I was thrilled that the Buranovskiye Babushki at least came in second at Eurovision 2012, held in Baku this year.
I usually give Eurovision a pass most years -- so much of it seems really derivative of American music and it's just awful, treacly stuff, even if you like Eurotrance, which I do. Celine Dion was a winner one year, remember?
Once I drove with some friends to visit a Zoastrian fire temple far outside of Baku. We drove through the countryside, littered with oil rigs and poor villages and rock. We got there very late, and it was already closed, but some teenagers came out, and for some American dollars, they agreed to wake up the guide and take us on a tour. Afterwards, we found a little tavern in the hills and went inside to eat. I thought here, at least, I would be safe from something that had bombarded me from every supermarket, mall, and airport forever.
Suddenly, the strains of the Titanic Song came wafting in over the olive trees...The manager thought he was doing us a favour.
I feel bad for Europeans singing in English, Globish-type English that many of them many not even understand. Why can't they sing in their own languages?! Wouldn't that be better? And why can't they sing songs that are more in line with their real native traditions, instead of singing these awful, thin retreads of the worst of American pop music? I just don't get it.
That's why the babushki from Buryanovo were so refreshing -- they came out singing not even in Russian -- in fact not a single Russian word is heard in the song. They're singing in Udmurt, which is the language of one of the native peoples of Russian Federation territory that go back to the Stone Age. To be sure, they look like the quintessential Russian babushka or grandmother, with the classic Russian pechka or large stone oven with a place even to sleep and warm a loaf of bread. Their dresses are patchwork in what may be either a more Udmurtian or more modern pattern, but they wear the classic bast shoes of the Russian peasant. What's great about this song is that they start drooning away in a folk song style with the curiously harsh but sweet harmonizing for which the Russian folk song is known.
Then all of a sudden the old ladies pick up their skirts and start dancing to a disco tune with disco lights flashing, crying 'Party for Everybody" which is one of those classic Angrusski type phrases, not quite grammatical, but effective. Then they top off the effect by crying "Come on and dance" and even "Boom Boom!" It's just great.
Word on the street, however, was that Russia deliberately put these babushki into the Eurovision stream as a prank to dis Azerbaijan, maybe for some political or economic dispute, perhaps for signing a pipeline deal with Turkey? Who knows. The unhappy looks on the faces of the judges in some clips of the babushki singing lets us know that there is divided opinion on the act. In fact, the Eurovision people seem to want a united Europe with a common banal culture with English apparently as a dominant language, and this song and dance troupe singing in...Udmurtian...and dressed in folk costumes goes just in the opposite direction.
Even if this group was manipulated by the Kremlin in this fashion, I'll prefer to take the higher road in looking at it, and see it as something else: something that is the best of Russia. Russia has many peoples in it, and has come from the Soviet Union which is called the "Prisonhouse of the Peoples." Many of the Udmurts' intellectuals were purged by Stalin in the Great Terror. It's also often overlooked that one of the peoples in the Prisonhouse of Peoples is Russia itself. Russia is striving to find its new identity in the modern world, and part of that identity in fact has to be appreciation of the non-ethnic Russians in this highly multi-ethnic state. It has to appreciate its old folk roots of the long-suffering Russian peasant dreaming beside the stove after a cookie sugar-high, but it also has to join the modern world to a disco beat.
I like the "Come on and dance" not merely because its modern, however, but because it reflects something that I have always seen in Russia in different cities at different times, that I haven't seen at home or elsewhere in Europe or Latin America, although it is sometimes visible in Africa. And that is the ability of people to break into dance spontaneously. Not just song, but dance. Large demonstrations or rallies or festivals will usually have at least one old babushka or maybe an old couple or even some young people breaking into folk dances. I recall many scenes of people playing accordions and other people dancing around them -- and now Youtube is full of them. It's an interesting phenomenon and shows the life of a country despite all the ravages of state terror and wars.
The stage director also really shone in the finals at Eurovision on this song. In previous performances the Russian stove would twirl around the stage like a Disney animated cartoon. In the finale, the babushki took cookies out of the ofen to present them to the audience and the burning logs framed their circle.