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Struggle over Identity

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Nelly Bekus

Part VI. Cultural Manifestation versus Social Reification

Chapter 26. Independent Rock Music: Critical Reflection and Protest

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  • 1 Three CDs were released in 2006–2007: Pesni Svabody, VoliaMusic, 2006, Pesni Svabody 2, VoliaMusic (...)

1Another sphere conducive to an alternative Belarusianness that has access to public manifestation is Belarusian rock music. A number of Belarusian groups, many of which perform in Belarusian, have become symbols of Belarusian political nonconformism (Krama, Neuro Dubel, N.R.M., Palac, Novaye Neba [New Heaven], and many others). Their music, unlike the cinema and theater described in the preceding chapters or even the tournaments of medieval knight clubs to be described in the next chapter, has an entirely different formula of interaction with the audience. Their CDs become part of everyday life for young Belarusians. Hit parades, concerts, annual festivals, rock award ceremonies (e.g., the Rock Crown) have made Belarusian rock music an influential instrument of manifestation of alternative Belarusianness. Thus, the Basowiszcza festival, Belarus’s largest annual youth-music festival, has been held in Poland for seventeen years; the independent annual rock festival “Rock-Kola” has been held annually for seventeen years in Polatsk (in 2007 the local authorities declared that the following year’s festival would not be permitted in this city, and organizers plan to move the festival abroad). The annual Belarusian rock award “Rock Crown” ceremony was resurrected in 2005. Alternative Belarusian youth music is represented by a wide range of trends from heavy rock music and rap to ethno, folk, folk-rock, folk-modern, and ancient music. Besides solo albums, collective CDs are regularly released in Belarus, which consolidate Belarusian rock music on the basis of a common idea of free Belarus—an alternative to the existing Belarusian state. While these collections often combine compositions of different styles and genres, they are united in their freedom-loving aspirations. An example of such a collection is People’s Album (Narodny Albom) (First released in 1997, and presented as an annual concert under the same title since then), Christmas Album (Kaliadny albom), A Saint Night-2000 (Swiataia Noch-2000), I Was Born Here (Ia naradziusia tut) (2000, a collection of Belarusian songs, marches or anthems of Belarus at various times, is combined with patriotic compositions of contemporary musicians). A concert held in 2000 for the first time in Minsk, with the same title as the latter CD “I Was Born Here,” became the first action of the all-national mobilization election campaign, in which a multitude of public organizations of Belarus participated. “I Was Born Here” was a vivid example of politicization of the actual youth music space, which led to cooperation between musicians and the political opposition. Another, later example of similar interaction is the musical project “Songs of Freedom” (Pesni Svabody, Parts 1, 2, 3).1

Disk cover “Songs of Freedom”

2Some examples of popular lyrics of Belarusian alternative music provided below show the various forms political messages acquire in contemporary Belarusian music. They reveal the layer of critical reflection in the song lyrics concerning what goes on in the country.

  • 2 P. Sadouski, “Natsiianalnaia identychnasts’: patriatychnaia i pazytyvisckaia interpretatsii,” Fila (...)

3Some Belarusian musicians express their civic position by referring to Belarusian history. Their performances of music of the Middle Ages (often in modern arrangements) is in fact a means of popularizing the Belarusian past (the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania [GDL]), as the musicians themselves often mention. The group Stary Olsa (The Old Olsa) is a kind of trendsetter in contemporary Middle Ages Belarusian music with a clear “historical” concept. In its creative activities the group is guided by the style of the Middle Ages and popularizes the epoch of the GDL as a special period of Belarusian musical culture. At the same time, the content of many compositions is also connected with the topics of that time. For instance, in the song “Litvin,” the authors refer to the heroic past of Lit vin—a historic Belarusian name in GDL times. Here they mention heroic deeds near Smolensk (in wars with the Moscow Principality) and Grunwald. In this case, musicians overcome the gap in historiography caused by insufficient emphasis on the Battle of Grunwald in heroization of the Belarusian past in the works of Belarusian alternative historians mentioned by P. Sadouski.2 Litvin, the protagonist of the song is a warrior who had multiple victories, including in the Battle of Grunwald.

