In music, it doesn’t matter which direction a revolution comes from. What matters is how often these revolutions happen and what they leave behind. When performance stereotypes are broken, presentation norms twisted and turned, and genres shuffled to create a powerful impact, then music in its entirety grows to find an extended audience. This time, in Delhi, the revolution came from Russia. At least in their appearance Alexey Belkin and Alexey Sergeev don’t look like “sufi musicians” who would try to build a communion with the God over some devoted crooning. But, they do look like characters out of a Dostoevsky novel revolting against the 19th -century utilitarianism. Alexey Belkin, Dmitri Shikhardin, Alexey Sergeev, Iuliia Usova, Pavel Karpenkov and Timur Sigidin are musicians who have taken Russian folk music beyond the defined structures of sufi music in spirit, temperament and philosophy, in a mix of Russian folk, Celtic, rock and the rituals.
Clad in thin cotton vests and trousers, their freckled hands busy over an intense tuning session, Belkin, Sergeev and the other members of the Otava Yo band based in St Petersburg fuss the least about pre-concert rituals at the Kamani green room. Juliia, the violin artiste and singer, however, gives a few moments to fixing an artificial flower on her hair in front of the mirror. Their only concern—whether the audience would want to know why they were part of ICCR’s Sufi Music Festival. Belkin can defend. He says, “If folk music is played correctly it will give the same feel of something as beautiful as sufi music.”
His Gusli and the bagpipes are the soul of the band. It’s an instrument that shares a lot of similarities with the swarmandal and its hybrid modifications in structure. The playing technique makes it more useful than the swarmandal that is used merely as an accompanying instrument in Indian music. Belkin adds, “We were initially performing music together on the streets. In 2005, we decided to form a band. The bass guitar became important. We moved from a fully acoustic to a half acoustic guitar, a five-string violin, the bass drum and a bagpiper. In Russia, the Spanish bagpiper is very popular. There is a theory that bagpipers have origins in Russia, but not even a broken bagpiper would look like what we can say could have been a Russian instrument.”
How did the disintegration of the Soviet Union affect music? Belkin says, “A lot changed in Russia after the disintegration During the Soviet period, they tried to get rid of the folk music. They wanted to create a different genre using traditional Russian music. Many music institutes came up where they tried to teach the new kind of music created by folk musicians around that time. In the Soviet period one had to listen to what everyone was listening.”
All members of the band have been ardent fans of Hindi film music. Belkin adds, “I love songs from the Disco Dancer. The Russians really enjoy Swedish, Celtic and Finnish music. We initially experimented a lot with Celtic music. But we gradually brought changes into our music and concentrated on Russian folk. But Russian folk has still not managed to become the brand that Celtic music is. Celtic has many serious takers. They make unbelievably great brands. I was trying to look for some Russian folk and found only village recordings. Not everyone can appreciate this kind of music, because it is complex and the quality of records available is bad. Then, the instruments used in Russian folk music are not very popular. On the other hand, Celtic is enjoyed like pop. It’s cheerful and simple. There are dancers accompanying the musicians and it’s a good show.”