Osnat Ita Skoblinski, an Israeli residing in Montreal, met Psoy Korolenko a Russian Jewish musician residing all over, and California-born, Scotland-based Jewish ethnographer singer Michael Alpert, during a Russian initiated alternative festival in Upstate New York. Confused? So was she. But she tried to get some answers.
(Psoy Korolenko is pictured here at the JetLAG music festival. All photos appearing in this post were taken by Michael Prosmushkin.)
It rained hard over the beautiful clearing. Hugged by mountains, forests and streams, the Peaceful Valley campsite in the Catskills offers a landing ground for helicopters and small airplanes. During the last weekend of June, it was the landing site of a special aircraft made of music: JetLAG, a Russian-initiated, all-music festival. As the rain poured, the main stage kept reverberating, creating a bubble of sounds within the storm.
Leonid Fedorov, leading vocalist, guitarist and composer of the legendary art-rock 90’s Russian band “Auktyon” was playing alongside Igor Krutogolov from the Russian-Israeli band “Kruzenshtern and Parohod“. A few brave souls held umbrellas in front of the stage as the rest of the crowd found shelter in a nearby structure. Daniel Kahn and Michael Alpert, Klezmer and Yiddish folk musicians were among those with me in the open.
Was this a Jewish festival? The program featured prominent Russian, Jewish, and American artists, yet the versatility of the music and diversity of the crowd made it difficult to define. The majority of those attending were Russian speakers. There were families, teens, hippies and burner types, huge bbq and vodka tables, healing and reiki tents shining neon lights and blasting electronic music til 5AM.
The music itself could be American, Jewish, or Russian. At times, a congruent fusion of elements, at others: something so far-fetched, you’d be scratching your head in discomfort. Yet somehow, it works. What makes a good Russian reggae band? Maybe “good music” is enough.
“Even bad music, in a good way”
Russian artist and musician Psoy Korolenko is one of the festival organizers. A mad cabaret professor and a master in patching and un-patching intersecting traditions, Korolenko’s music is inspired by Russian/Jewish cultures. He is a mad cabaret professor when it comes to his intelligent and eccentric music. His sounds too are difficult to define, but somehow fall perfectly into place. He explains the festival’s name as relating to “overcoming different kinds of jet lags, cultural and other.”
“JetLag, from the very beginning, was meant to be a festival that embraces any music as long as it’s good music,” he says, “even bad music, in a good way. JetLag is not only about the old school traditional or contemporary Russian bardic songs or Russian Rock Poetry. It embraces a wide spectrum, spreading from bardic song through trance, house, techno, cabaret-klezmer, indie-rock, jazz-funk and more. This is the ideology behind the festival. It’s fun to embrace different types of vibes, feelings and people, generations and languages.”
“This festival is not bound to any particular music or lifestyle,” he continues, “It’s not bound to Russianness, yet it’s objectively Russian, and this contrast is interesting.” The very idea of Russianness offers an exciting horizon, yet also a challenge. “It’s hard to promote and sell Russianness like you can do with Serbian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, or gypsy culture for example.” Says Korolenko, “You can’t turn Russianness into some Orientalist, attractive, cute multi-culti boundary-breaking thing. Russia is an empire, the Soviet Union, it means a lot of things for different people, Brighton Beach, the Bolshoy Ballet… So if we say it’s a Russian indie festival someone could say ‘I’m not a Russian hipster so I won’t go there.”
I learned about this festival from my cousin Roman who was born in Russia and spent the past 15 years living in NY. Roman was going to a “Russian music festival” and invited me to join. Much like the music at Jet Lag, my own identity is hard to define. I’m an Israeli born to Soviet Union dissident parents, now living in Montreal. The Russian culture has always been part of me, yet also foreign and intriguing.
Browsing through the list of artists I was surprised at the number of names I recognized from the Klezmer/Jewish music scene. Kahn and Korolenko both figure strongly in “The Wandering Muse” a documentary about Jewish musicians, by Montreal based director Tamás Wormser. Other musicians I know from Israel. There was Igor Krutogolov and even Leonid Fedorov of Auktyon, perhaps the most well-known Russian indie-rock band, which plays Tel Aviv occasionally.
The many Jewish influences on the program of an alternative, Russian-initiated festival made me ponder the New York-Moscow-Tel Aviv triangle.
If so many Russian or American-Russian musicians are influenced by Jewish music, what does it say about the place of Jewish culture in the Russian music scene today?
How is this phenomenon possible considering the oppression of Jewish culture in Soviet Russia?
Soviet Intelligentsia and Virtual Nostalgia
The perfect time to explore this question was while sharing a table with Korolenko and Michael Alpert, a Jewish ethnographer, musician and one of the forces behind the klezmer revival in the past decades.
Korolenko was first to attempt an answer. “Just like anywhere there is mainstream and alternative music,” he said, “or rather there are many mainstreams and many alternatives. The Jewish mainstream in Russia behave like the Jewish mainstream anywhere. Same goes for Jewish non mainstream culture. There are a lot of different Jews with different views and tastes and generations and ideologies, from Chabadniks to secular left wing Yiddishists.
