The Man, Who Brings Angels to Belarus

The man with a hooked nose sings before the empty hall. The dark space erupts with applauses, but there are no people in sight. This strange scene is not real – it’s just a video clip from “Sad Belarusian Blues”. In reality, Viktar Shalkevich, the singer and guitarist, rarely performs without a full house. However, there is some sad truth in this video clip: Viktar Shalkevich, one of the most talented and charismatic artists in Belarus, is often prevented from reaching the broader public.

Viktar Shalkevich was born in 1959 in the midst of a winter storm, on a sledge that was taking his mother to the local hospital in the western Belarusian town of Porazava. “Perhaps, this has determined my vagabond future,” says Viktar. Today he lives in the city of Hrodna (Grodno), the Western outpost of Belarus. Like many other people from this part of the country, he believes (not too seriously) that the sun rises in the West. Viktar Shalkevich likes Hrodna because it is situated in the centre of the Minsk-Warsaw-Vilnius triangle, making it possible to shift easily between these three different countries that share somewhat similar cultures. However, his fondness of Hrodna is not appreciated by the city’s authorities. Viktar Shalkevich says that he simply can’t work in Hrodna the way he wants to. He could easily name about a dozen of songs he has written about Hrodna, but this is of no interest to the city fathers, who see him as a hard-core opposition activist – something the singer completely disagrees with. Indeed, he of the country’s leader (you can see the video clip here). But humour is not harmful, isn’t it?

Well, in some cases it is. Viktar Shalkevich used to work as an actor at the Grodno Drama Theatre, but was left no breathing room by the theatre’s board, and had to leave it for the Grodno Puppet Theatre. However, all this trouble doesn’t mean that he failed – in fact, Shalkevich is a picture of success with his 5 recorded albums, dozens of national and international music awards, non-stop concerts in the country and beyond its borders, let alone his career as a talented actor. Viktar Shalkevich is always looking for new challenges; for example, he is working on writing an opera called “Galilean Story”. It tells about the Messiah being born in a small kibbutz in Israel and the controversy it aroused. “However, I’m not sure which theatre in Belarus would have enough courage to stage it,” doubts Viktar Shalkevich.

Good morning, the nation of jerks,

The goggle-eyed Sun is rising

Good morning, the nation of jerks,

Nobody wants to marry you,     stupid!

In English, this sounds kind of harsh, but in Belarusian there is more pity, bitter pity, in these words, than anger. These four lines are Shalkevich’s diagnosis for the whole nation.

But we shouldn’t repeat the mistake of the Belarusian ideologists and label Shalkevich as a “critical singer”. “There is a whole category of people in Belarus, who tour foreign countries telling about the bloody dictatorship. I don’t belong to this group. I glorify Belarus”, says Viktar Shalkevich. In his albums and during his concerts he also sings about angels, which bring rain to Hrodna, about a suburban train, which brings an unknown girl to the small town of Koydanava about time, which is running away from him while driving the old Ukraininan “Zaporozhets” car down the street which once used to be called Lenin Avenue...  The songs of Shalkevich are the unrequited romance with his Motherland. As famous Belarusian culturologist Maxim Zhbankou puts it: “Shalkevich is the lost hero of the Belarusian culture”.

However, Viktar Shalkevich is definitely a newly found hero of Belarusian business. He is one of the few professional auctioneers in Belarus. He doesn't simply slam down the wooden hammer, but instead, brings his artistic talent into the trade. “An auction is also a performance. It takes a lot of skill to act in it”, says Viktar Shalkevich. “Once an elderly lady approached me after the auction, and told me, “Thank you, young man, I always go to theatre, but I’ve never seen such a performance before!”

During his many travels, Viktar Shalkevich has developed a tradition – from every trip he brings a figure of an angel as a gift to his daughter. Now she has more than a hundred of angels in her collection. Giving out music and angels as presents – quite a pleasant occupation, isn’t it?

 By Ales Kudrytski for the ODB

In his songs, Shalkevich makes fun of adults, singing serious songs for children –for example, about “Sviaty Mikalaj” (Santa Claus), as opposed to the artificial Soviet surrogate called “Daddy Frost”. Shalkevich plays musical jokes on serious politicians and at the same time seriously believes in Santa. His attitude towards his own nation is even more complicated. It can be described as melancholy, nostalgic for the good old days of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, the multinational state, with Belarusian lands in its core. At the same time there is sarcasm at the present time of the neo-soviet kitsch. This is very well reflected in his song “Nation of Jerks”: