Michael Urban

Why Does Russia Need the Blues? (interview)

Published in: 18. Phases of Craft

MICHAEL URBAN is an example of a successful combination of professional interests in two seemingly disparate areas. As a political scientist and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he is engaged in the study of modern Russia, and as a musician he favors American blues. In both directions, his theoretical knowledge is supported by extensive practical experience.
M. Urban’s two muses — Russia and blues — converged in his 2004 book Russia Gets the Blues. Six years after its release, he shares with AB his observations and thoughts on how blues and Russia coexist and what can be expected from this pairing in the future.
Michael Urban’s wife Veronica takes part in our conversation.

What do you think of the state of blues music in Russian, now that some time has passed since you wrote “Russia Gets the Blues,” since you gathered the information for it — have you seen anything like a renaissance, on different terms, in what blues musicians are attempting?

MU – So music in the case of our friends in Russia? Well, I was last there in 2007 in Moscow; and there’s certainly a lot more music of that type in Moscow than anywhere else in Russia. I would say that musicians dedicated to blues are making impressive strides within the idiom — because at a certain point, it’s all a matter of subtlety. In other words, when this music begins to be played by people, the initial phases, you might say, are mastery of the instrument and the idiom, and then a certain amount of fireworks to publicize the fact of being able to play this music — fireworks as in virtuosity. But the real fireworks in blues are not in virtuosity but in subtlety, the right note at the right time. And that’s the impressive thing that I came across in 2007, and that I see in the videos that I watch so I can keep with these guys — they take a lot of videos at this place called Dom u Dorogi [Roadhouse], which is probably the best club in Moscow; and it’s really a club that’s dedicated to the blues guys. The guy who runs it is a very sympathetic person and very knowledgeable about the blues, so he gives these guys a lot of room. There’s a free jam every Sunday, and it goes on from 3 until they stop; a lot of people pack in there. A lot of good music, a lot of good players. And that’s what I’ve noticed the most. That the direction is away from fireworks and toward appreciation of the subtle sides of the music: the nuances, the tones, the silences; so it’s a real maturation.

Are their compositions also progressing?

That I don’t know, because I haven’t been around. I do know that up until 2007, some of the people I appreciate most were writing some very good music and performing it and recording it; they finally decided that they were good enough — they were really good — and then they decided they weren’t good enough; they had to reach their own standards. And then they had to record. They gave me a tape they made from a rehearsal, because I begged them for something. And I said, “Listen, why don’t you guys put out a CD? You won’t make a ton of money, but you’ll make something, perhaps, and it’s worth just being out there.” They said, “We’re not good enough.”

So…I don’t think that they’re able to get far away from the blues and still play the music that they’re interested in playing. In other words, there’s a certain Russian element that can be introduced into it — I’ve seen people do that; I’ve seen blues played on balalaikas, for instance. It works. But it’s really not where they want to go. They want to go deeper into the blues in its originally American and now international version; in other words, they don’t want to establish a Russian ghetto.

Майкл Урбан. Фото А. Рискина.

So one of the better video things that I’ve come across recently, and I’d recommend it to you, is “Duke Robillard in Moscow.” Duke Robillard is this guy who started out with a group called Roomful of Blues in about 1970. That group is still going (laughs). I saw them play in Moscow in 2005 or 2006; they just killed. He was their first guitar player, and, subsequently, he branched off into his own stuff. So he’s not a big personality or a big celebrity, but people in this corner of the music world know him very well and know him as a very tasteful and cultured blues player. So he’s invited to Moscow through some friends of mine. And this particular video, which goes on for a long time, about 45 minutes, has him at this club Dom u Dorogi, which again is like a musicians’ club in the sense that they feel most at home there. And he doesn’t know what he’s doing in Russia, he’s just this blues guy, and he comes in, and he sits down with a couple of these Russian boys and he starts playing, and he’s saying, after one or two songs, (in a southern accent) “Hell, you guys are good! You know what you’re doin’!” And then it’s five or six songs along, and some of these Russian guys are smoking him. They’re just beating him off the mark.

Was that a watershed event?

One among others.

Representing contact with the international circuit?

