Mixing surf music with jail tunes

Album modernizes old Russian prison songs

June 19, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MOSCOW -- A new album here paints a scene on its cover reminiscent of a 1960s Beach Boys' record: a brilliant red-and-gold sunset behind a man wearing a lei.

But the sun is setting over a prison wall, the man is Josef Stalin and the lei is made of skulls.

Gulag Tunes, the brainchild of a part-time musician who works at a hospital morgue in Moscow, does what perhaps no other album has done before: mixes the melodies of traditional Russian prison songs with the distinctive sound of the "surf" genre.

As in the type of quick-tempo, electric-guitar-centric tunes pioneered by groups such as Jan and Dean, and repopularized in the film Pulp Fiction.

For the most part, Gulag Tunes is merely a collection of music with a clever name. Mikhail Antipov wanted to modernize in the surf style a set of old songs, some predating the 1917 Russian Revolution and others written during Stalin's day, when the forced labor camps known as the gulag came to represent the Soviet state's worst repression.

"The music speaks for itself," said Antipov, an oversized man with a graying goatee and a short ponytail.

But Antipov concedes there is a political aspect as well: The prisons in the songs might well be viewed as metaphors for the modern Russian state, which has moved to restrict freedoms, in ways large and small, since Vladimir V. Putin assumed the presidency.

"There are lots of parallels between today's life and life described in these songs," Antipov's wife, Yelena, an equally enthusiastic surf music devotee and co-producer of one of the her husband's earlier albums, said recently as she played the new disc for a first-time listener. "The songs are meant to remind people they are not totally happy and they are not totally free."

"There is a saying in Russian: `Prison or poverty can befall even you,'" said Maxim Temnov, a musician from St. Petersburg who plays guitar on Gulag Tunes. "It has always been that our state had enough authority to suppress an individual. It is as it used to be."

The album -- which features instrumentals only -- marks the latest treatment of a genre known broadly as blatnye pesni, which translates literally as "criminal songs." In part to make life behind bars more bearable, prisoners sang about it.

"They sang about their mothers, and they sang about freedom," said Maxim Kononenko, a music critic for the newspaper Gazeta, adding that early blatnye songs often romanticized criminal life.

The Soviet era spawned new prison songs, many of which came to be forbidden by the state. They dealt with the fate of innocent people condemned to the labor camps, and they were sung as anthems of protest and freedom. A few songs on Gulag Tunes were written by gulag prisoners, Antipov said, though many of the songs' authors are unknown.

The original version of the album's eighth track, "Vaninsky Port," is based on a poem said to have been written in 1951 by a man sent to a camp in the Kolyma region of Russia's Far East. Kolyma, with its unforgiving climate, was the best-known, most-feared region of the gulag; millions of prisoners died there or en route.

Damn you, Kolyma, Once called a wonderful planet, You'll lose your mind against your will, There's no escape from there.

The poem was supposedly set to music by its author's cellmate, who was later shot for the transgression.

Antipov, who has called surf music "a reflection of the world's beauty," formed his band in 2000 after setting up a recording studio in his two-bedroom apartment on Moscow's east side. It's a charitable description for the sliver of space where he plays his guitars -- he has five -- and keyboard and arranges the music on a PC. Antipov has recorded six albums, one of which was released in 2003 by the record company Soyuz, the company that released Gulag Tunes.

Rock critic Artyom Troitsky, former editor of the Russian edition of Playboy, produced the new album. He's been a fan of surf music since he first heard the Beach Boys at age 8, in 1963.

He recalls cautioning Antipov about trying to make a splash in the world of surf.

"It's quite impossible to make any impression on the outside world if you try to play surf music like the Americans do, because they will do it better," he told Antipov.

Instead, he urged Antipov to give his surf music a kind of Russian twist.

"This is how the idea of this album was born," Troitsky said.

Part of the appeal of the album to Soyuz -- which has released 1,000 copies of Gulag Tunes, all of which have sold -- apparently was the cover. Antipov designed it based in part on an old prison tattoo he found on the Internet depicting Stalin with fangs and encircled by a ring of skulls.

Antipov said, "When they saw the cover, they said, `We can easily publish this even without a disc inside.'" A second Gulag Tunes album -- this one picturing Stalin's successor, Nikita Krushchev, on the cover -- is expected out in the fall.

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

To hear a sample of one of the songs, go to baltimoresun.com/gulag.

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