“Pesnyary” – Legends in Bell-Bottoms

For millions of people in the Soviet Union, every morning began to the accompaniment of “radiyjokropka” – radio receiver, which was plugged into a special wall socket. The radio broadcast news about the nation’s accomplishments, cheerful instructions for morning gymnastics, and Soviet music (no western hits allowed). The news was mostly propaganda, the gymnastics were widely ignored, and the music… actually, sometimes the music wasn’t bad at all. Especially, when the morning broadcasts were filled with the sounds of “Pesnyary”. 

Hardly anyone did more to define a distinctive brand name for Belarus in the Soviet Union, than “Pesnyary” (the name can be translated from the Belarusian as ‘singers’ or ‘bards’). The folk-beat-rock group gave the Soviet music scene of the 70s and 80s a major shake-up. In the late 60’s, rock-n-roll invaded (or, better to say, snuck into) the USSR. The first Soviet rock-n-rollers played cheap guitars and sang in poor English. “Pesnyary” were something all together quite different – they sang mostly in Belarusian and had a seemingly absolute pitch. Their songs became immediate hits - such as “Kasiu Yas’ Kaniushynu”, a rollicking song about a guy who is mowing clover, “Alexandryna”, sad romantic love ballad, or “Belavezhskaya Pushcha”, hymn to the vast Belarusian Belavezha wood.

Amazingly, the founder of the most popular Belarusian music band of all times wasn’t even born in Belarus. Uladzimir Mulyavin, the long-time leader of “Pesnyary”, was born in 1941 in the Russian city of Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), situated on the Eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains. He began music lessons under the tutelage of a political prisoner, who already could tell that young Uladzimir had a great future. The tutor and the pupil shared a common link of repression, as young Mulyavin was thrown out of the 2nd grade at the Sverdlovsk music school for his “admiration of western music” (Uladzimir and his friends had formed a jazz-band).
In 1963 Mulyavin moved to Belarus. Minsk, the major Soviet western outpost, was generously supplied, unlike Sverdlovsk which was situated in the industrial backyard of the Soviet Union. Mulyavin’s daughter recalls that her mother was so impressed by the full shelves in Belarusian shops encountered during their family trips to Minsk that the Mulyavins made up their mind to permanently relocate to Belarus. In Minsk, Uladzimir Muliavin continued his musical career and played guitar in the Philharmonic Society. During his military service he sang in the army quartet. Perhaps, this period of vocal and instrumental growth gave Uladzimir the idea to create his own band.
This idea came to fruition in 1968. The newborn vocal band was called “Lyavony”. Uladzimir was fascinated with both folk music and the brand-new rock-n-roll culture. He fused them both into a singularly distinctive music style. In the beginning, Mulyavin tried to combine melodies of “three brotherly peoples” – Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians. To his great surprise, this turned out to be impossible, as the music of these peoples was too different from one other. As a result, Mulyavin decided to concentrate on Belarusian folk music. The more he explored it, the more fascinated he became with the richness and beauty of its sounds. Mulyavin had an exceptional ear for sounds. He heard and appreciated the minor nuances of Belarusian speech. With great talent, he interlaced it with the sound of traditional instruments and fused those elements again with contemporary sounds.
“Lyavony” (which was renamed to “Pesnyary” in 1969), began singing in Minsk cinemas before the screenings. Their performances were so impressive, that the audience often demanded that the movie be cancelled and “Pesnyary” played instead. Uladzimer Arlou (the writer we have already written about him in “Uladzimer Arlou . The Belarusian Time Traveller” ) remembers when he first saw “Lyavony” in his hometown of Polatsk;
“I was a high school student, 10th grader, quite skeptical about domestically produced rock. I preferred “The Beatles” and “Rolling Stones”, he says. Local ideologists threatened to cancel the concert if “Lyavony” wouldn’t cut their scandalously long hair. “Fortunately, Mulyavin agreed to go to the hairdresser’s. The concert was not just great – it actually turned me into a new person”, believes Uladzimer Arlou.
Mr. Arlou touches upon a very unique trait of Mulyavin. Ironically, the singer loved bell-bottomed jeans, had long hair and a splendid mustache, all of which was simply incompatible with the official image of a Soviet music star. Still despite these characteristics, “Pesnyary” were never forced into the shadowy world of a rock-n-roll underground. They were popular in every sense of the word. Mulyavin wasn’t a dissident, but an artist. He accepted the rules of the game and played during all kinds of ideological concerts and rallies, singing patriotic songs to the lyrics of Soviet poets. In return, they received high profile appearances and were even allowed to travel abroad to perform. A total of 12 millions of copies of “Pesnyary” vinyl disks were sold in the USSR. “Pesnyary” created scores of hit songs, dozens of which are still known today as classics. Mulyavin had a talent of expanding, with the help of music, the boundaries bestowed upon him.
However, the skies of “Pesnyary” were not always cloudless. As it often happens, success was also a challenge. “Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” was not something “Pesnyary” haven’t heard of. (Perhaps, in their case it would be more accurate to substitute “drugs” with “vodka and pickles”). “Pesnyary” weren’t too spoiled by money. For example, for the 2-million-copies of their disc, each member of the band received only 12 rubles in royalties (average monthly salary in the Soviet Union was about 100 rubles). Yet, it would be wrong to say that they experienced constant financial hardship. The more successful the members of “Pesnyary” got, the more difficult it was to keep personal ambitions at bay. After a long crisis, “Pesnyary” broke up in 1998. Some members of “Pesnyary” moved abroad. Mulyavin, however, remained in Belarus. He never considered leaving his second motherland for his native Russia, let alone to go overseas, as some of his colleagues did.
Still, if you think it was the end of the band, you are wrong. Now, as the result of multiple breakups and reunions, there are 4 bands named “Pesnyary” and another one called “Belarusian Pesnyary”. All of them sing more or less the same songs and claim that they are the only legitimate heirs of the original “Pesnyary”. Uladzimir Mulyavin is unfortunately not part of this “Pesnyary” revival. In May 2002 he was involved in a car accident and died as a result of his injuries a half a year later.
But his voice is still with us –echoing in the morning through “radyjokropkas” that, like Uladzimir and his music, have aged but can never be replaced.
By Ales Kudrytski
Some music by “Pesnyary”
“Pesnyary” on YouTube.



Uladzimir Mulyavin