‘Traditional music is a living organism’ This Northern Caucasian record label is building a local indie music scene with a global online audience
On August 10 and 11, the Fields festival is bringing a unique lineup of musicians to Moscow. According to its organizers, Fields is the only music festival in Russia that has no genre restrictions whatsoever: It features everything from ambient music to techno to academic avant-garde classical pieces. This year, Fields is showing multiple artists from Ored Recordings, a small label based in the Kabardino-Balkaria region’s capital city of Nalchik. The label’s founders, Bulat Khalilov and Timur Kodzokov, have been making field recordings of traditional music from the Northern Caucasus region for five years. They search for new artists in cities and small villages alike and publish albums of their songs to help the local indie scene keep growing. Meduza spoke with Khalilov about how he looks for traditional talent in 2019, why those musicians are nothing like the wizened, bearded men most Russians might imagine, and how Nalchik’s residents came to fall in love with industrial techno beats.
Meduza: How do you look for musicians to record? Just word of mouth? Or do you go after a certain genre?
Bulat Khalilov: We use everything we can. Word of mouth, YouTube, social media pages for individual republics or ethnic groups. If it’s Circassian, things are easier for us because we’re Circassian ourselves, and we know everybody. In other republics, we have do to some research.
There was a moment when it hit us like a lightning bolt that we had to go to Dagestan. In 2014, we found out that in Dagestan, there are people called ashugi — they’re like bards or storytellers. In other regions of the Caucasus, they’re considered to have disappeared back in the 20th century, but it seems like that wasn’t the case in Dagestan. We were wondering whether they were just calling all musicians ashugi or whether that tradition had really survived. We started looking for them on YouTube and found some videos. Some of them were awful, some of them were awesome, and it turned out that one of the ashugi I’d found was my high school friend’s uncle. He put us in touch. At this point, it’s easier to look for people because we already have a network, and folklore scholars help us out, too.
But the musicians aren’t always villagers. Everybody thinks traditional performers are all old men from villages somewhere high up in the mountains. That’s not true. One of our main resident artists, Zaur Nagoy, lives in Maykop, which is a city. He’s a trained journalist. He’s not some shaman who lives in the mountains and meditates all day. Yes, he can go out horseback riding in the woods for a week if he wants, but we keep in touch through WhatsApp. Right now, we’re bringing him to the Fields festival and figuring out our repertoire through Telegram. You could call that inauthentic, but traditional music is a living organism. The people who make it aren’t aliens, and they haven’t just stepped out of time machines either.
When you traveled with Vincent Moon around the Caucasus, he was making a film with those kinds of musicians featured. A normal-looking guy in a baseball cap who’s actually a remarkable singer, for example.
Yeah, that’s Zamudin [Guchev]. He’s one of the leading figures in contemporary Circassian music.
It’s just that people exoticize culture. We think that a performer like that must be some guy on a horse spewing ancient wisdom. But he actually goes to work, cooks food at home, has a TV, has a laptop — and that’s fine. We never try to pass off our music in press releases as “the most unique thing you’ve ever heard”; we never say “the spirits of the ancestors ooze out of this music” or “this music will take you on a journey through time.” No! What we emphasize is that anyone can perform this music. Some traditional performers aren’t very pleasant people, but they play and sing really well, and there’s nothing cosmic behind that. Sometimes, you find good people who are average musicians, just like you would anywhere else.
It’s our problem, yours and mine, that what we expect is a wise old man. Of course, these performers aren’t stupid — they’ve got something in their brains — but that’s not just because they play traditional music. There are wise old men who do other things — bake bread, program software. People are always looking for some dark, mysterious character who, even if they’re a hip-hop artist or a techno DJ, can tell us all some deep truth about life. What we’re trying to show is that anyone can do this.
But aren’t traditional musicians usually older in any case?
It depends on the region. In Dagestan, the youngest person we’ve recorded is a little over 40, but in Abkhazia, there’s a very talented young guy, around 19 years old, and he’s really cool. In the Circassian community, performers tend to be somewhere between 16 and 45. There’s a kind of revival right now, and young people have started getting interested. They’ve figured out that this is music, not some old trunk your grandad left in the cupboard decades ago.
How have the performers themselves reacted to your project? Do they ever turn down the chance to be recorded?