There’s been contact going on, but it’s been one-directional. And it’s not the case that Russians don’t play in the West, it’s just the case that there’s no market. A very good guitar player asked me about this last time I was there. He told me, “Mike, I’m thinking about going to America — do you think I could get work?” And I told him, “I don’t want to lie to you; importing guitar players to America is carrying samovars to Tula. We have a surplus, and if you don’t have a promotional establishment and nobody knows you, you can’t just turn up and get jobs.” So it’s been one-directional; but that particular direction, of bringing American players to Russia, has been very pronounced in their thinking; that we need to have more of these guys here, we need to hear more of these guys, because again, they’re aware of and focused on the subtleties of the music, just the particular way that a note is struck and held, the particular motion that goes into it. So playing with and seeing these guys from the United States play, particularly black guys from Chicago, that’s huge. When I was there in ’05 or ’06, there was a cat there named John Primer, and that’s all these people talked about. “Oh, you should’ve been here two weeks ago when John Primer was here! Oh!!” There was a very interesting story that came out of this. He was leaving for the airport after his two or three weeks were up, and a couple of guys I know, bluesmen, were taking him through town. One guy who has a Mercedes was doing the driving, and they were late. Not untypical in Russia, they were late. And so this guy with the Mercedes was zooming his car through Russia, trying to get to the airport. The GAI [traffic police] pulls him over and says, “You just set the inter-Ring record for speed, and it’s going to be a fine of so many rubles.” What can you do. They take up a collection with the people in the automobile, but they don’t have enough money. So they’re sitting, thinking and thinking. And then: “I’ve got a poster for John Primer. He’s right here in the back seat. We’ll have him sign the poster, give it to the GAI, and maybe they’ll take it for the rest of the tribute.” So they do, and they explain that this guy here in the back here, John Primer, he’s an old Chicago bluesman, everybody knows who he is, and here’s his signature on the poster, it’s got to be worth something. So the GAI guys discuss it and they say, “Fine, go on your way.” So this finishes up. John Primer doesn’t know what’s going on; he’s doesn’t speak Russian. So he says, “What happened? What was all this about?” And they explain to him. And so he says to them, “You mean, if the police come at you in this country and you give ’em money, they go away?” And they said, “Yeah, that’s pretty much it.” And he said, “What a great country!”

Was that an example of a blues musician becoming larger than life upon being imported into that scene?

My impression is that one of the great appeals of blues music lies in its larger-than-life significance. Blues is always an exaggeration, and I think my Russian friends have a kind of resonance with that. There’s a wonderful quote from Adorno, who said, “We have reached a point in history where only the exaggerations are true.” I think it’s a similar sensibility, that we really can’t express what we’re facing and dealing with, but exaggerated gestures begin to make us think about what this really about.

Like the B.B. King type persona. May I ask, did you yourself ever feel larger than life in this context?

More than once. Would you like occasions? Fourth of July, 2000, at a place called Taxi Club, right by the Technical Institute subway station, a friend of mine was playing a gig, and he invited me to play a gig, and because it’s July 4th, there are a lot of Americans — half Russian and half Americans — and there’s a great chemistry, and the crowd is involved. The plan is to play from 8 o’clock until about 5, interrupted, punctuated, by an act called Sex Bomb. This is what fills the marquees — this gal clad in a rhinestone g-string. So there’s a good bit of music and then a long intermission between sets, and then this Sex Bomb thing. At which point all the Americans in the room drop their jaws and say “What?” and pretty much all the Russians say Davai; up until this point, there had been a tacit understanding that we are all doing the same thing, we’re involved in this room with music and we’re dancing and so forth, but with Sex Bomb, the divide occurred. We are not really from the same culture, we are from different worlds, and this has just cemented that recognition. Now the larger-than-life part occurs — I played the loth that evening. Somewhere around two in the morning, I found myself rehearsing with this guy’s band during a Sex Bomb interval, and I’m showing this guy R&B songs — so here are the chords. Now I would be singing this, and I want you women to sing behind me, “Oooh, wop.” So we worked it all out right there, and went out on stage, and did it, and it worked, everything fell right into place, as if we’d been playing this for years. And there were Russian people in the first rows who said, “I’ve never heard this music, but I’ve listened to this music all my life.” So I was larger than life on that occasion.

