mon 24/06/2024

theartsdesk in Russia: WOMAD Pyatigorsk | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Russia: WOMAD Pyatigorsk

theartsdesk in Russia: WOMAD Pyatigorsk

WOMAD has held its first festival in Russia, but it almost didn’t happen at all...

Russian WOMAD: Cossacks steal the showSimon Broughton

“Some say that I come from Russia / Some think that I come from Africa / But I'm so exotic, I'm so erotic / 'Cos I come from the Planet Paprika...”  

So sang Shantel at the close of the first WOMAD festival in Russia. The location was almost as exotic as Planet Paprika – the town of Pyatigorsk, 1,500 kilometres from Moscow, deep in the south of Russia in the North Caucasus region. Bringing WOMAD here is part of a cultural regeneration of a region which has the spectacular natural beauty of the Caucasus mountains, but uncomfortable associations of tension and conflict. The North Caucasus federal district is made up of seven national republics, five of them Muslim, including Chechnya and Dagestan.

Pyatigorsk, though, is remote from this, situated in a dramatic landscape famed for its mineral waters. On a clear day there are views of the Caucasus which form the border with Georgia and the twin peaks of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain. One of the Russian organisers of WOMAD has recently built the highest hotel in the world here at 3,912 metres – certainly an exciting place to stay after a WOMAD festival. Elbrus is pictured behind the WOMAD lion on the festival poster (pictured right).

Pyatigorsk is probably most famous as the setting of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, one of the seminal books of 19th century Russian literature. In fact the WOMAD site at the foot of Mount Mashuk – “towering like a shaggy Persian cap,” writes Lermontov – is near the place where the writer was killed in a duel in 1841, aged just 26.

WOMAD Pyatigorsk had a £2 million budget and powerful political support from the regional chief and vice prime minister of Russia, Alexander Khloponin, as well as prime minister Medvedev, but actually making it happen was fraught with difficulties. The final location was only confirmed at the end of July and WOMAD director Chris Smith usually just raised an eyebrow whenever he was asked how it was going.

Moscow feared it might be used as a political platform and threatened to pull the plug

Finally, the day before the festival was due to open, Moscow feared it might be used as a political platform in a politically sensitive area and threatened to pull the plug. This is in the context of the condemnation of the imprisonment of Pussy Riot by Peter Gabriel (one of the founders and a figurehead of WOMAD) and the recent threats by Lady Gaga and others of a cultural boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi,  in the neighbouring region of Krasnodar. Smith insisted that WOMAD is a cultural and not a political organisation, and the festival got the green light 24 hours before the opening.

Security was tight, particularly the first day, as the regional chief Khloponin paid a visit with a gang of heavies. There were sniffer dogs (which they also have at WOMAD UK and police stationed around the site, while all festivals in Russia have to be alcohol-free by law. The atmosphere was calm, friendly and easy-going.

The music was a mix of international artists plus Russian and regional groups. The headliners were Nigeria’s Seun Kuti, bringing powerful Afrobeat to the North Caucasus for the first time (pictured below), and Shantel with his Balkan-brass flavoured Bucovina Club Orchestra. Dobet Gnahore from Ivory Coast got the crowd singing very musically and stunned them with her extraordinary dancing. The exuberant Egyptian band El Tanbura quickly pulled young Russian girls from the front row to dance.

From closer to home there were musicians from the Caucasus states of Georgia and Armenia, various parts of Russia and all the regional republics of the North Caucasus, including Chechnya and Dagestan.

I almost hesitate to admit that the most impressive of these were Cossack singers and dancers from the nearby city of Stavropol. With extravagant costumes, fixed smiles and precision choreography, five different ensembles gave a magnificent display with traditional folk songs, flamboyant swordsmanship and acrobatic dancing. It reeks of Soviet kitsch, but is a captivating spectacle. Nobody seemed to notice the possible cultural insensitivity of celebrating the military prowess of the Cossacks, who were brought in to subdue the mountain people as the North Caucasus was incorporated into the Russian empire.

So what did the audience make of it? Unfortunately, the two festival days were dampened by persistent rain – with gorgeous late-summer days before and after – so I’d say the numbers were rather less than the "official" attendance figures of 15,000. But those that were there were enthusiastic, really responding to the groups on stage. The biggest crowd was for Russian pop/folk singer Pelageya, while a guy called Sultan, who’d come 300 kilometres from Chechnya, was wildly enthusiastic about the Tuvan throat singers Huun Huur Tu and promptly suggested I go and visit him in Grozny.

Certainly it was an unprecedented event full of positive vibes, and these cultural contacts can only help the development and reputation of the region. Most importantly, the word is that Mr Khloponin enjoyed his visit. How it develops from here will probably depend on how things go with the Sochi Olympics in February. But whatever happens in Pyatigorsk (or Planet Paprika), I suspect there may be Cossacks popping up at WOMAD UK. 

Nobody seemed to notice the possible cultural insensitivity of celebrating the military prowess of the Cossacks

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