  • 3 Song “Litvin,” (folk music, text: Z. Sasnouski folk stylized), Stary Olsa, CD “Shliakh,” BMA Group (...)

Litvin was going along blue water,
Three days and three nights, with his sword covered in blood
Litvin was walking in Grunwald,
Three days and three nights, playing with his chain,
Litvin was riding near Smolensk
Three days and three nights, chopping with his saber
Litvin swore in the saint oak forest on his old sword
To fight foreigners.3

4The group Testamentum Terrae (Latin for “Testament of the Land”) at tempts to fill in the sound gap in Belarusian cultural legacy. Because contemporary people have no chance to hear the original sound of ancient music, Testamentum Terrae took on the task of restoring the authentic sound of our ancestors’ music. They use a great number of instruments— traditional pipes and fiddles, as well as the lute, the shalmei, zhaleykas—all reproduced based on pictures of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. According to Y. Pankevich, the founder and leader of the group, the album Slauny Panich (Honest Young Gentlemen)4 “presents music of our land from the Middle Ages and later times. The heroic nature of our ancestors inspires us and all those who are fond of history.”5

  • 6 Piosenki samotnaga Litvina, P.L.A.N, BMA Group, 2006.
  • 7 Tuzin Hitou, “P.L.A.N.—Pesenki Samotnaga Litvina. Znich Nadzei,” May 24, 2006, http://music.fromby (...)

5A music critic wrote about the album Piosenki samotnaga Litvina (Songs of Lonely Litvin) of another group, P.L.A.N6 that their disc “could have been released at the beginning of the past century if a music industry had existed then.”7 The song titles and main themes refer to that time: “People, Find Yourself,” “My Land, I Love You,” and “This Land Is Given by the Lord.” On the one hand, the word “Litvin” as a definition of a Belarusian refers to people’s roots and traditions in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, the people’s problems here are similar to those that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century. The lyrics contain a multitude of quotations and allusions to the poetry of Yanka Kupala, Yakub Kolas, Maksim Bagdanovich, Natalia Arsenneva. Some compositions are reworkings of folklore. Both the content and genre of this album restore the atmosphere of the first Belarusian revival, which today, a century later, sounds topical.

  • 8 Try kolery-2 was organized in 1988.
  • 9 Anatol Myalgui, “Festyvalu “Try kolery” – 20 god,” "Tuzin Hitou", April, 26, 2006, http://music.fr (...)

6The main patriotic load of Belarusian youth culture is borne by overly political albums and compositions. The national-cultural and political orientation in Belarusian music has a tradition that started, according to some authors, back in 1986 at the first festival, titled Try kolery (Three Colors).8 As Anatol Myalgui, a music critic and alternative music activist writes in his account of the event, the festival arose from the impetus “to do something that would draw Belarusian culture from the village ‘bast shoes of folklore,’ habitually provided by the party bosses and local Russian-speaking intelligentsia at the time. We meant to persuade all those who had erased Belarusianness that it was alive in modern forms and had a historical perspective.”9 The repertoire speaks in favor of the original historical consciousness of Belarusian rock music. The hard-rock band Magistrat performed the song Geroiam Grunvaldu (“To the Heroes of Grunwald”). Considering that no official textbook of that period ever mentioned the participation of Belarusian warriors in this battle, the musicians presented an alternative to the entire paradigm of official history education. The official explanation of the festival name “Three Colors” was related to the participation of groups who performed three different styles of music: pop rock (the band Minsk), heavy metal (Magistrat), and new wave (Bonda). But at that time, the youth cultural movement Talaka was very active. Among its supporters were many amateurs of Belarusian-language rock music, and it was they who conceived the perception of the festival’s name based on the three colors—white-red-white—of the Belarusian national flag in 1991–95, which later became the main symbol of the Belarusian opposition.