Is it difficult to be in an analytical chair on the one hand and in a participating role on the other?

No. I think it should be, but for me it’s not, perhaps because I’m neither much of an analyst nor a participant. But I’ll mention another larger-than-life episode that kind of brings it home. When the book came out in 2004, my friends in Moscow organized a presentation at the B.B. King Club.

VU – Which is a very intimate club. You’re right on top of one another.

That night it was just jammed. It started at 6 and went on until about 2 or 3. They could only play electric until midnight, so they played acoustic guitars and vodka bottles until 3 in the morning. The solemnity, and it was almost a kind of incongruity, the opposite situation, because the music is this emotional, effusive stuff which is all about sorrow and joy — both exaggerated — and then the serious occasion of this presentation thing. So one of my favorite lines of this evening was spoken by a fellow named Mishuris, who says, “Comrades, up until tonight, we’ve existed on beer” — in other words, we play in these bars that sell beer — “and now…there’s a book.” So, I interpreted this to mean, from what I know of Russian culture, that the written word has an extraordinary power. So it’s no longer just beer that validates our existence, there’s actually a book; we’re for real.

VU – It was an extraordinary night. There were as many people packed into this club as possible, and each person gave a performance, and the performances were unbelievable replicas of American blues. People singing in English, many of whom didn’t speak a word of English. I think the most amazing performer was Mazhukov, who did a performance of Jerry Lee Lewis. He had it down to the hairdo, the suit.

MU – There’s a little backstory there. As I understand it, his father was an important symphonic conductor, and he started piano when he was about two years old, and at some point, apparently during his teenage years, he came across Jerry Lee Lewis… It changed more than everything. He put out a couple of CDs. The last one was called, I think appropriately, “This Is Who I Am.” And he plays Jerry Lee Lewis about 99.12 percent. Every once in a while there’s a little lilt in the pronunciation that doesn’t quite get the word to match the styling, but other than a little hair’s-breadth difference, it’s just Jerry Lee Lewis, and you listen to it, and if you didn’t know that it wasn’t Jerry Lee Lewis, you’d think that it was, no question. I had a chance to play with him that night. It was just a treat to play with these guys, and they’re such good musicians, above all, just good musicians, really serious about their craft, and much more so than the majority of musicians in this country — there’s a sloppiness that you encounter here, however small, which you just don’t encounter in those circles. They’re precise.

In their underlying understanding as well?

VU – Just speaking for myself, I’m not sure if there’s that much understanding. I think they want to connect with the spirit of the music, but to me it’s just adulation. They hold the original blues musicians in such regard and they love their music, but whether there’s the understanding, I’m not sure.

MU – Well, as a white person, my own understanding is limited.

Each person faces different kinds of limitations. People can understand and not understand in different ways. Also, live performances are different than recordings. There’s a very thin line in terms of what constitutes aesthetic contact.

Japanese blues players apparently take the question of literal fidelity even farther than the Russians. I know of one scholar who undertook a study of Japanese blues, who searched out a musician reputed to be the leading harmonica player in the Japanese blues circuit. The musician gave an interview and played some, and the scholar noticed that he was replicating American blues recordings note for note. In a particular song by Little Walter, who usually recorded drunk, when the bridge came, his harmonica player, also drunk, put the harmonica in upside down, played four or five bad notes and then got it back. Well, this Japanese harmonica player plays all the bad notes. Russians would stop short of that — they would say, here’s where the guy went off the track; there’s replication, but only up to a point.

We know of people in Russia who started off playing, say, Beatles songs note for note, very seriously. It turns out they still play the same songs in the exact same way. Creative expansion just never happened for them.

That’s really an interesting zone that’s bordered on one end by replication and faithfulness to the music, and on the other by creativity and originality, and what goes on in that zone, I think, is everything that’s important. I think that the completely original people, at least in terms of the music I know and like, are bullshit — they just don’t respect the music that they inherited. And I think that in their own way, as you were pointing out, the people who are simply content with replicating note for note are also not respecting the music — they’re simply repeating the music. Music is always doing something, going somewhere — evolving, permutating.

Along those lines, do you feel that Russian blues has come into its own as an aesthetically valid form?

