Russian Identity Rock


Call it dialectical rock — a new musical form with roots in the psyche of the Soviet past that gives voice to all the contradictions of the present-day Russian Jewish immigrant experience.

Drozdy (Blackbirds), a musical group formed six months ago by five close friends in their early 50’s — most of whom have been part of the tight-knit Russian literary, artistic and counter-cultural scene since arriving here 30 years ago — have been winning raves since they cut their self-titled CD last month (many of the songs are available on YouTube).

On Dec. 27, Drozdy gave a rousing maiden performance before a packed house of Russian intellectual types and a few American-born admirers at the Bowery Poetry Club in the East Village.

A million miles in sensibility both from the “light as air and half as profound” Abba-like pop that dominates the musical scene in Moscow these days and the schmaltzy variant of the same performed nightly in the music halls and restaurants of Brighton Beach, the music of Drozdy is dense, multi-textured and laced with irony.

After the lead singer and writer of most of the group’s lyrics, Vadim Moldovan, introduced the group in English by saying that a Drozdy concert “is not about songs, but about drama,” the group performed a set of 11 songs in Russian. (“Our entire repertoire at this point,” Moldovan acknowledged.) Behind the stage was a movie screen showing Soviet-era films with scenes of bedraggled proletarians being persecuted by brutish exploiters and of Peter the Great leading his armies into battle.

The music was replete with obscure literary allusions that evinced a deep immersion in Russian history and culture. Several songs express the musicians’ nostalgia for their youth in long-ago and far-away Soviet times. One rhapsodizes about hanging out on Lenin Street as “my little piece of happiness.” Another contrasts the heroism of the World War II generation with the humdrum present upon the assertion that it is better to “Die as a heroic tankist [tank commander] than as a sorry [computer] programist.” Yet another stirring balled, “Burning Down the Homeland,” appeared to extol a distinct Russian-American identity:

“Our ancestral home is on fire … while over here we are stuck in a four-hour traffic jam. … But America at least is not Sodom. And I swear that I will never set foot again in my ancestral home because I don’t want any more contact with evil. … Even if my fate is to sail children’s boats in puddles and even if I have to eat macaroni for dinner. … Here I am free and proud.”

After the show, audience members said that the music of Drozdy transmits a vitality and genuineness they haven’t heard in Russian music in a long time.

Inga Kotlovskaya, 43, a marketing professional who moved to the U.S. from Kiev at the age of 12, said she finds the music of Drozdy “quirky and intellectually exciting” adding, “The song lyrics are so good that they can stand alone as poetry even without the music.” Kotlovskaya said that even though Drozdy performs in Russian and its songs contain specific references that only someone who grew up in the Soviet Union would “get,” nevertheless she finds their music “less parochial than most American rock I listen to. Drozdy has a different take on reality; one that opens you up to a broader vision.”

Yulia Belomlinskaya, 48, a poet and writer who splits her time between New York and St. Petersburg, said, “Vadim [Moldovan] has accomplished something with Drozdy that is immediately understandable to our parents, our own generation and our kids. I hope this music will inspire young people to cherish their Russian identity and investigate the culture we left behind. Russian Jewish immigrants in America have no roots. We are walking trees.”

Moldovan, 50, is a professor of social work at York College who lives with his wife Vassa, a classical musician, and their two daughters in a two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights crammed with Moldovan’s distinctive sculptures and bric-a-brac from the family’s travels. He noted proudly that Drozdy’s songs have received 2,500 hits in the two weeks they have been up on YouTube.

“The word ‘wildfire’ comes to mind,” he said with an ironic smile, adding that he doesn’t actually expect Drozdy to become an overnight commercial success and that he and the other members are keeping their day jobs, at least for now. Yet why did the members of Drozdy, who have known each other for more than 20 years, wait until they were 50 to form a rock band?

Moldovan replied, “Look, this isn’t a middle-aged cry for attention. All of us were raised on Soviet music and symbolism, but then we came to New York between the ages of 17 and 20 and it took quite a while to put all of that together and to acquire sufficient wisdom and understanding to make this artistic statement, which wrestles with the contradictions of Soviet reality, post-Soviet reality and America.”

Moldovan said that while there are no specifically Jewish references in Drozdy songs, the group’s sensibility is profoundly Jewish. “Look at Bob Dylan,” Molodovan said. “His Jewish background screams at you, but he writes cowboy ballads. In the same way, we go deeply into Russian music. I believe that the strongest Jewish quality is being able to synthesize, to take a piece of another culture and transform it. That is what Jewish artists have always done, whether in Russia, America, and many other countries.”

Moldovan clearly has a practical side. He managed to convince his cousin, Russian-American billionaire oligarch Len Blavatnik to cover the cost of the production of the group’s first CD. “We consider ourselves the Blavatnik house band,” Moldovan said, without the usually evident tongue in cheek. “Len doesn’t quite get our music, as his own taste is toward gypsy and Romanian music, but we are grateful that he put up the money and let us produce the music we wanted.”

Asked about specific songs, Moldovan said emphatically that “Burning Down the Homeland” is not meant as a condemnation of modern-day Russia, and that another song about the Soviet era with the refrain “Good night children…smoke more marijuana” is not an endorsement of drug use, but rather, in an ironic twist on Karl Marx’s condemnation of religion as ‘the opiate of the masses,’ a description of the narcotic effect of revolutionary ardor on the masses at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.

“The main thing about our music is that we never preach or moralize,” Moldovan said. “Rather our message is ironic and subversive. This is post-modernist, post-moralist, deconstructionist music. We take pieces of the old Soviet world and of our modern life in New York and rearrange them. We draw together cultural pieces that would never be connectable in any other way.”

Naum Khromov, a Drozdy guitarist who works as a computer programmer to make a living, said the group’s music “is a surrealistic mix of our good and bad dreams. We have come to a certain point in our lives when we all have wives, kids, mortgages, so we try to jump out of that reality into the kind of therapeutic effect one gets from creative expression. It’s a wonderful form of intellectual and emotional release.”