7From the moment that the white-red-white flag became a symbol of the opposition, it launched a new stage in Belarusian rock music. In reply to the 1995 referendum, the group Novaie Nieba (New Heaven) released an album titled Maia Kraina (My Country), which music critic Siargei Budkin called “the most timely album in Belarusian rock music.”10 The song “My Country” from this album presents the image of Belarus as an alternative to the current Belarusian state ruled by A. Lukashenka. “My Country” is just a country where the common people live, but their distinction is that their country is “under a white banner with a red ribbon.”

  • 11 “Maia Kraina,” (music; Novaie Neba, text; Liavon Volski), CD „Maia kriaina”, Novaie Neba, Kovcheg, (...)

I love to see the shining sun
In the morning through the curtain
I like the smell of fresh coffee The smell of fried potatoes
I like the smoke of a cigarette
I like the smell of perfume
I like cold blues
I like my old jeans
I live in this country […] My country is under a white banner
Under a white banner with a red ribbon. My freedom11

8The phrases “my country […] under a white banner with a red ribbon […] my freedom” sounded as an appeal to recognize what had happened in the country after the state symbols changed. The problem that musicians were singing about and opposition politicians were talking about was more profound and serious—in the first referendum the Belarusian president initially demonstrated his style of government, manipulation of public opinion, and pressure on voters.

9In addition to the song “My Country,” the band performed other compositions protesting against political developments in the country. One of the more sensational compositions, Idi damou! (Go Home!) is written in a very reserved mode, although it is undoubtedly opposed to the true face of the authorities, as revealed in the referendum. Those who trust the authorities are equated with those who “look at the red sky and hope it will rain” or “those who look at the dry soil and hope the crops will grow.” The only hope for Belarus to return to normal life is to send home the person who has become president.

  • 12Idzi damou” (text and music: Novaie Neba), CD Go Home, Kovcheg, 1995.

You and I, we chose three words,
But “they” would not listen,
We chose three words,
President, go home […]12

10Since recording “Go Home!” at the state teleradiostation in 1995, a number of former workers of Belarusian state radio, together with Kasia Kamockaia, vocalist and head of Novaie Nieba, have not been allowed on the premises. And the name Novaie Nieba has not been pronounced on radio and television since then.

  • 13 CD Kryvavy Sakavik (text and music: Chyrvonym pa belym), LP, AmbasadaMG ns , 2007.

11During the past ten years, alternative national symbols have often been the focus of musicians’ attention. They have always served as a sign of acute political and cultural opposition. The first conceptual Belarusian hip-hop project was called Chyrvonym pa belym (“With Red Against White”).13 In 2006, the Chyrvonym pa belym released the album Kryvavy Sakavik (The Bloody March), which is devoted to the political protest against the falsification of the president election’s result in March of that same year. In the composition of the same name, is a refrain about a green and red March— the colors of the official Belarusian flag, which becomes a symbol of alienation, and makes Belarusians feel as if they are “guests” in this country:

  • 14Kryvavy Sakavik”, Chyrvonym pa belym 2006–2007, Ambasada Music Group, 2007.

March is a green month
March is a red month
Like a flag on the map
We feel like guests at home14

  • 15 Bats’kaushchyna (text: Takidang, music: Recha), Recha, in Album Pesni Svabody-3, Volia Music 2007.
  • 16 Tuzin Hitou, “Rekha suprats’ stabilnastsi,” September, 8, 2006, http://music.fromby.net/article/33 (...)

12The alienation between Belarusianness as a true national idea and official Belarusianness is revealed differently in music. The band Recha’s (the Echo) song titled Bats’kaushchyna (Fatherland)15 is devoted to the topic of military occupation, which is reminiscent of old history. It is a song about partisan ship during World War II—about treachery, revenge, suffering, and dancing to alien music (“You wait for us, don’t dance to their music”). But the context implies that the military occupation is perceived just as an allegory. The musicians admit it themselves when they say they “were forced to choose the topic of war by the current state of Belarusian society, where everybody dances to alien songs.”16 That is why the main sense of the song lies in its analogy to modern life—today, too, the authorities are alien to the Belarusian people, they are not Belarusian.