I think it’s more important to respect what I reckon my friends in Russia who play blues would say, and that usually would be: “The only thing about Russian blues is that Russians are playing the blues. The music is bigger than the nation and nationality of the context. And so especially because we’ve had people in from Europe and the United States, we recognize ourselves as part of this larger community. We happen to be Russian, but there’s nothing that would in any way limit or define our blues, distinguish it summarily from someone else’s. This group might play a certain way and they might even put Russian kind of stuff in it, but that’s just part of the tapestry of Russian blues, and the Russian tapestry of blues is just part of the world tapestry.”

Do you see a possibility for a titan to emerge, like a Dylan of Russian blues, who would warrant respect as an international voice?

Only because the music is not commercial, I would say chances are slim. In other words, blues music had its own niches in the United States, and within those you’d find Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and so forth, but who else knew about Muddy Waters in the United States when he was playing at his tops? Nobody. Or few people. The music itself doesn’t ever seem to have broad-based commercial appeal. So given the situation in which blues musicians find themselves, I think publicity and notoriety are not going to come. They’ll be known in the niche.

Is that quality of niche appeal determined by faithfulness to a genre, without any aspect of crossover?

One useful thing in the book we were mentioning is the idea of authenticity, and as I came across it and tried to write about it, it seems to have two sides: I call them authenticity in the music and authenticity of the music. The authenticity in the music is the notion of apprehending powerful emotions, directly and freshly conveyed. That this is not a performance. That I’m telling you what’s in my soul right now. Now, that could be a performance, that could not be a performance, we don’t know. But that’s one dimension of blues music. If it doesn’t have that, it’s not blues. It could be confected, it could be real, and I’m not sure the artist himself knows where the line is drawn. He’s got to put some experience from life into the voice, into the guitar, however semi-consciously, to make the sound that brings that about. The other side of the authenticity of the music is, how much of this sound is real blues — so it’s drawing some kind of standard and convention against which this performance can be measured. That’s a blurry line too. But in the Russian context, I see an attention to both of those kinds of authenticity. We have to play the right way, but the right way is also spontaneous. “We’re not really in control of what we’re playing and singing; there’s something happening beyond just replicating.”

VU – Don’t you think there’s a problem with the blues in Russian in that it doesn’t really translate? There are very few people who can listen to the blues who don’t know English, and there’s a very small audience who can appreciate the music without knowing the words.

MU – I likewise recognize my own limitations in apprehending blues music in its deep forms. I spent a good amount of time listening and reading and thinking, and things dawned on me: “He’s not talking about an elevator — he’s talking about sex!” A lot of this music is double entendre, and so as a non-member of that culture that spawned it, as an outsider, it takes some work on my part to come close, or even not so close, to realizing what’s going on. But I’m speaking the same language, and I’m actually in the larger culture of which this is a part, so I have much more access to this stuff than would foreigners, Russians included. So this is certainly one side of blues music that is going to be underappreciated: the words and the subtext, you might say.

So you see the communication of a subtext as a decisive element of blues?

In the same way that I can drink scotch and in my first year of drinking scotch I would taste something that I would recognize and enjoy, but in my tenth, I would know much more about it and be able to distinguish one thing from another more clearly, so with blues there a number of degrees of appreciation and distinction. Our funnel here has a broad mouth in the culture in which it occurs, and then it narrows down when you get away from that culture. You have to climb up into it from outside, so more will be difficult for you to grasp.

Did your interest in blues predate your contact with Russia?

It was actually kind of simultaneous, give or take a year, but in the case of the Russian thing and the apprehension and appreciation — it’s not simply a technical exercise, it’s deeper, you might say emotional or personal or cultural in the broad sense, and that is that a lot of elements in blues seem to me to be very resonant in Russian culture, especially among men. The bluesman is a figure outside the law. He’s on the edge of society and he’s telling people what’s really going on. I think that is very pronounced in Russian culture as well. There’s a scripted role for the male to be maybe one foot outside of things, and his dignity and self-respect are contingent in some respect on his not accepting what’s going on. Whether that’s in practice or just in kitchen conversations, I think that the males that I’ve come across in Russia find part of their dignity in not accepting what’s going on, in speaking truth about it.

Would this be similar to the Vysotsky tradition, as a role for bards as well as bluesmen?

