Time for blues melodies

Less than a decade ago, Belarusian blues began gaining recognition unexpectedly, winning major prizes at European contests for the first time

Less than a decade ago, Belarusian blues began gaining recognition unexpectedly, winning major prizes at European contests for the first time. Belarusians headlined at international festivals and successfully toured abroad but, then, the trend declined rather, leaving people wondering if blues music has disappeared altogether in Belarus…

Bluesman Yuri Nesterenko

The former achievements of our musicians are already fading from memory, although recordings can be found online: there’s one clip of an elderly woman performing a blues melody by lamp on the guitar, near the central Gomel market. Speaking of the ‘fathers’ of Belarusian blues, you can’t help but recall the lines: ‘Some have gone and others are far away…’

Svyatoslav Khodonovich, who led Svet Boogie Band, died some time ago in a car accident, and Gennady Starikov has also died, hailing the end of the Star Club and Blues Lives in Minsk festival, which he founded. Vladimir Ugolnik is also no longer with us, performing his fantastic guitar improvisations. Sergey Kurek — one of the best Belarusian blues guitarists — has moved to Germany. 

Bluesman Yuri Nesterenko — who founded the White Night Blues project — is rarely mentioned in the media or by the public, although he’s still alive, living quietly. In recent times, Mr. Nesterenko’s name has come to the fore again, attending concerts and publishing a book. He has an album of his duets soon to be released: Holiday for Two. Fans have been discussing his correspondence with legendary John Fogerty, and an unexpected recording by Andrey Makarevich in Belarusian, inspired by Yuri. 

The musician recently celebrated his 50th birthday, receiving a true present from Siberian Belarusians: an invitation to Irkutsk to give a concert.

In addition, Mr. Nesterenko joined Olga Akulich not long ago in visiting Poland’s OPPA International Forum of Author’s Music, being acknowledged as the festival’s ‘Best Instrumentalist’.

Yuri, let’s begin by discussing your book: Ordinary Showbiz. Is it as provocative as its title?

The title is ironic, being the story of my life, from my birth, looking at episodes relating to show business. I shared anecdotes with my friends long before putting them to paper. When I decided to publish them, not only my friends demonstrated interest. It’s a continuation of my literary experience.

What can you say then about your disc of duets?

It was due sooner or later, as I’d played various jazz jamming sessions and concerts with friend-musicians. Initially, I had no plans to release a disc compilation but, over time, my duets with ‘Krama’, ‘Palats’, Olga Akulich (frontwoman of ‘Verasen’) and other musicians from Belarus and Poland had been released, so I thought I might as well do so…

You’ve also recorded a Belarusian language cover-version of John Fogerty’s famous Have You Ever Seen the Rain, with Piotr Yelfimov, with permission from the composer.

This was my crazy initiative: to inform Mr. Fogerty of my intention in a civilised way. I didn’t want the idol of the youth to learn incidentally that someone had stolen his song. It’s a whole story as to how we found his address and sent him our recording, expressing our admiration for his contribution to rock history. He thanked us for our attention, giving his permission for our version to be performed.

The title of your band — White Night Blues — isn’t mentioned on your new CD. Does it no longer exist? 

The band does exist but without performing as much as before. It was established 15 years ago, rather by chance, when three Belynichi musicians — myself, and my bass and drum players — went to a Mogilev festival of alternative music, playing as ‘Last Echelon’. We planned to split afterwards but, instead, were invited to Stolitsa radio station and, while on air, were invited to perform in concerts in Brest and Vitebsk.

Our band name also came about by chance, as the result of a poor telephone line. Belynichi has no ‘white nights’ but we saw that we’d been named so on advertising posters, to our embarrassment. I tried to change it several times but later gave up and, instead, invented a legend that, in Belynichi, the blues are performed at weddings and burial ceremonies.

Our band enjoyed some popularity but, sadly, provincial guys seldom believe in their talent — even if they are truly talented. This attitude played a negative role and we became more centred on earning money from playing at weddings than enjoying festivals. However, it seems that our ‘Belynichi’ band is back, with a new bass player — my pupil Vitya Zaitsev; he’s returned home after studying in the capital.

What about your co-operation with Andrey Makarevich?

After my translations of Mr. Makarevich’s texts into Belarusian were released, I thought of publishing an anthology of translations of Russian rock music. Last year, it was printed in the 69th issue of ‘Dzeyasloy’ magazine and we sent several copies to Mr. Makarevich — accompanied by Belarusian language texts of his songs.

Born in Belarus, Andrey came to Minsk with the ‘Apple Tea’ band and recorded his ‘Snow in Belarusian’ (available from tuzin.fm). It’s not so easy to continue co-operation but anything is possible.

What can you say about Baikal? Were you impressed?

I was most impressed by its unique Belarusian folklore that remains, unexpectedly, in its raw form — unchanged since the days of the Stolypin reform, when many Belarusian villages were resettled.

There’s so much shamanism, with TV broadcasts of Mongolian news. Several years ago, Oleg Rudakov (from Polotsk) visited these places, reviving the memory of those who resettled long ago. He runs his own business but also focuses on folklore, reviving old Belarusian songs. He also installs boards by roads indicating where Belarusian villages are located, and has taught villagers to celebrate our ancient holidays. Through his efforts, many Belarusian folk bands exist in the Irkutsk Region; even buryats now sing our songs.

Two years ago, I met Mr. Rudakov at a meeting of Belarusians of the World, and now consider him to be a friend.

What’s your view on the former glory of our blues? Can we regain this?

It’s unwise to speculate, but I know of many young bands wishing to play the blues, not only in Gomel — the capital of Belarusian blues — but elsewhere. They have serious intentions.

By Irina Zavodskaya
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