Krou, the rapper behind “With Red Against White,” at a concert (2006).

Source: music.fromby.net.

13The history of Belarusian rock music in public life is very closely connected with politics. Since the mid-1990s, most rock bands have gone to the extreme in accepting the position of political opposition. In July 2004, exactly ten years after Lukashenka was elected president, these groups took part in a concert held immediately after a political rally timed to coincide with the constitutional “end” of Lukashenka’s term in office—a term that would have ended, if Lukashenka had not called a 1996 referendum to alter his term’s starting date.

14Since then, these rock bands have been blacklisted and their songs banned from radio; they have not been invited to appear on television, and their concerts have often been prohibited from taking place under various pretexts. At the same time, the groups frequently perform at political opposition meetings, of which their performances have become an integral part and play the role of informal support for the speeches of opposition politicians. Belarusian rock music has become not only a cultural underground phenomenon but also a sphere of political self-determination for those who perform it and listen to it.

15Music was a fundamental element of the March protest in the square against the falsified results of the 2006 presidential elections. Comments about the disc Pesni Svabody (Songs of Freedom) include: “Musical spring 2006 will be specifically remembered on this disc—in a simple envelope, with rich content (twenty-three songs). The disc contains only hits and is devoted only to freedom.”17

16Another disc, Pesni Svabody–2, released in July 2006 was timed to the restoration of Independence Day in Belarus on August 27 (the day that the Declaration of Independence of Belarus was adopted in 1991, and later abolished by the Belarusian president). Still later, a third project, Pesni Svabody–3 Ploshcha Kalinouskaga, was released, devoted to the events of March 2006. The liner notes to the disc read: “Songs of Freedom is more than a typical musical project. It is a manifesto written using guitars and tambourines.” The collection represents not only different styles and trends but also different generations. Many compositions depict the direct reaction of musicians to events in the square. The group With Red Against White recorded the track “The Bloody March.” The poet Andrei Khadanovich wrote the song To the Memory of Those on Kastus Kalinouski Square. The leader of Bez Bileta, Vital Artist, dedicated his composition Kalinouski Square to the participants in Spring 2006, which is an instrumental work in the soundtrack genre and not specifically based on the rules of rock music. It sounds like a musical accompaniment to the events in the Minsk square with its tents.

17The producers (Volia Music) chose a unique method for disseminating these discs—they filled the demand via free distribution. The free discs can be ordered by mail or through the Internet by download from the Web site http://www.za-svabodu.org. Here the musicians and producers relinquish their commercial interests in order to use music as a form of political and cultural protest, as an instrument of disseminating specific ideas.

18Many Belarusian musicians express open confrontation to the authorities in their compositions. Events in the country cause them to respond anew each time, and many works of Belarusian groups are replies to the words or actions of the regime. As a reaction to the description of participants in the March protest as a bunch of young rascals—as the protesters were called in the state-run media—the group N.R.M. sings the song “Nas Dakhalery!” (There Are Loads of Us!).

  • 18 Song “Nas dakhalery!” (text and music: N.R.M.) Album “06”, N.R.M., 2007.

We are blacklisted, we have been there long
You won’t have enough paper to list us all
We are millions, There Are Loads of Us!18

  • 19 Song „Belarus’“ (text: Tabolich, music: Znich), Album “Kryzhy-Abiaregi,” BMA Group 2006.
  • 20 Belarus’ budzie volnai (text and music: Tavarysh Mauzer), Tavarysh Mauzer and Sveta Sugaka, CD „Pr (...)