Absolutely. And the second part is that even though we’re serious about this, we’re not that serious, because life is too unpredictable, unmanageable, to be in any way controllable, and therefore to be fully serious about it is a big mistake. You have to be ironic, you have to be involved with the humor and absurdity of life if you want to deal with life. Because the way life presents itself is just unmanageable rationality with a broad underside of misery. So you can’t beat ’em, but you can laugh at ’em. Undo ’em at that level. I noticed that a lot in my experience in Russia during Communist times, because everything seemed — from the point of view of collective activity — absolutely hopeless. “We’re stuck in this Communist thing forever. But that doesn’t mean we can’t wiggle inside of it, we can’t make some room for our own lives. And we do that with irony, with subtlety, and reversals of situations” — all the things that go into good storytelling. Those things I find at a deep level to be very much congruent. And because of that background, even though Russians don’t necessarily understand the English word, or even less the particular idioms or double entendres, they have a feel for life that is just harmonious with blues culture. When I first lived in Russia in 1979, I said, “These people got the blues! Why don’t they have the blues?”

And then you found out that they do…

Eventually. It took some time, because there was no blues music to speak of in ’79. Maybe a flicker, a speck. The flow of information wasn’t yet possible. I know a lot of Russians were just ecstatic when the flow of blues information started to come. They just couldn’t absorb enough.

Were you stimulated by the aspect of Russian culture that involves conveying information through hidden, encoded channels?

I just respect that, because of my own limited experience, as a white person, coming from a lower middle class, working-class background, only knowing about blues music through rock and roll. When I learned about and heard blues music, first, I just said, “This is the best rock and roll I’ve ever come across.” Then I said, “No, this is something else called blues, and I’ve got to learn about it.” I wasn’t the only one at the time doing that, of course, and this business of trying to pluck bits of information and then share it with your friends and so forth, and trying to replicate the sound, was uppermost in my life at the time, as far as I was involved with music. So to see Russians do this with all their imagination and resourcefulness was more than impressive. “How do you know about this guy? Who told you about him?” Every imaginable source would be tapped and exhausted. I learned about a lot of American players through my friends in Russia.

So you’re talking about the progression, say, from the Rolling Stones to Robert Johnson?


VU – Some people absolutely unknown in the United States are famous in Russia.

In Russian rock culture, Marc Bolan ranked as a figure of colossal respect for many musicians — especially Mike Naumenko — whereas in the United States he was seen as a passing fad. But then some years later, there was a great Marc Bolan rediscovery movement in the U.S., with bands coming out of the woodwork to cite him as an influence.

It works both ways. No man’s a prophet in his own town, so to speak. And at the same time on the other side of the street, they might say, “These are the only guys we knew, so we made them idols.” I think that’s true, too. I mean, Deep Purple. No offense to Deep Purple, but that is a terrible band. Everybody that’s anywhere near the Russian blues scene knows Deep Purple. Some of the guys I was talking about earlier dedicated themselves to being a fundamentalist blues band; they played all-acoustic — Delta blues, Chicago blues, no truck with any of the adultery that has occurred. None. “We only play the right stuff.” Eventually someone’s guitar fell apart, so they had to go electric, so they changed their repertoire some, and before long they’re playing Deep Purple, and that’s the song that gets the crowd going. So there’s this wonderful element here — and it’s again an irony — that the music itself has its roots in the basest, most vulgar forms of association life: places where you go to get drunk and fight and throw up. It’s just the most basic, vulgar situation. But carried away from that and into another culture, in this case Russia, other things occur, so that what were the vulgar forms become the refined and aesthetic forms. And what have been drawn from the vulgar forms as more refined and aesthetic forms are actually the ones that have mass appeal. With commercialism, the fact that people heard this on a CD or radio or whatever else, so they can identify with the song. Some funny things come out of this. In my book, I included an evening at a club in Moscow with a guy who at the time was reputedly the best blues guitar player around there, a Georgian guy, and on the way there, my friends were telling me, “Levan is really doing it; he’s playing great guitar, but more, he’s learned all these ways of drawing the audience into the music. This is exactly what we need in Russia — not a bunch of stiffs playing this stuff off the record, but some showman who knows the tricks of the trade and can involve the audience and pull them out of themselves and into another world.” So we go there, and he does some of these things, and the audience is excited, and then he plays one or two Beatles songs, and the audience goes crazy. And what are my friends saying? “We have just destroyed the authenticity of the music.”

