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Folk Rock, Mandry Style

The Ukrainian rock band Mandry performs music which can be described as fusion of Ukrainian folk music, reggae, the blues and rock, with an admixture of city romance songs and French chanson. The Mandrivnyks (“mandry” in Ukrainian means both “wanderings” and “travels”, and consequently “mandrivnyk” is “the one who wanders” or “travels”; in this context, “mandrivnyks” are members of the Mandry band) define their own music as “postindustrial rock,” Mandry style.

Nataliya Rudnichenko, a freelance journalist, interviewed Foma, the Mandry frontman, for the Welcome to Ukraine Magazine.

I want to begin by asking why you call yourselves Mandry. Is it just a catchy word or is there an attitude to life lurking behind it?

Both. It’s a good name for our band because, first, it does reflect our attitude to life; second, Mandry is a catchy word indeed; and thirdly — it does sound sort of romantic in Ukrainian. A rock group called Mandry just could not help coming into my life. The word and things it implied were on my mind back in my teenage years. For some time in my late teenagehood, I was a sort of a hippy; then came the time when I hitchhiked to many countries of the former Soviet Union, I lived for some time in Russia and then in Lithuania. I used to be a janitor at a church (seemed to be very romantic), a night watch at a kindergarten, a radio DJ, and the host of shows for children before I realized it was music I was made for.

It all began, in fact, in my childhood, when once my mom took me to a music store that sold all kinds of music instruments. The instrument that caught my fancy was bayan (Ukrainian accordion). It looked so powerful, so manly. I even went to a music school to study where I was trained to play the bayan. When I played records at home, I’d grab two plastic sticks and imagined myself a drummer, beating the sofa with the sticks. The sofa was a poor substitute for drums — and there was so much dust that I beat out of it. When I played songs by Adriano Celentano, an Italian actor and pop singer, I’d stand in front of a mirror and open my mouth in the imitation of a singer, monkeying around.

Also, I started writing poetry as soon as I learnt how to write.

What were your favourite singers and pop groups? I mean the ones that helped form your music tastes?

Celentano, as I’ve just said, then Ukrainian pop singers of the 1970s and 1980s, Ukrainian rock groups such as Braty Hadyukiny and Vopli Vidoplyasova (incidentally, VV began their career playing punk), and Russian bands Akvarium, Kino, Zoopark, and at present I like David Silvian and Bob Marley.

When did you actually start playing the guitar?

When I was about 15, I was sort of a speleologist, exploring caves. Once, in Western Ukraine, in one of the caves — a very beautiful one, incidentally, — I met a guy who was a guitar player. He actually had his guitar with him in that cave and played it. I was instantly charmed and told the guy I wish I could play like that. Right there and then, he showed me how to play several chords, and a week later I could already play several tunes — very primitively of course, but I improved as I went along. It was then that I started composing songs.

Mandry was sometimes referred to as “a free performance theatre.” When did you perform publicly for the first time?

It was back in 1997. We were a back-up band for the well known Russian rock band Auktsion. We were booed and pelted with plastic bottles by the indignant crowd. They did not like us because right before we appeared on stage, another group played loud punk and the audience wanted to see Auktsion after them, not us. It did not seem to be an auspicious starts and we were told we did not have much of a future but I, for some reason, was pretty sure we’d make it real big some day. I thought we were good back then and I was mad at the unfairness of being pelted with plastic bottles. I have this kind of a positive anger — I do everything possible to prove I’m right and others are wrong.

What is your position in the Ukrainian show business at the moment?

Well, frankly speaking we play music which is not particularly popular among other Ukrainian musicians but at the same time our music is topical. We play Ukrainian music, and we orient our interests toward Ukrainian culture. You see, there are no Ukrainian roots in music that is performed in this country these days, all kinds of music are widely played — but not the Ukrainian kind. Up to quite recent times so many people in Ukraine kept perpetuating the stereotype that has it that Ukrainian songs are only those that come from the traditional country-side folklore. Today we, Mandry, play Ukrainian rock which is loosely based on the Ukrainian folk songs — and it sounds great, I believe.

A rather extensive “underground” rock culture emerged and developed in Russia in the late 1970s and all through the 1980s. Why was there no similar thing in Ukraine at that time?

What do you mean “there was no similar thing in Ukraine”! There was! No less interesting than in Moscow or in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). It’s true though that we did not have as many excellent performers as Russians had. Also, the rock musicians in Ukraine in those times had fewer opportunities to perform and make themselves better known. We did have music festivals though, at which some of our good rock musicians could perform, and at the end of the 1980s, at the Chervona Ruta festival Ukrainian rock music had its first heyday. It became clear then it was just the beginning of a movement that had a future. Rock subculture did exist but it was not supported by big money as it was in Russia. The main thing is that it was subculture with a definite Ukrainian identity. And in the early 1990s it became possible to express almost anything this subculture wanted, Ukrainian style.