19One can find numerous other examples of musical protest against the current Belarusian authorities. The group Znich in the song “Belarus’” describes the country as “a bird, who aspires to freedom, so, let it live in freedom.”19 Chanting in the hard-rock style—“Belarus’ budzie volnai!” (Belarus will be free!) by Tavarysh Mauzer together with Sveta Sugaka (this group also collaborates with the Free Theater).20

20In 2006 the composition Mensk i Minsk by N.R.M. was named Song of the Year, according to the opinion poll conducted on the Tuzin Hitou Web site. Referring to two versions of the Belarusian capital’s name—Minsk as the officially accepted one and Mensk as a popular name among cultural and political oppositionists—the song depicts life in two different cities located on the same territory and in the same streets. “In our capital we live as if in two families […] Mensk and Minsk are like two halves of the capital’s soul.” In Minsk there are residential permits and a City Hall, an Ice Palace and concrete parking lots, streets with joyless Soviet names and equally joyless Soviet habits. Mensk is a town that lives not so much on the map as in the souls of true Belarusians and those who value history and the pre-Soviet past of their town.

  • 21 Song Mensk i Minsk (text and music: N.R.M. and L. Volski), CD „Prem’ier Tuzin 2007“, uzin Gitou, N (...)

It is so nice to walk along in
Mensk
With its cozy lights in small shops With the spikes and towers of old churches Old yards, and walls, and roofs […]21

21The opposition of two aspects of the Belarusian capital is an allegory for the patterns of life in Belarusian society. One aspect is connected with all of the rites and practices of socialization that everyone here acquires willingly or not. The other aspect is born out of a reflective and critical attitude to the present and leads to the search for an alternative version of Belarus as an idea and a country.

***

22The Website Tuzin Hitou gives statistics citing 50,000 downloads of the first collection of Songs of Freedom. Taking into account that this figure represents only part of those who are actually familiar with this music (some have subscribed to free discs, others have downloaded the music from their friends), we can confidently state the “public” nature of this music makes it one of the most influential instruments of manifestation of opposition ideas in Belarusian society. The official ideologists are well aware of this, too. Autumn 2007 is known in Belarusian society as the time of the authorities’ decision to have a dialogue with the Belarusian opposition musicians. Aleg Praliaskouski, head of the Ideology Department of the presidential administration, invited leaders of the most popular blacklisted Belarusian groups to his office for a discussion. He not only acknowledged that some musicians are prevented from performing but also proposed cooperation by offering them state help, access to TV and radio, and support for organizing a major concert “Rock for Belarus.” The musicians refused to sing under this politically charged motto (“For Belarus” is the slogan of all major pro-Lukashenka political campaigns).

23The Belarusian independent rock-music audience was split in its opinion concerning the musicians’ meeting with the country’s main ideologist. Some saw the conversation as a good sign, others called the musicians traitors.22 An editorial in the newspaper Nasha Niva commented on this as a victory: “First of all, this move shows that the authorities failed to make Belarusian rock submit to their will. But if you fail to overpower someone, you can always try to buy him. This is the logic of official morality. In any case, today we celebrate the great victory of our music and our language. Let them sound and time will settle everything.”23 Pit Pavlov, the leader of N.R.M., saw things this way, too. “It was not the musicians who gave way to the authorities, but the authorities who gave way to the musicians.”24 Though, Kasia Kamotskaia called the meeting “a dialogue between a cat and a mouse.”25

24Regardless of the consequences, one can say that such an invitation to cooperate with the authorities was an attempt to legalize independent rock music in the official cultural space. While this meant recognition of its efficiency and power, at the same time, it was an attempt to neutralize rock music as a form of manifestation and instrument of consolidation of opposition Belarusianness.

Notes

1 Three CDs were released in 2006–2007: Pesni Svabody, VoliaMusic, 2006, Pesni Svabody 2, VoliaMusic, 2006, Pesni Svabody-3 Ploshcha Kalinouskaga, VoliaMusic 2007. Tuzin Hitou, (music portal dedicated to Belarusian music), http://music.fromby.net/sliberty.