I had met this guy before, so afterwards I just go to say hi to him, and he tells me, “Mike, do you know what it’s like to be trying to play music onstage with people like that in the audience?” So it’s this wonderful or tragic contradiction of being popular or being authentic, and there’s all kinds of incantations that are used to make that circle square, but it never does it.

Might that dynamic emphasizing aesthetic tensions potentially replace the characteristic tensions from the Soviet period, between being official and non-official, and so on?

My answer would be yes.

That seems to be a primary area of your research — looking at what’s happened post-permissiveness.

That’s right. And it’s interesting to see how things have stabilized. Now there are a certain number of blues venues that people don’t go to because they’re fashionable. They go there because they like the music, and there’s a number of people who know about that music. So blues has a niche. Earlier it was a fad, and you had a lot of crappy players playing blues. One of the best stories I got in an interview came from Petrovich — everyone knows him by his patronymic. He was actually in a legendary Soviet group called Udachnoe Priobreteniye, which was the Moscow equivalent of Aquarium and stuff like that in the ’70s. He was a drummer then, but he became a harmonic player. Anyway, he’s telling me this story about how in the early ’90s there’s this big boom in blues music — all of a sudden there were all these clubs and bands and crowds going to hear it, because it was very fashionable. So he gets a call from somebody he knows in Volgograd or someplace, who says, “Hey, Petrovich, we’re coming to Moscow; me and the boys are going to spend a week or so learning these blues tunes, ’cause it won’t take long, and we’ll get a lot of work.” And he says, “And he had no idea how much he had offended me.” That is, by assuming that this music is simple — that “we can just knock it off and we’ll make money.” From that I took a number of things: number one, the secondary, at best, commercial consciousness among the people I had a chance to interact with. “Making money is not the thing we’re about. We don’t want to reject the money, making money is nice, but it’s not what we’re out to do.” And people who would see the music as simply an avenue to that end would actually be profane.

Do you think that attitude is carried too far?

No. It seems to me that the world is made of more things than money. The world is also made of monks.

At that time in Moscow you could make money. Not big money, but you could make ten times the minimum wage, fifteen, twenty times the minimum wage, which is pretty good money.

Maybe that depended on having the right connections to be playing in the right places.

In the early ’90s in Moscow I don’t think it was that difficult; there was a big demand.

One of the books you cite, Thomas Cushman’s “Notes from Underground,” seems to treat Russian musicians’ idealism as characteristic of the particular psyche of their context, rather than as the right attitude for any basically good person.

My own thinking has a lot to do with the notion of distinction and how people in what we call society draw lines. Some draw them with income and dollars and all that, and others with prestige, and others with suffering. There’s all kinds of ways to draw the lines so that someone can possess dignity and self-regard, and so forth. A presence, a face. How someone can actually acquire a face. One of the interesting things I learned from doing that book was that the face that Russian bluesmen adopt is Janus-like. “On the one hand, especially because of the origins of the music in the early post-Soviet period, we are part of the distinction that’s being drawn in the society between Soviet and new, which in part is Russian and West. We’re part of that. And so we’re not like these old people, our parents, with all this corny culture and no horizons. We are involved with a larger, dynamic global thing. BUT! And this ‘BUT’ is in capital letters. All this other crap around us, all this parade of new wealth and vulgarity, we’re not a part of that either. So we’re Western but not that vulgar Western, not that Western that you are. We’re part of the Western that says, ‘Capitalism is a bitch, and we’re all bearing that cross.'” Which is the basic message in blues music, that capitalism is a bitch, and there’s no place in it for me. That’s where the music comes from, when these guys were thrust into capitalism. And so the stance that Russians adopted, I think, is versatile and effective. “I’m not a part of this crap, and I’m not a part of that crap either. I’m living an independent and dignified life.” And that’s probably the most important thing that I think can be said about their culture.

Is there room left for musical growth in the Moscow and Petersburg blues scene you’re familiar with?