We’ve never had anyone turn us down, but everyone thinks it’s a little weird that we’re doing this. They wonder especially why we do field recordings. They say albums have to be recorded in studios, and we tell them, no, not necessarily. We explain that this is our sound. But some people still think, okay, I’ve done a recording for Ored — now it’s time to find a real studio.
In Dagestan, we recorded an ashug, and he asked, is anyone paying you for this? We told him no. So why do it? Well, it’s just great music. So are you from Dagestan? No, we’re not. So why do you like it? It sounds cool. He was shocked. He thought this music was just for folklore scholars and journalists, something a random person would never listen to. But we’re proving that other people like to listen to their music, too. Just now, we’ve had a vinyl release of Kalmyk music on the Belgian label Sub Rosa. We visited all the performers to take photos for the cover. They’d ask, “So, are there many Kalmyks in Belgium?” They were in shock at the idea that somebody could like their music just because.
They’re all very grateful because they see it as a way for us to help them preserve their culture. But we never actually say that. We never tell a performer, “We’ve come to save your culture.” If someone approached me like that, I would probably kick them out.
How do the musicians react when you show them the final recording?
A lot of them who grew up on pop music think the tracks should be a little louder. But we tell them we like it this way. Usually, they say, “I do, too, but it would just be nice…” And then we explain that they can do whatever they want once the recording is finished.
The format [of modern recorded music] gives us big problems with epics. For example, the Kalmyks have the Dzhangar: It’s sung under a monotonal accompaniment, and it can take an hour to sing a single chapter. Since festival organizers tell people nobody’s going to listen to this stuff for an hour, it’s impossible to find anyone in Kalmykia now who can just sing the whole song from memory. People still technically have the words memorized, but they haven’t sung them for 20, 30 years because there’s no demand.
We want to create conditions where it’s a good thing for you to perform in these less convenient formats. We want to show that an experimental environment doesn’t require you to make three-minute-long tracks. You can do a 12-hour concert if you want. Nobody has to sit there the whole time if they don’t want to. If they get tired of it, they can leave. We want to make it so that the performers themselves respect their music, so that they don’t think what they’re playing would sound better autotuned.
There’s a catch, though: If you want to make a lot of money fast, then of course, it’s better not to do things the way we do.
So your label isn’t monetized in any way? You do everything for free, both you and the performers?
Yeah, that’s how it is. We’ve started taking them to festivals now, and we have a non-negotiable condition: There have to be honoraria for the performers. We try and get them for ourselves, too, but we do it for them first. And for the musicians, that’s just, like, wow! I’m going to a festival, it’s not a folklore festival, and I’m even getting money for it. It’s nuts — some hot shot in Moscow is paying me for traditional music.
Not long ago, Meduza published a story about how Chechen folk pop musicians are being prohibited from practicing their art. Singers there have to get their lyrics approved, and they can’t perform without official permission or even post their work on social media. I know you’re pretty skeptical when it comes to Caucasian folk pop generally, but regardless, what do you think about that situation?
Culture isn’t food. Food can poison you, so the government controls it. Culture doesn’t work like that. I don’t like — you could even say I hate — Caucasian folk pop. But neither I nor any other person has the right to ban it. All music has the right to exist if it has an audience. As a music fan, I don’t care what happens to that genre. But in the bigger picture, it’s bad. If they’re controlling folk pop today, they’ll control us tomorrow.
We don’t have anything to be afraid of right now. We’re small, and our project doesn’t carry any negative vibes. We have a really positive attitude, but volunteers and artists and bureaucrats can find something they don’t like in any kind of art. It’s bad that everything operates so vertically. Culture should work horizontally. If the music is truly bad, it won’t have an audience. All we can do if we don’t like a cultural situation is create an alternative and advertise it, not ban what we don’t like.
It’s also important to remember that Chechnya is radically different from the rest of the Caucasus. The Caucasus isn’t a cultural monolith; there’s no single social environment. People in Kabardino-Balkaria don’t know what goes on in Chechnya at all, and the Chechens don’t know what goes on over here. That’s not because there’s a vacuum — people [in Kabardino-Balkaria] just have their own problems, and they care more about what Kanye West is doing than what [Chechen government leader Ramzan] Kadyrov is doing. So I think the Chechen government hasn’t heard of us. At most, they might have gotten interested when we traveled to Chechnya with a group of foreigners.
I think that kind of situation with [the censorship of] folk pop isn’t possible in Kabardino-Balkaria at all. We have totally different realia.