2 P. Sadouski, “Natsiianalnaia identychnasts’: patriatychnaia i pazytyvisckaia interpretatsii,” Filamaty, no. 1 (8) (2004), http://kamunikat.fontel.net/www/czasopisy/filamaty/08/03.htm

3 Song “Litvin,” (folk music, text: Z. Sasnouski folk stylized), Stary Olsa, CD “Shliakh,” BMA Group, 2004, http://staryolsa.com/eng/texts.html.

4 Album Slauny Panich, Testamentum Terrae, BMA Group, 2007.

5 Tuzin Hitou, December 11, 2007, http://music.fromby.net/article/968.

6 Piosenki samotnaga Litvina, P.L.A.N, BMA Group, 2006.

7 Tuzin Hitou, “P.L.A.N.—Pesenki Samotnaga Litvina. Znich Nadzei,” May 24, 2006, http://music.fromby.net/article/575.

8 Try kolery-2 was organized in 1988.

9 Anatol Myalgui, “Festyvalu “Try kolery” – 20 god,” "Tuzin Hitou", April, 26, 2006, http://music.fromby.net/article/181.

10 Siargei Budkin, “Novaie Nieba u sali slavy,” Tuzin Hitou, September 19, 2007, http://music.fromby.net/article/833.

11 “Maia Kraina,” (music; Novaie Neba, text; Liavon Volski), CD „Maia kriaina”, Novaie Neba, Kovcheg, 1996.

12Idzi damou” (text and music: Novaie Neba), CD Go Home, Kovcheg, 1995.

13 CD Kryvavy Sakavik (text and music: Chyrvonym pa belym), LP, AmbasadaMG ns , 2007.

14Kryvavy Sakavik”, Chyrvonym pa belym 2006–2007, Ambasada Music Group, 2007.

15 Bats’kaushchyna (text: Takidang, music: Recha), Recha, in Album Pesni Svabody-3, Volia Music 2007.

16 Tuzin Hitou, “Rekha suprats’ stabilnastsi,” September, 8, 2006, http://music.fromby.net/article/338.

17 Tuzin Hitou, “Pesni Svabody–3. Pl. Kalinouskaga,” June 18, 2007, http://music.fromby.net/article/730.

18 Song “Nas dakhalery!” (text and music: N.R.M.) Album “06”, N.R.M., 2007.

19 Song „Belarus’“ (text: Tabolich, music: Znich), Album “Kryzhy-Abiaregi,” BMA Group 2006.

20 Belarus’ budzie volnai (text and music: Tavarysh Mauzer), Tavarysh Mauzer and Sveta Sugaka, CD „Prem’ier Tuzin 2007“, uzin Gitou, Vestrekords-plus, 2006.

21 Song Mensk i Minsk (text and music: N.R.M. and L. Volski), CD „Prem’ier Tuzin 2007“, uzin Gitou, Novaia muzychnaia kampania, 2007.

22 Irina Khalip, “V situacii vybora nachodiatsia vse,” Charter 97, November 30, 2007, http://www.charter97.org/ru/news/2007/11/30/2011.

23 Barys Tumar, “Rock for Belarus?” Nasha Niva Blog Nearby, November 22, 2007, http://www.nn.by/index.php?c=ar&i=13196.

24 Naviny, “Belorusskie rokery rasstavliali tochki na “I,” November 27, 2007, http://naviny.by/rubrics/society/2007/11/23/ic_articles_116_154113.

25 Kasia Kamotskaia, “Eto dialog koshki s myshkoi,” Charter 97, November 22, 2007, http://www.charter97.org/ru/news/2007/11/22/1781.

Table des illustrations

Légende Disk cover “Songs of Freedom”
URL http://books.openedition.org/ceup/docannexe/image/629/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 124k
Légende Krou, the rapper behind “With Red Against White,” at a concert (2006).
URL http://books.openedition.org/ceup/docannexe/image/629/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 279k

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