In the Catskills, Russian Music Plays You
Nov 15 2012
Back in May, a friend offered me a ticket to KSP, the largest Russian music festival on the East Coast. I accepted, but didn’t anticipate the shitshow that followed. For the next four months I became a regular attendee of a series of vodka-fueled, Woodstock-meets-Moscow-meets-sleepaway camp nostalgia-fests known as slyots, which teem with pre- and post-Soviet transplants and cover after cover of “Hotel California,” in both English and Russian. For years, Eastern European immigrants have been retreating in droves to the campgrounds of upstate New York and Pennsylvania for weekend-long getaways where they eat, booze, sing, dance, jam, and party until they can’t do any of those things anymore.
My first glimpse into slyot culture took place during a 3 AM stroll through the grounds at KSP, where I stopped at every campfire to peer into the many, many intensely intimate jam sessions, remarkable both for their technical proficiency and array of tunes—Soviet ballads one moment, cheesy American classic rock the next. The quiet intimacy was swiftly abandoned, however, once I made it to the other end of the campground, where a crowd of frenzied 20-somethings were gathered around a sizeable bonfire, belting out Russian rock hits between swigs of Jameson. They were led by a handful of musicians—mostly guitarists, though a couple drummers, violinists, and a trumpeter made appearances as well—and didn’t quit their rapturous chanting until well past daybreak.
Photo by Alexander Bolbirer
How could my sudden slyot fever be explained? Maybe it was the result of some inborn desire to get in touch with my Eastern European roots, or an underhanded attempt to irritate my staunchly pro-American immigrant parents. Maybe I was finally growing out of the mainstream indie phase I had been in for all of college. Or maybe it can be explained simply: This was fun (did I mention the rapturous sing-alongs and daydrinking?). Whatever the case, I found myself commingling with an extended ensemble of expats, some of whom engaged in the most virile displays of acoustic guitar showmanship I’d seen outside of my parents’ Vladimir Vysotsky cassettes.
By my third slyot, I was a natural: I floated from campsite to campsite, tiptoeing over guitars scattering the grounds like sleeping livestock and avoiding “Hotel California” renditions like my health depended on it. The air was saturated with barbeque and Slavic cooking aromas and I was finding it increasingly difficult to decline the copious amounts of vodka and pickled foods being offered to me by virtually every person I encountered. A barrel-chested man wearing a white beard and a bandana offered me a homemade concoction of Everclear and blackcurrant nectar, insisting I have a drink, and I decided I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Down the hatch. Somewhere, an electric guitar wailed a Metallica riff. I felt strangely at home.
Comedy night at Solnyshko. Photo by Sana Tarnavsky
Leaving civilization to face the elements is a tradition deeply embedded in Russian culture and music. The late 50s and early 60s saw the emergence of “bards,” renegade singer-songwriter types whose compositions were popularized outside of the government-approved music industry. Their avtorskiе pesni (author songs) consisted of simple melodies that could be easily learned and passed from person to person, with lyrics that encompassed all aspects of Soviet life, from nature to politics and protest. Young rebels would withdraw from their cities, retreat to distant woods and share this music with one another without the threat of state disapproval lurking overhead. Later, the bard tradition migrated to the West along with thousands of emigrants who left Russia for the USA following the collapse of the USSR.
KSP stands for Klub Samodeyatelnoy Pesni (“Club of Self-Made Song”), and was the first official East-Coast slyot. It was strictly for acoustic music and held its first gathering in May 1998, with a mere 200 people in attendance. The following year attendance tripled, and soon 3,500 KSPushniki were coming, forcing organizers to limit the number of tickets sold. This decision resulted in a lot of angry Russians who seceded from the bard-a-palooza and founded their own slyots catering to individual tastes and sensibilities. That’s how festivals like ECHO, KZM, and JetLag came about, which celebrate more contemporary forms of Russian music like rock, rap, and electronica. JetLag is the most commercial festival, featuring major headliners from Russia like the St. Petersburg-based avant-garde rock band Auktyon, which has an established cult following among Russia’s indie set.
As I discovered over the summer, every slyot has a distinct character that distinguishes it from the rest, though it seems the crowds are more or less the same at every gathering. The hardcore devotees haul ass to slyot after slyot in succession with their extended families in tow, inclement weather be damned, giddy to execute time-tested camping routines and concoct massive meals in stockpots large enough to feed squads of burly Red Army troops.
Igor "Gorynych" plays the accordian while the author sings along. Photo by Marina Barabanova
These camps are microcosms of Eastern European culture—not entirely Russian or Soviet or Western but some displaced chimera of everything. There was also a distinct hippie-Gypsy aesthetic, which I’m guessing is a testament to some eternal vagabond romanticism that comes with the territory of festival life, whether it’s a Phish show or a bunch of Russians camped out in the woods. There was also a subculture (sub-subculture?) of immigrants who have taken to the burner (that is, Burning Man-related) way of life. Whatever, I dug it. I got so into it that I was impressed that a handful of festivalgoers I met had been personally acquainted with Gypsy-punk posterboy and Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hütz at one point or another. I felt there was something unique here—forget the burners and the Eagles covers, the slyots tapped into something primeval inside me. In hopes of finding out what it was, I sought answers from the festival organizers.
All of them have full lives outside of their slyots, but that doesn’t keep them from pouring heart and soul into the planning of their events. “Pouring heart and soul” is a cliché, but there’s no other way to put it—they don’t do it for the money. Gene (Zhenya) Sakirski is one of the organizers of KZM, where Russian rap sensation Noize MC performed last August, and also a husband, father, business analyst, and a songwriter. When I talked to him, he touted the pleasant, nonviolent atmosphere at his events.
“Our fests here are somehow domashnie (domestic). You can’t really be a svinya (pig) and not have people know about it the next morning,” noted Gene on differences between commercial festivals in Russia and the DIY ones in the Catskills. There have been incidents—a couple cars were keyed, there’s been a few instances petty theft—though there’s speculation that those were the result of irate locals reacting to high noise levels polluting their otherwise bucolic and patently un-Russian territory.
One of six organizers of rock-oriented slyot ECHO is a 36-year-old Muscovite named Igor Minustin, nicknamed Gorynych after the three-headed fire-breathing dragon from Slavic folklore. Gorynych can often be found at the center of an impromptu jam session on bass with a cigarette coolly dangling from his mouth. He talks like a rocker approaching middle age too—that is, the truest kind of rocker.
“We only have live music at ECHO—that’s our strictest rule,” he said. “There’s a quote by [DDT frontman] Yuri Shevchuk: ‘Rock is when your soul is in pain and then you have to pick up a guitar’… This is a time to leave the city behind, not think about your Monday day job, and greet the sunrise with instruments in hand.”
Greeting the sunrise with your instruments in hand seems embarrassingly schmaltzy, like the end of a lousy coming-of-age film. But that’s only until you actually do it, after which all those cynical thoughts fly out of your head. You even come to sort of—sort of—enjoy “Hotel California.” In any case, I know what I’m doing next summer. Better brush up on my Russian.
Photo by Sana Tarnavsky