There’s always room for that, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near the limitations combined with potential that existed in the ’90s. I think further progress will be made by small increments. The real breakthroughs have already occurred.

But the progress won’t be reversed?

Right, because there’s all this tradition. Hundreds of billions of notes of blues have been played, and played within a pretty small circumference. You can stray a bit and play on the margins and put jazz in it and other stuff, but if you’re playing blues, you’ve got to stay somewhere within the circumference that’s already been outlined, because there have been hundreds of billions of notes played. There might be some little wrinkle you can produce here and there, but we really do have the map.

VU – Don’t you also think that Moscow’s footprint for blues is much bigger than that of St. Petersburg?

MU – Right, and I also think that the best players in Russia are more likely to come not to Petersburg but to Moscow to play, because that’s where you can make some money. It’s very simple.

VU – But maybe the people in Petersburg want to make a bigger statement.

MU – A different statement, probably, but yes. Even so, the musical caliber is better in Moscow, which represents the national blues scene.

So there may be a greater speed of technical evolution in Moscow?

The technical thing is part of it, but I think it’s also a cultural thing, just because there’s a greater concentration, more of a critical mass, so people have more of an imbeddedness in a community.

VU – I don’t see it that way. I see Petersburg as being more concentrated.

MU – Maybe, but with fewer groups. In Petersburg you might have six groups, whereas in Moscow there’d be sixty.

VU – That’s right, but those six are trying really hard to be something.

MU – And they do things that no one does in Moscow. The Petersburg bands are huge successes in Moscow, because it’s like a foreign group coming in and playing blues that no one’s ever heard before.

So the process like when Aquarium first came to Moscow is still going on.

VU – It also seems to me that in Petersburg you get a lot of underground music. Blues players we don’t even know about are being sold underground, as pirate recordings, and that availability influences what’s going on.

MU – That happens in Moscow, too. One of the best blues players I’ve ever heard, I didn’t have any knowledge of in the United States. He quit playing blues in 1953. He’s from Houston, Texas. He quit playing blues and gave his life over to driving a taxi, and then somebody found him in 1991 or 1992. The same guy I mentioned earlier, Duke Robillard, gets involved. They produce him, and then he dies. So he made this one album. I can go to a thousand knowledgeable blues people in this country and maybe fifty would know this guy’s name. I heard him in Moscow. Somehow this CD gets packed in with a bunch of other CDs and goes to Russia, gets reproduced and sold at Gorbushka, the market. So one of my friends is down there one day looking at blues things, and he pulls out this guy, and thinks, “Who is this, anyway?” So he takes the CD home and sits in the kitchen the next day listening to it. I’m actually doing an interview in the other room, and I hear this music, and think, “That’s really good!” So I walk into the kitchen and ask, “Hey, who is this guy?” “His name is Zuzu Bolin, I don’t know.” But it’s just top-notch stuff. That’s one of the strange and in a way magical things about it. All this stuff goes over there and there are different filters, so all this stuff comes through that they know about and we don’t, and it came from us. If you were in Houston, Texas, in 1953, you might know Zuzu Bolin, but if you were there in 1954, that was gone.

How do you translate the title of your book “Russia Gets the Blues”?

I don’t know. Because in English it’s an attempt to play on words. But in my estimation it means three things: Россия встала в тоску. Россия приняла блюзовую музыку. И Россия понимает блюзовую музыку. [Russia has gotten depressed. Russia has assimilated blues music. And Russia understands blues music.]

When I was teaching in St. Petersburg in 1998, I fell in with some blues guys and they let me hang out with them and play some of their gigs with them and so forth; that was a lot of fun. But my purpose in St. Petersburg in teaching was to find a new research topic. I had just finished a book on another subject, so I said, “Okay, I’m going back to Russia, I’ll listen in and then I’ll find something cool to do. And after a few months I came back and I hadn’t found anything. So what are you going to do? It didn’t work. Then that night I went to bed with jet lag and somewhere about 2 or 2:30, as usual, I wake up. But this time I wake up and I say, out loud, “The blues!” Sort of like the Blues Brothers say, “The band!” at the same moment. “I’ll study the Russian blues!” Then I went back to bed and slept for a few minutes, and woke up and said, “And it’ll be called, ‘Russia Gets the Blues’!” So my second mind was working very much overtime.

