Songs spring forth from soul

In 1980, Valentina Gladkaya gathered together amateur singers to create Nerush folk group. Songs once sung by their grandparents formed their repertoire; at the time, these weren’t perceived as being monuments of deep antiquity

By Victor Andreyev

Today, such songs, untouched by the winds of globalisation, are more often heard on stage than in rural streets. Fortunately, Nerush (translated from the Belarusian as ‘virgin soil’) is keeping those melodies alive. Ms. Gladkaya and her colleagues are reviving our national musical ‘virgin soil’ and have recently performed an unusual concert dedicated to 1970s rural life.
“At last, I put on a national costume!” exclaims Ms. Gladkaya, an Honoured Figure of Culture. “We’ve been working with students from the Belarusian State University and other universities, visiting villages to record songs, preserving all the peculiarities of local pronunciation. My task is not only to teach youngsters to perform folk songs, but to show them how to understand them. For example, the word ‘chareshnya’ means a woman, rather than a tree. ‘A falcon is flying from chareshnya’ means ‘a son is born to a woman’.”

Your group exists at the BSU. Students from which departments tend to join Nerush?

When we began, we were joined by physicists and mathematicians and, later, doctors. Several of our members have been with us since 1980! Many have even gone on to set up their own bands; Natalia Sazanovich from the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics created ‘Gamanina’, but still sings with ‘Nerush’. Maybe this is because we are the only band which doesn’t adjust folk songs for the stage. We perform them as they used to sound.

Times change and trends move on. When was the best time for folk bands?

When I began it was awful! All amateur groups were ordered ‘from above’ to wear identical costumes, as if in uniform. I strongly protested as, even in villages, each young girl would do her best to look individual. It made no sense to wear standard costumes, sewn at a factory. Perhaps the decision was made because it was cheaper for the state to provide all groups with identical costumes. I tried to raise funds to pay for alternatives. Seamstresses would bring ‘demonstrational’ exhibits of Belarusian folk costume to Moscow and I’d buy them under-the-counter. We wanted to be original in everything.

Pesnyary also existed at that time, visiting villages to gather authentic materials and sewing original costumes. What was the difference between you?

They adjusted the songs. At that time, we were the only band trying to exactly copy the manner of folk singing: female and male. Today, Ivan Kirchuk is a great master and specialist in this.

How do you manage to master all the peculiarities of each folk song?

First, we divide the musical parts into notes. For the last fifteen years, I’ve used a cassette or a CD to record the singing; we listen up to a hundred times. Sometimes, we can learn songs by mouth. This is the only true way to learn the manner of performance, catching even the breathing of an original performer. Of course, it would be wonderful to live for some time among rural singers, but this is just impossible…

From where did your passion for folk songs originate?

I studied academic singing at the Cultural and Educational College and was appointed to work in the village of Zakalnoe in the Lyuban District. I realised that no one in the villages needed academic singing, as they already sang from their souls. I decided to leave and enter the Culture University’s Folk Department, which had just opened at that time.
I hail from the Kopyl District’s village of Presnaki, where my grandmother used to sing me Kolyady and wedding songs. I’ve been influenced by their magical power since early childhood. When I perform these songs at concerts, people fall asleep. For a long time, I couldn’t understand why. Then, I understood that this traditional manner of singing places us in a trance, like meditation. It wasn’t that people were bored! I noticed that the melodies of our songs were somehow similar to Buddhist mantras, in which sounds come through the ‘third eye’ — at the bridge of the nose — rather than through the mouth. They fly directly from the top of the head. It’s a technique still being investigated; singing boasts its own mysteries.
Even the songs performed at Eurovision? I remember that, in 2007, Nerush took part in the selection round for this contest…
Of course, I mean high singing. I’ll never forget seeing Zurab Sotkilava on stage for the first time. I was greatly astonished by his small height and undistinguished appearance. However, as soon as he opened his mouth and sang, he immediately rose in my eyes by 2m. He became handsome like no other, due to the power of his voice.

Does someone’s voice make them beautiful, as well as their appearance?

Voices mirror our inner world. At first, a person may seem quite ordinary. As soon as they begin to speak, you immediately ‘fall in love’ with them.

You’re currently preparing a musical. How does this contemporary genre relate to traditional songs?

A ‘musical’ is the contemporary title for what has always existed. ‘Tsar Maximilian’ — the Kolyady custom, which has become famous worldwide due to Semezhevo village in my native Kopyl District — is a musical performance. It includes songs, dances and live sound. ‘Nerush’ has recently presenteded a musical performance dedicated to 1970s rural life, with ritual songs, dances, jokes and love scenes. We didn’t invent anything new; we just followed tradition.

Were traditional customs still alive in villages in the 1970s?

In our village, teenagers still go carol-singing and sing Shchedry Vecher (Generous Evening) songs while visiting each home. Hosts present them with gifts. If they don’t, young boys can close the chimney with a glass sheet so the house fills with smoke. They might even take the gates off. Shchedry Vecher is only one custom and is more than merely a game. This holiday teaches people to be generous and share everything with their neighbours.

Once, your band was the only one with such a repertoire. Now, some others exist. How do you differ from them?
Many groups work hard to become popular; they wouldn’t be able to give concerts otherwise. Their songs are modernised. We’re an amateur band, despite our titles, so we’re free to be always faithful to authenticity. We have no need to court commercial popularity.

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