung at breakneck speed. The song from Levzha village ends mysteriously:
“Greshnay Ulyu (Ulyana in misery)” sees Merema heading full onto the club dancefloor, with electronic rhythms pumped to the max over thirty-two verses. And yes, Ulyana is miserable, having had both parents die when she was young. As a result, Ulyana is visited by ghosts, and in one vision she sees her father enticing her to be the Devil's bride; naturally, Ulyana “cracked the Earth” and disappears forever. It's fantastic, phantasmagoric material, and Merena are clearly not afraid to utilize the recording studio to maximum effect in order to draw new audiences to traditional song.
That said, there is one very odd moment on Eryamon' Koytneva. “Shyakshata (Woodpecker)” is arranged identically to a song called “Tuuli” from Hedningarna's groundbreaking album Trä (from 1994). And I mean identical, despite the lyrics having entirely different subject matter. Merema sing of a woodpecker, asking about it's long tail; the bird replies that its tail was cut off, and brought to the forest to make a nest. Hedningarna's “Tuuli” has lyrical content that describes the raising of a wind, and it feels like a magic spell.
Both songs begin with the sound of wind; the bobbing rhythm is the same; both feature stomping and cackling from band members. Merema's version ends with the crack of thunder and rain, whereas Hedningarna build to a full stop. Given the different subject matter of both songs, my guess is that Merema is paying direct homage to Hedningarna (“Shyakshata” did not have to be arranged and presented in such a manner, and I cannot fathom that the band was not aware of “Tuuli”). It is a startling moment on a fine album. There is no acknowledgement of Hedningarna's music in the CD liner notes, although as noted the overall sound of this record is deeply indebted to the influence of some classic Nordic albums.
In sum, both Tarai's and Merema's music offers listeners the opportunity to partake of languages staring down extinction. Both albums are moving tributes to maintaining identity under the fist of state power; they speak of what could be lost, and what can be, with empowered tongues.
Listen to some of the more traditional music from some of the diverse cultures of Russsia and beyond in Andrew Cronshaw's interview of musicial explorer and recordist Anton Apostol