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Russians Are Coming To The French Quarter!

Sasha Raskina Wentzell

The New Jersey resident Raymond Barone (from the television show Everybody Loves Raymond) didn’t want to go with his family for a week to Italy, even though his mother had paid for the trip. “I’m not interested in other cultures,” he explained. This is just the way it is: some people are interested in other people’s cultures, while others aren’t. On Sunday, January 21st, the Second Russian Winter Festival in New Orleans took place in an Irish Pub in the French Quarter (isn’t it ironic?). A host of people who are interested in other cultures gathered for the festival. There aren’t many people from Russia in New Orleans, perhaps a hundred families. There are others who have Russian roots but belong to the second, third, or fourth generation following immigration, and most of these are Jewish. Some of these persons of Russian background were at the festival. But the majority of those attending didn’t have any Russian roots at all. They came because they were open to and interested in other cultures: in their music, dances, poetry, songs, and, of course, in their food (let’s not forget – this is New Orleans!).

And they got all of this in full measure at the festival.

The festival actually began on Toulouse Street just outside the entrance to Danny O’Flaherty’s Irish Channel Culture Centre and Pub. (Danny is interested in other cultures, and generously offered his premises for the festival free of charge.) There, in front of the pub, white horses clopped their hoofs impatiently (I think they were mules, but in Russia there aren’t any mules, and I can differentiate them from horses). Musicians in Russian national costumes took their places in the carriages behind these horses and played their balalaikas and their bayan. In the French Quarter you can see most anything, by this – only once a year, at the Russian Winter Festival.

The music at the festival was presented by three groups: The Winter Balalaika Ensemble with six members, the New Orleans trio Tony Green and Gypsy jazz, and still one more trio named Czar Balalaika. As you can see, in the music the balalaika dominated.

The balalaika is a popular peasant instrument, probably borrowed by the Russians from the Turks or the Tatars. It was a triangular shape and three strings. At a time when masters of musical instruments in the West were inventing newer and better instruments, the Russian village, mired in poverty over the course of centuries, stuck with the balalaika: in order to make one, peasants only needed a log and an ax. Only toward the beginning of the Twentieth Century did the accordion begin to penetrate into the village and displace the balalaika (and in urban settings the guitar became popular). And here, of course, it occurred to a group of enthusiastic musicians to resurrect and raise the art of balalaika playing to new heights. They built previously unseen bass balalaikas that were huge, like a Russian peasant house; but the most important thing was that the new balalaika players, challenging the ever-present Russian slackness, dressed up in black musical tuxedos and began to play in the concert halls of the capitals. It turned out that a balalaika orchestra could play whatever it wanted.
Here World War I and the Russian Revolution intervened. During the Soviet period balalaika orchestras with their hearty melodies always played concerts in the Kremlin on the occasions of the closing of congresses of the Communist Party: so we thought that balalaika playing might vanish together with the disappearance of Soviet power.

Thus it was very unexpected to see the American ensemble Winter Balalaika, in the uniform of the Russian peasant shirts together with black jackets, creating the same miracle that Russian enthusiasts for balalaika playing have performed for years, namely, proving that one can play literally anything on the balalaika. One should right away invite students who are studying that epoch in Russian history to the concert. (We should note, by the way, that in the West the balalaika is often associated with Yiddish culture: think of the well known song “Tum-balalaika, shpilt balalaika.”)

In Tony Green’s ensemble there was nothing Russian except for their performance of Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby.” But they played well, and it turned out that the Americans were not the only ones present who were open to a foreign, Russian culture, but that Russians present were open to the American culture of jazz. The ensemble played in an invigorating way. Several Russian women in the audience began to dance to their music.

I didn’t know what to expect for the next trio – Czar Balalaika – when suddenly Eduard Svetlovskii plunged into a Russian dance song. It doesn’t make any sense to mention the name of the song or its words in English since what’s important here isn’t the words, but Svetlovskii’s strong, clear voice and the joy and merriment in his performance. I hope that Americans were also able to experience a direct contact with this trio.

As far as singing goes, Natasha Ramer, an actress, director, and singer who is well known in the city, sang Russian songs to the accompaniment of Tony Green’s Gypsy Jazz ensemble. This was, as always, remarkable. One should note that Natasha is also the Artistic Director of Moscow Nights, Inc., the group that organized the festival.

Local producer and director Mikko, who served as Master of Ceremonies at the festival, described Natasha as the “Russian Goddess of New Orleans” and was absolutely right in this. Natasha is half Jewish and half Korean. But what can one do if we, Jews who came from Russia, are regarded as Russians in America, all the more so in that we “Russians,” regardless of profession, upon coming here immediately become propagandists and interpreters of Russian culture. And for Natasha, as a professional actress and director, this is only natural!

As far as poetry is concerned, do you know who the most important Russian poet was? Right, it was Pushkin. But it’s rare that an American knows the answer to that question. Thus Mikko told the audience about (as he is often called) “the sun of Russian poetry.”

He pointed out that Pushkin’s great-grandfather had been a black slave who had been brought to Russia from Constantinople in the Eighteenth Century as a gift to Emperor Peter the Great. Peter loved the boy, gave him an education, enrolled him in the nobility and, when the former slave grew up, arranged for him to marry a Russian woman of noble origin. Thus, by American calculations, Pushkin was black (an Afro-Russian?). In this regard, I should mention something I was told by a well known Russian writer Tatiana Tolstaya, who has taught literature and creative writing at Skidmore College. Once a black student asked her whether it was true that Pushkin was black. Tolstaya answered spontaneously, “Yes, he was! And not only was he black, but he had white slaves!” And it’s true: although Pushkin celebrated freedom and denounced slavery in his poems, he nevertheless “owned” peasant serfs, just as all landowners of the time did. Serfdom in Russia was abolished in 1861, approximately the same time slavery was abolished in America.

