Reggae & Rasta
Surviving in a Rebuilt Russia
by Dmitry Prokopenko
Reggae music in Russia has a relatively short history because during the communist period, less than 15 years ago, all forms of non-standard music was forbidden by the state. Even Rock was considered underground music. As such, bands had to make their recordings in secret often at night, using private apartments as studios. This lasted until 1984 when the first mainstream Rock groups recognized by the Communist Party recorded the first discs at the state studio, Melodia.
Neeadless to say, such exotic cultures as Rastaiari could not exist in a country wnich was isolated from the rest or the world—in a country where people had no access to international music information. The only way we could Keep in touch with tne world of Reggae was through foreign radio stations, foreign tourists and, especially, African students, In the late '70s and early '80s, the Aquarium band and its leader, Boris Grebenslicnikov, began performing Reggae and Ska and introducing sucn concepts as "Rasta," "Jan," "Babylon" and "ism- skism." However, it wasn't pure Reggae because Aquarium has always been a union of intellectuals experimenting witn different cultures, religions ana musical traditions. When Aquarium deviated from Reggae in 1983, there was a vacuum that lasted until the late '80s when the famous Perestroika began. During this period, the first MTV-style independent radio station called SNC started transmission in Moscow and St. Petersburg. That's where and when I heard the pioneers of pure Reggae in Russia, the band called Jah Division, led by Ghera, and their memorable hit, "Cubana," dedicated to the sad destiny of communist Cuba. Since then, they've made many good records, and they are still the most popular and the most famous Reggae band here. Later, I made the acquaintance of The Street Boys Company. The band, composed of 12 musicians, used to play on Nevsky Prospect (the main street of St. Petersburg) in 1991 through 1993. They mostly performed Bob Marley and Alpha Blondy classics, hut it was a revelation anyway. There was always a big crowd of spectators around because many had never heard the Reggae rhythm before. Once, an old man, about 75 years old, who was standing by my side listening to The Street Boys and slightly moving to the rhythm, turned to me and said: "What a wonderful music! I've never neard it before. You know I'd dance right now, but I'm afraid that people will tnink I'm crazy!" Another singer who deserves to be mentioned is Dr. I-Bolit and the Rainbow Army Band. He is very special because be is tne only performer on tne Russian scene wno writes and sings in Jamaican English. He has a perfect Jamaican accent. I've Known him for four years and we've played together for two, ana I've never heard him repeat his rap. Dr. I-Bolit is always loved by audiences thanks to his hits "Antarctic Cool," "Addis-Ababa," "Coming From the People," "Acid," and "Apricot Jam." Nevertheless, he still lives in poverty. Dr. I-Bolit is the only noticeable Reggae performer in St. Petersburg now, but recently two young lads—Caribasi and Archivarius (The Archivist)—have appeared on the local scene and have been received favorably. In February 1996, we took part in several concerts in Moscow dedicated to Bob Marley's birthday. We played with Jah Division and other local bands, such as Olga Arefieva and the Arc and The Jah Torch. Olga, a woman of Siberian origin, recorded a very interesting CD this year. She managed to unite Russian Foil; music and Russian vocal tradition (in one of the songs you can even hear a choir of Cossacks) with the Reggae rhythm and Rastafari poetry. As for The Jah Torch, its leader, Nama, who is from Senegal but performs in English, could be compared to Linton Kwesi Johnson, thanks to the same relaxed way of singing. Unfortunately, none of these bands is Known widely in Russia, Throughout the country, there are no specialized radio stations. SNC was closed several years ago. There are no specialized TV programs either, except for maybe once a year some channel makes a short program dedicated to Bob Marley. In all of Russia, there is only one Reggae club, Island, in Moscow, which is maintained by a group of African students. Reggae bands in St. Petersburg are forced to play on such underground stages as Tam Tam Club (recently closed), Ten Club, Wild Side, and Pereval for no fee or for a case of beer. All the Rastafari events are casual and irregular. The few Reggae bands we have are concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and we don't even know if Rastafarians exist anywhere else in Russia. Obviously, such a painful situation is caused by the deep economical crisis in our country. We can only hope for better. The main thing is that Rasta culture does exist in Russia, and it will surely survive.
This article appeared in "Reggae Report" (V14#10 1996)