Natasha Ramer is a New Orleans transplant with a Russian heart. For the past 18 years, the Moscow native has set out to educate anyone she can about the sights, sounds and tastes of Russia. In 1999, she helped found Moscow Nights, a nonprofit organization that coordinates Russian-themed activities with the help of local and
With the assistance of a handful of locals who share her passion, Ramer has lured to New Orleans the Balalaika & Domra Association of America, a Russian song and dance troupe that travels across the globe attending workshops and performing Russian
folk concerts. All of their New Orleans performances will be open to the public.
"The first time I ever heard some of the members of the group playing, it just knocked me off of my feet," Ramer said. "I felt like I was not in America, but Russia. The costumes, the singing and dancing are just so rich and beautiful. I knew the people of New Orleans would love to see something like this."
Maxwell McCullough, executive director of the association, hopes New Orleanians will not only appreciate the music but also endeavor to learn more about Russian folk music instruments such as the balalaika, domra and gusli. He said most Americans aren’t familiar with the sound of a balalaika beyond recognizing it as an instrument used in "Lara’s Theme" from the "Dr. Zhivago" movie.
The balalaika is a small, triangular, stringed instrument that is played with a fanning stroke of the fingers. According to McCullough, the balalaika was inspired by the Oriental domra, a two-stringed, oval-faced instrument. Other Russian folk instruments include the domra family (composed of a small domra, alto, tenor and bass), the gusli and the bayan. The gusli is a "table autoharp" and the bayan is known as the traditional Russian accordion.
"It is very easy to learn how to play any of these instruments badly, but quite difficult to learn how to play them well," said McCullough, as he sat in Ramer’s home practicing and organizing for the convention.
McCullough and his wife, Francie Fite, run the association out of their McLean, Va., home.
"You can bet that no matter how good or bad a balalaika player is playing they are sure to be genuine in the appreciation of the music," Fite said.
Unlike garage band members or guitar hobbyists, balalaika and domra enthusiasts can’t just go to a local music shop and pick out an instrument. Generally, balalaikas must be custom-ordered from Russian craftsmen and then shipped back to the United States. However, if someone who has an interest in learning how to play a balalaika can’t afford his own, the association has set up a nationwide lending system.
"Russian music is so easy to pick up and it goes straight to your heart whether you are Russian or not," Fite said. "There isn’t any reason why someone shouldn’t try it. Even if you don’t take to playing the music you can still clap or dance along. It’s all about having a good time with friends."
Alexandria Casura, a native New Yorker, credits the family-like atmosphere of the group for keeping her involved in the organization. When she was growing up, Casura said, her whole family listened to the music. Now she has passed the music along to her children.
"It’s such original music. It’s not something you will hear blasting on the radio or even something you can go and buy at a record store," said Casura, who has traveled twice to Russia with the group. "The music is kept alive largely by word-of-mouth. For a while, you had generations of families passing on the music to one another. Now more of the public is becoming aware of its existence."
Longtime listeners warn that the upbeat and festive tempos of balalaika and domra music can be addictive.
"You can’t help but love it. The music is so spontaneous and joyous," said Ilonka Band, a New Orleanian who plans to take part in this week’s festivities. "I’ve never seen musicians who have such love for their music. Their love for the music is contagious.
You walk away and just want to hear more and more of it."