As a tribute to Pushkin’s African roots, the African-American reader Donald Lewis read some of Pushkin’s poems from the gifted translations of James Falen, the best American translator of Pushkin. (I very much recommend his translation of Pushkin’s novel-in-verse “Eugene Onegin.”

In the portion of the program devoted to Russian poetry, Mikko read (in English, of course) some of the poems of Doctor Zhivago from the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak. The translation was not as good as that of Falen, but Mikko read well.. 

It was a great celebration of Russian poetry. And those of us who spent most of our lives in Russia often feel more annoyed than amused by the allusions to Russian literature that one sometimes encounters in America. For example, for a long time there was the following advertisement hanging in the New Orleans airport (perhaps it is still there): The left side of the frame depicted a huge volume—Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The right hand side showed the Yellow Pages with a text that explained “This is easy.”

The hall was full throughout both concert performances. Many people stood, and some sat on the floor. Some danced in the aisle when the orchestra played an especially lively melody. The waitresses moved in and out with food and drinks. New people came, many with Russian food purchased at the bazaar taking place in the inner courtyard. The atmosphere was extremely relaxed.

I liked everything at the festival, even the Russian dances performed in national costumes by the ensemble Komenka. Why “even”? Because these dances, just like the balalaikas, were things that we tended to see briefly on the television screen only at concerts for the Kremlin leadership. But ten years have passed since I last saw them, so I didn’t experience my usual irritation in seeing them. Quite the opposite, in an Irish bar in the French Quarter, these dances, performed so gaily and easily by Komenka, seemed absolutely appropriate.

In addition to the two concert presentations, one of the festival’s real highlights without doubt was the Russian bazaar that was set up in the inner courtyard. The range of things available there was enormous: Russian dolls and decorations and most of all – food! There were homemade pirozhki with meat, meat jelly and Siberian dumplings, and the Russian Olivier salad (French chefs were in Russia before the revolution in large numbers). And there was Lyonya, who came to the Russian Winter Festival from Washington with his Russian bread and pastries (baked in Brooklyn, by the way) and Russian chocolates. The artist Larisa Ivakina – a New Orleans original from Simferopol – provided the artistic design for the entire festival. She made a Russian peasant house (izba) for Lyonya with the title (in English and Russian) “Lenny Friedman’s Cabin.” In talking with the salesladies and Lyonya, I gather that the trade was fast and furious.

As for my own role, I was supposed to entertain children together with the professional entertainer Claudia Baumgarten during the break between concerts. For this purpose a special Children’s Corner was set aside. Before the first concert, Claudia and her assistants presented two fairy tales in English. The children were delighted. Then I told the children that, after the concert, we would write a story together. Toward the end of the concert one of the special “Market Waifs” (eight-year-old Igor Kolesnichenko dressed in Russian national costume) whispered in my ear, “The children are already gathered in the Children’s Corner. They’re waiting for you. Perhaps I should entertain them somehow in the meantime? I could walk on my hands!” I was moved: here was a real little mensch!

The game that we played with the children consisted of the following: I had presented a story I had written ahead of time, leaving a space before every noun for an adjective. And the adjectives were called out in turn by the children (without seeing the story). The resulting story was read aloud. (In addition to the children I was assisted with adjectives by the quite grown-up Shula Fuchs who, was next to the Children’s Corner learning Russian dances with a group under the direction of Elliott Raisin.)

Here is the story:

~ The Clever Festival ~

Beautiful winter came to the smart New Orleans. Small New Orleanians complained about the evil cold. But big Russians would say to large Americans: “Do you really think this is a sad cold winter? In wild Russia we have real blue frost: calm snow lies in the red streets, and mad kids ride on slimy sleighs, and purple skis, and hyper skates!” Happy Americans would answer: “But we know everything about your green Russia: you have greedy white bears walking along the oblong streets,” And then the stubborn Russian Winter Festival came.

Easy Sophia, crazy Jose, round Danielle, warm Hillary, rude Jessica, silly Igor, old Laura, colorful Shula and other damp children came to the deep concert to hear the religious singer good Natasha sing the creative song, “Oh, These Terrible Eyes, These Smelly Eyes!” and the clean musicians play on dry balalaikas, to see weird Russian dances, and to eat fast Russian candies. And before the sharp concert, while their fortunate parents are drinking bad Russian vodka, shiny Claudia promised to tell a rusty fairy tale, and nasty Sasha to write a clear story together with the watchful children.

~ The Interesting End ~

This game, which we always used to play at home in Moscow over have a century, did let us down: the children (and Shula!) had a great time. And the little girl Jessica Maganet (also a Waif) turned out to be terribly creative. Her adjectives were the most original.

So it seems to me that the Russian Winter Festival was a success of adults and children alike, for Russians and non-Russians alike, for those who are interested in other cultures and for those who want to preserve their own. And it struck us that Moscow Nights, Inc. should do things in this vein during the period between the annual festivals, especially if those who are interested in other cultures (or in culture in general) will help out.

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