A Blast From the Past

A Blast From the Past

La Minor, who made their name by singing once-banned Soviet-era songs, are back with a new album and a concert.

Published: April 24, 2013 (Issue # 1756)

Ivan Ushkov

Slava Shalygin and friend, center, surrounded by the current lineup of La Minor.

La Minor, the local urban folk band which will celebrate its 13th anniversary later this year, is back with a new album. Their first release in four years, the group sounds as fresh as ever, even if the songs themselves date back to the Soviet era.

The six-member band, which performs in Western Europe more frequently than in Russia, premiered their new album in Moscow and Pskov this past weekend, with a local premiere scheduled for Thursday. The group is about to embark on another European tour later this month.

Called “She Was the First One” (Ona Byla Pervoi), the 12-track album is the band’s seventh and features old-time gangster folk songs, whose authors are largely unknown. True to their style, they have thrown in a Soviet film song, some Soviet retro pop and an Italian version of Cher’s 1966 hit “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”

This is also the first album recorded without button accordionist Sanya Yezhov, who co-founded La Minor with vocalist Slava Shalygin in 2000.

According to Shalygin, Yezhov, whose accordion sound and stage presence were one of the band’s signature elements, chose to quit last year. He now performs with gusli player Mikhail Anukhin as part of the folk duo Slavyansky Kitsch, as well as in a folk punk duo called Fizkult Privet with guitarist Alexander Vilinsky and with the “gypsy jazz” band Chanson Manouche.

Yezhov has been replaced by Grigory Syomkin who, like Yezhov, is also a graduate of the St. Petersburg State Conservatory. With the change in lineup, the accent has now been shifted from the button accordion to the guitar, Shalygin said. There is also a new drummer, Dmitry Davydov.

“We have come up with an interesting sound, a bit different from La Minor’s previous work,” Shalygin said. “It’s somewhat richer, and the album is more guitar-based and features some well-known songs from the repertoires of Leonid Utyosov and Vadim Kozin. It has turned out to be rather gentle.”

Rounding out the band are guitarist Anton Kapelnitsky, double bassist Vasily Telegin and saxophonist Igor Kovchegov, who has officially changed his last name from Boikov. On the album, Kovchegov made his debut as a vocalist, singing on the retro pop track “Leningrad Bridges” (Leningradskiye Mosty).

La Minor was formed to perform once-banned Soviet-era underworld and backyard songs, or Blatnyak, and reach out to sophisticated audiences at rock clubs by adding tasteful, jazz-influenced arrangements. Musically, it is a far cry from what local cab drivers usually listen to on Radio Chanson, where La Minor has never had a chance to appear.

The band was ironically named after the most popular chord used in such songs, while “Blatnyak” was the title of its debut album in late 2001.

Shalygin boasts a huge collection of underground Soviet recordings by such performers as Arkady Severny, the legendary forbidden singer of Russian prison ballads and gangster songs, whose tapes were distributed furtively during the Soviet era.

It was Severny’s gangster songs that Shalygin first heard in his parents’ collection of clandestinely circulated recordings as a child. Severny (born Zvezdin) died in Leningrad in 1980 at the age of 41.

Passed from a singer to singer, the songs underwent changes in the process as performers frequently added or took out elements according to their taste, and survive to this day in a number of versions. Shalygin admitted that he did not stick to the version he heard.

For the song “Snow” (Sneg), Shalygin found and added the last verse, which had not been performed before.

He also sang “She Was the First One,” which was based on a poem by Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, without two of the verses because, he said, “sheer hell breaks out there.” In contrast, he expanded the song “The Girl from Nagasaki” (Devushka Iz Nagasaki), best known as performed by the legendary Soviet actor and singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, but based on a poem written by Soviet poet Vera Inber in the 1920s.

“It started out as a poem and was transformed into a song later,” Shalygin said. “In her original text, the captain was a cabin boy. A lot of other things have changed, too. In our version, we have completely remade the melody. I think it sounds better like this.”

The authors of several songs on the albums, such as the opening track “Photo of You” (Fotografiya), “Once Upon a Summer” (Odnazhdy Zharkim Letom) and “Snow,” remain unidentified, but are known to have been performed by Severny.

On the album, the forbidden songs are interlaced with officially approved ones such as “In the Forest in Spring” (Ya v Vesennem Lesu) from the 1970 Soviet Cold War spy movie “The Resident’s Fate” (Sudba Rezidenta).