What’s your assessment of the present-day situation in Ukrainian rock music?

There are several “high-quality” rock bands in Ukraine — VV, Okean Elzy, Plach Yeremiyi, Skryabin, Mandry (false modesty aside), Tanok na Maydani Kongo and some others, and several rather good pop singers. The Rock-Eksystentsiya–2002 Festival of rock and “alternative” music that was held in Kyiv in November last year, showed that in addition to the well-established rock bands and singers there were very good young musicians who performed at a very high level, so high in fact that all those who performed at the festival can represent Ukraine abroad for the world to see and hear what Ukrainian rock of today is like.

If, as you say, there are quite a few of high-class performers in Ukraine, why then the Ukrainian FM radio stations play such trash?

I’m afraid it is because those people who actually run the Ukrainian mass media are not interested in popularizing Ukrainian music. Moreover — those rock bands and singers who sing in Ukrainian have more trouble getting promoted that those who sing in Russian. If you choose to be Ukrainian in style and language, you’ll have a very hard time proving you’re worth to be plugged. It may sound absurd but it is true — there are powerful people in Ukraine who want Ukraine to have only second-rate music which is hyped in the media and because of that trashy songs get top positions in the Ukrainian hit-parades.

If it is true for the privately owned TV and radio stations, then why do the state-run radio and TV stations play so much of outdated trash?

In order to get things going in a different way, you have to have new people who would come and start getting things done in a new, progressive manner. The state-run radio and TV stations are run by people who grew up in the Soviet times, and imbibed the Soviet ways in everything, who have a completely Soviet-type mentality, and they do not care for anything new or really Ukrainian. But the situation has slowly begun to change for the better. The M-1 TV station which broadcasts music for all of Ukraine does show good Ukrainian musicians of the new generations who perform new music in Ukrainian style, and it’s a great step forward in itself.

What happens if you, say, bring your new song or new album to one of the radio stations and ask them to play it on the air?

What happens? Recently, we brought our new album to one of the FM stations in Kyiv that was likely to play our music but we were told that they’d play only when other FM stations, more popular than the one we had come to, would start playing our music. When we asked which were those “more popular” stations, we were told they were such and such, the stations that play predominately Russian songs and which would not care to plug our songs no matter how good. It’s just plain impossible for us to have our Ukrainian-style music played at such stations. When I ask them what’s wrong with the songs sung in Ukrainian, they tell me “it does not fit our standards.”

Is it just the language the songs are sung in?

It’s more than that. Those who run those stations are not Ukrainian patriots, that’s for sure, they don’t care for anything Ukrainian in general, and Ukrainian-style music in particular. They do not want any changes, they are quite satisfied with what and where they are. Unfortunately, this kind of I-don’t-care attitude is peculiar for our Ukrainian mentality.

But why is it that anything that comes from Russia is considered good and acceptable?

One of the reasons is promotion. In Russia, pop music is plugged much better than here in Ukraine, and in most cases the stations are made to play this Russian music. Besides, it’s part of our “younger brother” mentality. Russia has been our Big Brother for so long that it is very difficult now to change this attitude. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Ukrainians feel Ukraine has degraded down to a provincial status, and is again on the fringe of Europe. And they reject everything Ukrainian, trying to associate themselves with a higher — in their biased opinion — culture.

I do believe our Ukrainian pop and rock music is good enough to be promoted, it’s competitive and can be commercially viable — but all of this is of a secondary importance. The hardest thing is this — we, Ukrainian musicians, living in Ukraine, performing Ukrainian-style music find ourselves in a ridiculous and extremely offending situation — we are sort of forced to stay underground.

Have you personally done anything to change this situation?

There’s an Oriental saying that has it that if you want to change anything in the world around you, you have to change yourself first. We, Mandry, are musicians, we do our best to play our music as well as we can, and by doing it we hope we’ll get enough people on our side who will have the energy and strength to change things for the better in our society.

Last year we played at the festival called Slukhay Ukrayinske, spivay ukrayinske (Listen to Music Ukrainian, Sing Music Ukrainian). It was held in Lviv, and after the festival we joined the round-table discussion of the problem in question. It was good and helpful but such a festival and such discussion should be held here, in Kyiv, with radio and TV stations covering the event. Then it’d produce a much greater effect which in its turn could get things starting to move in the right direction.