Do you have any projects in Chechnya? Any plans to record there?
We’ve recorded a good bit of religious music there — Sufi music — but we haven’t released it yet because religion is a very complicated topic, and we have to study it in detail to write a good description [to go with the release] and make sure there aren’t any gaffes or outside impositions. If we were to do it carelessly, there would be a huge flood of negative feedback. But the material is very interesting and worth studying. We have three releases going that include Chechen music: one has Religious music from the deportation period and two have Soviet neofolkloric semi-acoustic pop.
Right now, we’re also working with a Chechen musician named Khava Khamzatova. She’s taken Soviet-era songs, both mega-hits of the time and songs that had already become folklore by the 20th century, and she’s singing them in an indie style. It’s a very unique sound for Chechen folk and folk pop music. If you take the most widespread recordings of these songs, it’s a totally different sound. Through this release, we want to show that it’s not just the melody and the lyrics that are important — the sound matters a lot, too.
You said that there isn’t a single cultural landscape in the Caucasus and that every place has its own musical life. How does Caucasian music vary from republic to republic?
There are a lot of music influences that run back and forth, and that got started back when there were no republics, just nations. You can roughly separate music that’s structurally closer to the West and music that’s got a more Eastern feel. Traditional Chechen music is very similar to Georgian music — especially, say, Tushetian music. Circassian, Ossetian, or Abkhazian traditional music is polyphonic too, so somebody who isn’t in the loop might still find them similar to Georgian music, but there are significant differences. In Dagestan, the music’s closer to the music in Azerbaijan.
Here’s a story. We had a lecture in Moscow once, and someone I know who’s from Dagestan came up to me afterward and asked, “Why are all the Circassian songs so sad? Is it because of the Caucasian War?” But the song I’d played wasn’t sad. It’s just that our melodies seem more depressing to them. When we hear something from Azerbaijan or Dagestan, it seems a little over-the-top to us, maybe even too saccharine for some people. Our music is a bit more minimalistic, and theirs is more melodic.
These are all different political and cultural lines of influence. Another thing is that when I say Circassian music is closer to the Europeans, we shouldn’t forget that our music has been heavily influenced by Islam. There’s a lot of religious imagery in there, and in more recent folklore, you can even hear Arab melodies. All in all, it’s really interesting. There’s a lot of mutual influence but no single cultural landscape.
Now, you can see an indie scene forming. People here have started playing post-rock and shoegaze. There’s a problem, though: our kids haven’t found their own sound yet. You can often hear the influence [famous bands] have had on our indie musicians. You can listen to them and think, oh, I get it, these folks over here listen to Thom Yorke, and those guys over there listen to Kurt Cobain. They need experience — they need to listen to more music and perform more, but we don’t have enough venues. It used to be easier for us to organize a festival in Moscow or somewhere in Europe than it was to do one here at home.
So what’s changed now?
The local government [in Nalchik] has started supporting us. They gave us an old Soviet dance hall where there were discos and rock concerts in the 90s and the aughts. In May, we had a little festival there with local groups and two DJs, Misha Geleyn from Universal Music Group and Brands and Nikita Rasskazov from the V-A-C Foundation. They flew in, DJed, and gave lectures. People got really into it. A lot of them said they felt like they were in Europe. So we really do have a mature audience, but we don’t have enough events.
In August, we’re going to have a big urban culture festival for the Caucasus: we’re bringing in the noise rock band USSSY, the free jazz band Brom, the record label Gost Zvuk, which does electronic music, and Moa Pillar, too. The Strelka Institute is going to come in and do lectures, and [journalist and music critic] Alexey Minupov from Arzamas is going to be there. There’ll be a lot of local music. We did a kickoff event for the festival not long ago, and a lot of people came. One of my friends from Yerevan [the capital of Armenia] came in with his project, which is called Nystagmus: He plays gloomy industrial techno, and people liked that, too. Of course, it’s not like the entire population of Nalchik is listening to industrial techno nowadays, and some people might not like it, but it was a good time.
What are you bringing to the table at Fields?
We’re going to have three different directions going: Zaur Nagoy is going to play authentic folk, Khava Khamzatova’s bringing in some Chechen chamber indie folk, and then there’s a band from Nalchik called Jrpjej that plays experimental acoustic Circassian music. I think it’s going to be a really interesting time.
Translation by Hilah Kohen