The song “Autumn” (Osen) was composed by Soviet singer-songwriter Vadim Kozin, who was sentenced to eight years in a gulag on charges of homosexuality in 1944. Kozin chose to stay on in Magadan, in Russia’s Far East, where the camp had been located, until his death in 1994. British singer Marc Almond recorded an album of Kozin’s songs, “Orpheus in Exile: Songs of Vadim Kozin,” in 2009.

“Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” was originally written by Sonny Bono and performed by Cher, but Shalygin chose an Italian version as sung by French singer Dalida for the album.

“I think Italian sounds pretty much like Russian phonetically, and it’s the easiest language for me to sing in,” said Shalygin. The band is also known to perform an unlikely cover of Italian singer Adriano Celentano’s “Storia d’Amore,” which started as a surprise concert number in 2003 and later appeared on La Minor’s 2005 album “Smert Yuvelira” (Death of a Jeweler).

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Local cyclists often visit Finland, where exercise is combined with shopping.

The album also features the instrumental track, “Voronezh Cowboy” (Voronezhsky Kovboi). Originally known as “A Country Piece” (Pyesa v Stile Kantri), it was composed by Vyacheslav Chernikov from Voronezh, a city 500 kilometers south of Moscow, and has been performed by button accordionists and orchestras across Russia.

The songs, which sometimes tell comic stories such as the one about an extraordinary theft on a beach in Moscow, where sunbathers’ attention was deliberately distracted by a naked girl (“Once Upon a Summer”), but also explore the themes of separation and nostalgia, have been translated into English and are printed in the CD booklet. Ivan Delazari, an associate professor at St. Petersburg University, did the translations.

“He managed to translate them in verse while keeping the meter, so you can even sing them in English,” Shalygin said. The album art was designed by Alexander Stroilo, an artist from Pskov.

The group’s previous album, “Oboroty,” which translates as revolutions or circles, was released on the German Eastblok Music label in 2009 and on the Moscow-based Soyuz label the following year. The new album, however, was put out by the band itself and is credited to La Minor Records.

In a recent conversation, the 67-year-old Kolya Vasin, best-known as Russia’s number-one Beatles fan, said that Blatnyak and Western rock music were two isolated scenes hostile toward one another, but Shalygin, who is now 41, disagrees.

“It’s his vision but when I was at a ‘young pioneer’ camp, we had leaders who sang both street songs and rock,” he said. “They formed a band and performed them in the [camp’s] club. It was fun.”

The same is true for Shalygin himself, who started out as a singer with the short-lived psychobilly band Navigators in 1994 before forming La Minor. La Minor made its debut in November 2000 at the now-defunct Art Spirit club, where Shalygin worked as a manager.

Apart from Russian underworld recordings, Shalygin says he has a large collection of old jazz and swing music from the 1920s and admits to liking Johnny Cash.

“In Europe, they describe our style as ‘gangster swing’ or whatever, but I try to avoid any definitions of our style,” Shalygin said.

“That’s why I don’t know what to say. There is a bit of this and a bit of that in it. The musicians are all good, half of them have jazz backgrounds, half of them are from the conservatory.”

La Minor’s upcoming 25-date European tour is scheduled to start at Nymburk, in the Czech Republic, on April 30 and will also include concerts in Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland.

Some of the concerts will be combined with screenings of German director Peter Rippl’s 2012 documentary, “No Trust. No Fear. Ask Nothing. On the Myth of Russian Gangster Chanson,” where La Minor is featured alongside ska-punk band Leningrad, underground singer and poet Stas Baretsky and rapper Noggano.

According to Shalygin, the band has built its own European audience through regular tours to Western Europe, rather than by performing to the Russian diaspora, as is the case with many Russian rock bands touring internationally.

“We’ve been touring since 2001, so they know us, especially in Germany, as well in Belgium and Austria,” he said.

“In fact, very few Russians come to the gigs; even in big cities such as Berlin and Hamburg, most of the audience are Germans.”

Speaking last week, Shalygin admitted that vaults of urban folk and retro songs from where he digs out the material for the band are about to run out.

“I wouldn’t want to perform just anything that comes to hand,” he said, adding that he has accumulated a number of his own songs and is planning to put together a full set of the material.

One of them, “Song About Life” (Pro Zhizhn), was released as a YouTube video in 2011.

“We are going to put together a set within a year or so,” he said. “They’re somewhat in the same vein [as everything else we do], and yet different at the same time.”

La Minor will perform at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 25 at Avrora Concert Hall, St. Petersburg Hotel, 5/2 Pirogovskaya Naberezhnaya. M: Ploshchad Lenina. Tel. 907 1917.

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