VU – I helped with the project, and had a great time. We went to Russia, and we went to so many blues venues, more than you could even count. Some were good, some were rough and I didn’t want to be there. Most were pretty good, I was impressed, but there was not any one blues venue that was original, they were all knockoffs of American blues bands. There was only one band that tried to be original and make Russian blues, and it didn’t work.

Do you share the Russian blues with your students, and do they respond to it?

Yes. Number one, I require that they read two chapters for my lecture course on Russian politics. Number two, I put the book on my syllabus for my graduate-level course in discourse analysis, which is the stuff that’s outside of language. And some of them have just gone off and purchased the book and told me they liked it. But in every case I think the reply I get from the students is, “That’s pretty neat.”

If it’s reasonable to say you’re a part of this context — have you encountered any resistance to your ideas among American or English-language-based scholars of Russian culture?

Yes, I’m a part of that, and the answer is, absolutely yes. And the uncomfortable part involves my awkward and imperfect attempts to introduce something about Russia into the analysis of Russia. I don’t say that lightly. The field that I’m trained in and work in, political science, is very much involved with imposing categories on others, and so the notion of treating the other as simply a different version of reality is not only foreign but hostile. I have been pilloried in my field for just that. At professional meetings, the crowd has been told, “Don’t listen to this man.” I’ll give you an example. In 1988, I was giving a talk at a convention at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, with about five or six other people from my field there. My talk was about the fact that, in 1988, Gorbachev has a project under way called democratization, and it has real substance and it’s going to make everything different. Literally, other academics got up and spoke to the audience, right on the spot, and said, “Don’t listen to him. Nothing is going to happen, nothing is going to change. It’s Soviet Communism.” That’s probably the most egregious case, but there have been innumerable cases of that sort, because it’s very convenient to introduce otherness into “science” — I’m using the word “science” ironically. In other words, if we have these ideas about how this happens, how that happens, how this causes that, and they all happen to come from our cultural background, then they become relativized, de-universalized as soon as there’s another context where different things occur. So I’ve spent my life, imperfectly, trying to assimilate something of that context, and in terms of my own countrymen I can only be a heretic. Maybe even a threat in certain ways.

Do you think the establishment tries to exploit a lack of opportunities to actually compare the different contexts?

There are terms like “democracy promotion” — and that, I think, is a very corrupt profession, but it’s a profession that describes itself as aiming to “bring the universal to the places that haven’t yet experienced it.” What is universal? Feminism. Ecology. And training lawyers. There’s nothing about how people have organized their lives, what they need, what they’re prepared to do; it’s simply the imposition of the things that we think are important from the Ford Foundation and the Marshall Trust onto their lives. Our scholarship has followed that — until recently, because there’s been a real collapse in my field, and it’s understood now that we really don’t know what’s going on. We know we don’t like Putin, but we don’t know how he came about, we don’t know what it means or where it’s going. I’m being terse but sincere, and I think accurate. Because there was this big apparatus for years, and all the funding went to do public opinion studies, show how Russia is democratizing, Yeltsin and the democrats, blah blah blah. And it was all a kind of reflection of our own selves, our make-believe selves, and no real attempt to encounter the other and deal with it. So now that’s got no place to go, because all the projects have been defeated. There’s no democratization that we can identify; it’s gone the other way. In my own view, we produced the reaction against the West, and we of course take no blame or credit for that, but scratch our heads to say, “What’s wrong with Russia and Putin?” And we don’t even ask the question we have to ask: “How come all these people like the person we hate? How come all these people like Putin?” We can’t answer. Either we say, “We were wrong to begin with,” or, “Russians are just a bunch of dummies,” and we can’t say that, so we don’t even ask the question.

More on this in your forthcoming book?

Yes. One of the few moments in my life when I’ve actually been proud to be an American was in St. Petersburg, when on the steps of the Russian Museum they set up, first, the St. Petersburg Saxophone Orchestra, 16 saxophones, and then they set up the St. Petersburg Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra, and they played interwar American big band jazz. People were melting. Immediately everyone could understand the people around them, and so people just started talking to us. “Oh, you’re from America, that’s great; have you heard this joke?” Immediate family.

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