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How a Group of Young Russians Are Creating Culture with Folk Music

About the authorFor lovers of Russian culture, folklore, and history, Kotar’s work is a treasure. The grandson of White Russian immigrants, the 34-year-old is an author of epic fantasy novels inspired by Russian fairy tales. You can see his four books here on Amazon.

He is also a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, a professional translator, and choir director at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he lives. Here is his bio from his blog, where he writes about many aspects of Russia. We highly recommend following it and subscribing to his email list to get exclusive material.

He has an excellent Pinterest page, and you can follow him on Facebook. Here is an archive of his work published on Russia Insider.


This week, we conclude the amazing story of Anna

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about Russian culture or history on my blog. There have been lots of good reasons for that. Some of them are trivial, but some had to do with big changes and developments in life. In any case, I’m back and will post something specifically to do with Russian culture or history twice a month. The other two weeks will be dedicated to video reviews and cultural rants on various topics.

This week I found an in incredible story about a group of young people who are embodying a critical artistic principle that drives my own writing. Innovation within an existing tradition.And these kids are amazing. The sound of their signing is super authentic, and very difficult to reproduce.

I’ve translated here an interview with one of them from Russian. You can find the original Russian here.

The creative ensemble “Under the Clouds” is a group of young professions united by a common love for old Russian folk singing. This year, they are planning their first major concert in Moscow, as well as the first “folk camp” ever organized in Russia. What is a folk camp? Why should we care about a rebirth of folk culture? This is what we talked about with Nadezhda Gusarova, one of the members of the ensemble. 

Nadezhda, how was the ensemble “Under the Clouds” born?

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Most of us met while we were students in different schools all over the country. We were all members of various folk ensembles. You know there are many folk festivals all over the country .Well, it was at one of these that we all met. Then we started to socialize more and plan get-togethers for various church feasts, and all we ever did together was walk around and sing. We shared songs and planned to learn new ones for our next meeting. 

That continued for about two years, then our Arseny said that there would be a chance to go to the Russian North with a group from Sretensky monastery. The point of the trip was to travel through various far-flung villages, sing, dance, and offer master classes in singing to the local population. We all went without even thinking about it much. That was the beginning of our ensemble and our projects. 

How many times have you traveled to the North?

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Three times. After being there once, it’s hard to deny yourself further trips. The North is amazing. The nature, landscapes, the unique Northern architecture with its wooden churches. The way people live there. They’re not as open as Southerners, but despite their laconic nature and their severity there’s a lot of wisdom and sincerity.

I heard that you don’t have a director. Who gives the tone and the creative direction for the ensemble?

Yes, from the beginning we rejected the idea of a creative director. Every member of our group has a certain job to do, and this can change based on the situation or the project. Some people organize concerts, some collect music for our expeditions, someone looks for new songs to sing, someone organizes rehearsals and makes sure everyone comes. As for the singing itself, we have a few professional ethnomusicologists who try to do everything to make sure that we keep to an authentic kind of sound. 

What is a “folk camp”?

We wanted to show the Russian North, its depth and beauty, to other people. More than that, we’ve always wanted to attract young people to the theme of the traditional culture of our people. The realization of this project in real life became possible after we received a grant. The folk camp is a kind of educational summer camp. The thirty participants will live in century-old wooden huts, and for a week we’ll give them intensive training in ancient songs, folk choreography, traditional instruments. We’ll have some lectures on folklore, the various folk customs of the Russian people, craft workshops in woodwork and iconography. 

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It so happens that some of our members are actual ethnomusicologists, while the others are also highly-placed professionals in other fields. Arseny, for example, restores icons for a living. He has led excursions several times to ancient Russian cities, so he’ll be leading some tours to old wooden churches and he’ll tell us about the architecture of each place. As for Dionisii, he’s a surgeon! And Katia is a midwife, so we’re all covered (she laughs). 

So why did you use an English word (camp) for your project?

We’re trying to preserve Russian culture, but at the same time we have to understand that we can’t avoid developing together with society. We can’t all walk around in old folk costumes, for example. Folk costumes were appropriate for their time, but not for the modern city. We can design modern clothing that would be both functional and contemporary, but also based on the traditions of old weaving and design.

And our young people find the word much more attractive than using a Russian word like “summer camp” or “school” (lager’ and shkola). It’s sad, but it’s true. 

And people responded! We had to choose only thirty from over two hundred applicants. Mostly, we chose people who had no knowledge at all of Russian folklore. A few of them were teachers and journalists who might help spread our ideas about restoring culture to the larger world. We truly hope this won’t be the only time we host something like this. 

If this project will be a success, do you think you might expand your geographic focus?

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Sure! We hope that this will become a yearly project. There’s clearly a ton of interest for such a thing, and that means we need to keep it going. But we have to manage the first one first! Maybe it’ll turn into a good tradition. 

Who would you like to see come to your Moscow concert?

Of course, we’d like to see all our folklorist friends there. But even more, we’d love to see new people who found us on the internet, who have never listened to real Russian music, who would like to get to know it better. In some sense, we want to change how people see such concerts, because for the most part, folklore concerts are visited by a really small subset of people. Our concert isn’t going to be business as usual, so we hope its format will interest pretty much anyone. 

We’re choosing the most vivid songs and collecting them into a common story, woven together with multimedia, light, and sound effects. But it’s better to see it than talk about it! 

Do you have any other goals?

Yes. We want to make folklore more popular among the younger generation, to speak a common language with them. But to do it without losing an authentic sound and manner of performance. 

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