Which direction? And should the state interfere in any way in boosting the promotion of Ukrainian musicians?

In the direction of helping make it prestigious to sing Ukrainian songs in Ukrainian. Also, some laws should be adopted which would support and promote those who produce things Ukrainian in Ukraine. And that includes culture as well — cinema, the arts, and music. There must be a law that says that those businesspersons who back up financially Ukrainian performers should pay fewer taxes. The state should make it incumbent upon the commercial stations to play Ukrainian music at least 50 percent of the air time, the way it is done in the countries to which we keep referring in Ukraine as “civilized.” In France, for example, the percentage of French music that the commercial stations must play is still higher — not fifty but seventy. The countries that have introduced such quotas respect themselves and their culture.

Most of the music videos made in Ukraine seem to be atrociously bad — in bad taste with an apparent lack of talent. Why is that?

I don’t know about “most” but I know of some that are very good. The main reason why we can’t make them better is lack of money. Ukrainian rock bands cannot afford to invest 20 or 30 thousand dollars into making a video. For comparison, let’s take, for example the Red Hot Chilly Peppers’ recent video — they paid one hundred thousand dollars to have it made! Ukrainian rock musicians can ill afford even ten thousand. Besides, we do not have video hit parades in Ukraine, and no collections of videos on tapes or discs are released. And it is very unfortunate. We have talents, but we don’t have good producers or managers, and our video industry is underdeveloped.

Can we get a little more personal?

Let’s try.

As the frontman of a popular rock band — what’s your lifestyle?

Well, this lifestyle includes a lot of work and little sleep. Most of my time is taken by rehearsals, writing new songs, cutting new songs, talking to the media people, filming videos, promotion and tours and trips. But I don’t complain — I’m quite content, even happy with such life. I just love this rhythm of life.

Do you like being in public? Are there any informal get-togethers in Kyiv which you attend? Clubs you go to?

In fact, I’d probably devote more of my time to attending, as you put, “informal get-togethers,” but definitely we lack time for it. My occupation entails being in public and being with people and talking with people, that is why when I have free time, I like to be alone, to listen to music or to take walks.

There are no “clubs” in the western sense of the word that I know of. The middle middle class is still a very thin social stratum in Ukraine, and the number of people who like going to concerts is relatively small. People work much too hard and earn too little and they don’t have either much time or money for concerts. There are only about a dozen places what we call here “night clubs”, Kyiv style — in Kyiv where you can listen to good music performed live. Mostly, people go to see what’s fashionable rather than what’s good.

Do people recognize you in the street? If they do — do you like being someone who is easily recognized by strangers?

Yes they do, and I like it. Would you not like to be recognized by strangers? Sometimes, it can become a nuisance though — you have some matter to attend to, and people recognize you and you have to play up to the situation, “to be a star” and you are not in the mood for any such acting. Then it’s tough. But when people come up to you to say hello or thank you — that’s great!

What about girls?

What about them? Oh, I just love being liked by girls. Seems that all the most beautiful young women come to our shows.

Which personality traits do you value most in women?

Femininity, tenderness — and the strength of will and spirit. And beauty of course — both physical and spiritual beauty. My mother was like this. Alas — she’s no longer living. It is to her that I owe my voice and my talent. She could sing very well, in a natural good voice of a very pleasant timbre though her professional occupation had nothing to do with singing. I sort of subconsciously dedicate all my successes to her.

Do you go on concert tours often? And where to?

Quite often, I’d say. Once, we played at the Pepsi-sziget rock festival in Hungary — it’s a sort of Eastern European Woodstock, with such stars as David Bowie or Bjork as guest performers. We played in Hungary on other occasions as well. Last year we toured Poland with our shows jointly with some other rock Ukrainian musicians. We gave 12 concerts in 9 cities and we played to invariably full houses. We sold our CDs with our music and at our fifth concert we ran out of them. We had even a hello passed on to us from a royal personage — the son of the Spanish king Juan Carlos. He saw one of our videos on TV and passed his hello to us via the Ukrainian consul in the town of Gdansk. We’ve played in Britain too, and a CD, Rock Ukrainian, released in France, had a couple of our songs on it. We plan to go to France to perform there some day.

Any ambitions or dreams?

I want us-Mandry, that is- to stay together as long as possible. We’d like to buy a mini-bus and travel with concerts in it to European countries. But it makes me happy to play at home, in Ukraine. For us Ukraine is the only land that gives us inspiration, strength and powerful energy which warms our hearts and is turned into music.

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