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One of the greats Russian-Tajik singer Manizha is headed for Eurovision 2021. Here’s how her music has evolved over the years.

Source: Meduza
Valery Sharifullin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Last week, Russian-Tajik singer Manizha Sangin (known by the stage name Manizha) won the Russian ticket to the Eurovision Song Contest during the country’s first open vote in seven years. Her entry, a song titled “Russian Woman,” sparked an outpouring of commentary, not only on social media but also from public figures in Russia. At Meduza’s request, music journalist Artyom Makarsky recounts how Manizha’s image and her music have changed over the years — and how key elements of her solo work came together in “Russian Woman.”

Manizha’s early songs were much more modest than the ones she sings now. In her first album “Manuscript” (2017), Manizha flirted with Instagram aesthetics — and she did so for a reason. The singer-songwriter gained popularity by posting low-budget music video clips on her own Instagram account. Moreover, “Manuscript” is musically quite consistent with a user’s profile on this social network — it’s rather diverse, but comes together in a single picture, and the tracks are as glossy as an Instagram user’s photos. “Manuscript” also seems to be a search for Manizha’s own voice — the version of the album currently available on streaming platforms differs from the original released in February 2017. Initially, “Manuscript” ended with Russian tracks — including the hit single “Lustra” (Chandelier) — but the current version has swapped these out for two English-language singles that were released separately: “Little Lady” and “I Love Too Much.”

In her desire to stick to one language, the Manizha of the past differs greatly from her present-day self, but “Manuscript” also contains traces of what we hear in “Russian Woman.” The same upbeat percussion can be heard on the tracks “New Love” and “Little Lady” — and the track “Africa” also contains world music motifs. However, Manizha’s current work doesn’t rely on sampling any specific type of music — she’s become a cosmopolitan performer who doesn’t exploit any particular culture, but rather creates something of her own on the basis of what she’s taken in previously. That said, it’s worth noting that the melodies of Manizha’s latest songs have something in common with the music of Tajik pop stars, like Nigina Amonkulova and Nargis Bandishoeva. 

“Manuscript” appears to show what the singer-songwriter was listening to back then: the bass is reminiscent of Radiohead, the rhythm of “I Love Too Much” recalls electronic music from the 1990s (for example, Moby), and Manizha’s powerful voice primarily strives for a subtle, soul sound. 

Manizha

Manizha’s Russian-language album “ЯIAM” (2018) is a much more comprehensive work — here, she moved towards a synthesizer-based sound. The unsettling sounds of the song “Izumrud” (“Emerald”) seems to predict the direction that Russian rock singer Zemfira would later take in her 2021 single “Austin”; the lyrics of the song “Dom” (“Home”) deliberately leave out the father from a list of family members, hinting at one of the themes of “Russian Woman” — a “broken family.” The song “Mama” and its accompanying music video both focus on the theme of domestic violence. In complete accordance with the album’s title, Manizha finds her “I am” and her voice gains strength. Indeed, “Ya” (“I am”) may very well be the album’s best song — it’s on this track that the singer-songwriter manages to open up to the listener the most, becoming much more frank. This directness, which is revealed in lyrics like “I am devotion, I am betrayal, I am fear, I am ahead, I am obligation,” is yet another defining feature of Manizha as a performer that’s also embodied in “Russian Woman.”

It can’t be said that Manizha’s interest in activism began with “ЯIAM.” The video for another song from “Manuscript,”“Inogda” (“Sometimes”), features an albino model and a model from the agency Oldushka, which represents people over the age of 50. However, it’s precisely in her EPs and singles released after her first two records that Manizha’s position on a variety of social issues becomes stronger and clearer. Her first such statement was the EP “Womanizha” (2019), where she combines a return to a soul sound, more voluminous and brighter than before, with smooth acoustic compositions. The song “Women” is just one example of Manizha switching seamlessly from English to Russian — something she now does all the time in her songs, including in “Russian Woman” with the line “No slomannoy family ne slomat’ menya” (“But a broken family won’t break me”). Having tried her hand in London, the singer feels that her identity is situated between Russian and English, between Moscow, London, Dushanbe, and other cities — and this shared identity is increasingly evident in her lyrics.

That said, the spirit of “Russian Woman” is most apparent in the singles Manizha has released over the past two years. While for many musicians a single is just a precursor to an album, or perhaps not a necessity at all, for Manizha these tracks are big, bright statements. She released the brilliant “Nedoslavyanka” (Russian for “not quite a Slavic woman”), “Vanya,” and “Cheloveku nuzhen chelovek” (“Human needs human”) one after the other. On top of the fact that they can be considered her best songs, in a certain sense they determined the sound of “Russian Woman.” They combine ethnic motifs with modern pop music and a little soul. The song “Vanya” also incorporates a choir, as does the track that Manizha is taking to Eurovision.

Eurovision Song Contest

Many musicians go into this song contest with either a toned down version of their main work, or flaunting their best qualities — either of these options could be used to describe “Russian Woman.” Indeed, this track is a simplified version of Manizha’s most dynamic songs. At the same time, it’s noteworthy that she doesn’t compromise her principles in any way — it’s the same daring, sharp-tongued art-pop that’s never at a loss for words. Manizha has already spoken about a woman’s life in Russia, but only in her modest, acoustic persona, rather than in her dynamic and upbeat one. Now, this has changed — juggling Russian and English, ethnic instruments and a persistent beat, a choir that draws on the Russian folk tradition, and seemingly random sounds, Manizha shows that the modern Russian woman doesn’t belong to any particular nation; she easily absorbs the experiences she has lived through.

At the same time, this isn’t a song that can be talked about separately from her activism — on the contrary, this minimalistic number unites a variety of individual moments from the most varied stages of Manizha’s work. It would be too strong a statement to say that this exact song is what she has been heading toward for a long time. But you can see how Manizha has crystallized her own style as a performer, and how her “I am” has obtained a definitive confidence. Regardless of the fact that she filled venues like St. Petersburg’s Ice Palace and Crocus City Hall outside Moscow not so long ago, or even the fact that she’s going to Eurovision, it’s the reaction to this development that allows us to say that Manizha is a great Russian singer. Though opinions may vary on this contest, right now we’re being presented with a case where the musician entering it isn’t under threat of fading into obscurity after the show’s over.

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Text by Artyom Makarsky 

Translated by Eilish Hart

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