“For about 15 years now we have many klezmer festivals. Some of them, are more mainstream and some of them are less, some more urban, some more for insiders with master classes for Yiddishists. Moscow Yiddish Festival is a very big event today, though it recently became too mainstream and fancy shmancy. There are many pop singers who use Yiddish in a cute multi-culti approach or who feature Jewish nostalgia, and there are devoted Yiddish klezmer geeks. It’s like that all over the world.
“I believe that starting in the late Nineties the ‘klezmer music project’ has been implemented in a positive way in Russia and Ukraine and the implementation took around 10 years. People love it. World music is attractive. East Europe, universalism, and otherness are attractive. Jewishness is somehow also associated with Soviet intelligentsia and virtual nostalgia (nostalgia for a time/place/way which one actually never experienced). It’s very good music which is objectively attractive and powerful. There were enthusiastic people and groups who invested and contributed to it, who had zeal for that mission.”
An Odessa that Never Existed
Here Alpert offers the ethnographer’s point of view:“When Jewish culture became non official in Soviet Russia, especially after the Second World War, there was almost no official (i.e.: state-sponsored) Soviet Jewish culture, in the way there was a Soviet Ukrainian culture or Kazach Soviet culture. Yiddish culture remained in a nowhere, a twilight zone, which meant that on the one hand it was officially ignored and sometimes prohibited, and on the other hand it was allowed to exist untouched by the great machine of Sovietisation.
‘With the Soviet Jewish emigration beginning in the 1970’s you had people emerging to North America and Israel who were like time capsules, especially the old generation who came from small towns. They knew songs and recipes and Yiddish folk life and folklore that Jews in North America had forgotten, gotten rid of, didn’t know anymore because it wasn’t important to them. Yiddish culture wasn’t the marker of Jewishness in their new country, whereas it was a marker of Jewishness in the Soviet Union and remains so in the post Soviet culture today.”
Korolenko finds Jewish influences in supposedly non-Jewish Soviet culture: “Russian bardic songs carry many links to Jewish identity. At least in the sense of the alternative, clandestine, subversive and controversial Jewish otherness. Jewishness was strongly allied with other ‘othernesses’, as it is everywhere in the world. Bulat Okudzhava, who was recently translated to English, was not Jewish, although some urban legends say he was because he was very non-mainstream.
“Another example is Arkady Severny- A very important Russian clandestine singer who was known all over the country and travelled everywhere. He was an underground artist and never officially released. He sang Vysotski and lots of Odessa and immigrant songs. Severny was not Jewish at all. His Russian lineage runs for generations, but he made up this Odessa persona that made him appear Jewish for many people. For them he represented Yitshak Babel (author of the famous Odessa Tales), an Odessa that probably never existed. That Jewish part of his art was important for a lot of Russians. They loved it because it was spicy and important, familiar and alien, Svoy i tujoy (свой и чужой- a Russian expression meaning yours and exotic at the same time-o.s). It is some kind of bridge between different identities.”
“I have a word for it – Jewish”
Our conversation at the Artists’ wooden lodge is interrupted by a rehearsal in the balcony. Outside, musicians are practicing for a show of the Brothers Nazaroff, a tribute band to an unknown Russian New Yorker Jewish musician who recorded in the fifties, Nathan “Prince” Nazaroff. The Brothers Nazaroff are Kahn, Korolenko, Michael Alpert, Bob Cohen and Jake Shulman-Ment.
Listening to the music I took a moment and looked at my table partners. Here we were- a Russian-Israeli, living in Montreal, a Russian-born musician splitting his time between New York and Moscow, and an American-born, Russian-speaking musician living in Scotland, and we are all talking about klezmer and Yiddish culture. We are all connected to the same cultures despite being born in very different places. I asked my friends for their thoughts about our physical and cultural meeting points.
“I have a word for it- Jewish,” said Alpert. ‘It’s not the only aspect of Jewishness but the trans-national nature of it. It exists in many different places, threads connect it, it has very different underpinnings and national cultures and maybe political borders around it, yet there’s a lot that transcends all that and links us all. The three of us here at this table represent that: being of specific places and yet something larger at the same time, which is also very American actually.”
It’s rather Russian as well,” added Korolenko, “because Russia is everywhere.”
All three of the societies that we grew up in are very pluralistic diverse societies,” Alpert observes. “It’s true of US and Canada, It’s certainly true for Israel, as much as that may not be part of the Zionist myth, and it’s true of the Soviet Union. I’ve often felt that North America and the former Soviet Union are the most like each other. We were set up to think that we are the opposites for so long, but in many ways we are so similar. I would say the same for Israel too.
Osnat Ita Skoblinski is a writer, activist, new-media journalist and a dweller on the meeting point between culture and politics.
All photos appearing in this post were taken by Michael Prosmushkin.