Narodny Albom: musical journey to the Western Belarus of 1920-30s

Western and Eastern Belarus – why are they different? Sociologists have long since discovered that people living in the western part of Belarus are more likely to support democratic changes than their fellow countrymen from the east. The latter are also less keen on keeping their houses neatly painted and fences fixed – the further you drive to the east of Belarus, the less active people become in their private initiatives, the more hope they put into the state. This phenomenon has its historic reasons. In 1920-30s the territory of Belarus was cut in two pieces. Eastern Belarus belonged to the totalitarian Soviet Union, while Western Bealrus was part of the bourgeois-democratic Poland. In 1939 Belarus reunited under the Soviet rule. Citizens of the Belarusian Soviet Socialistic Republic rejoiced to see their western brothers liberated from the “Polish capitalistic exploitation“. However, for western Belarusians who got used to living in a relatively free country, Soviet collective farm system and Stalin’s brutal rule became a major shock.

What was it like to live in those times in Western Belarus? The idea to put Belarus of 1920-30s into words and music first came to Mikhal Anempadystau, well-known Belarusian designer and poet. In 1996 he brought together prominent rock singers of that time – Lyavon Volski and Kasya Kamotskaya. Together they developed the basic concept of „Narodny Albom“ („people’s album“). „We saw our goal in creating the cultural myth of life in Western Belarus of that time as an example of the non-soviet Belarusian tradition”, says Mikhal Anempadystau.

Having learned about the project, a number of other Belarusian musicians joined it. Meanwhile, the new Belarusian president was already tightening ideological screws – the only independent Belarusian-language radio station 101.2 FM was shut down. Its journalists eagerly participated in the project, helping the singers to record the album. The team was impressive – more than 20 people--„cream“ of the Belarusian music society, participated in creating „Narodny Albom“. This is not just a mere coincidence that the cover of the new album was decorated with a purple heart. Indeed, this music project managed to win hearts of thousands of listereners. Today it is no less popular now than 10 years ago.

The album consists of 27 songs. Many of them are stylized as folk songs (for example, „Nadzenka“, which tells a story of a poor Belarusian girl, who was naive enough to fall in love with the cynical Russian military officer). Some of the songs are sung in Russian (such as the march song of Russian soldiers), other in Belarus-Russian mix „trasyanka“, other in Belarusian-Polish mix, very typical of Western Belarus (for example the song „Ja spiewam po polsku“, which is mocking a Belarusian singer who thinks he is a star of the Polish scene). There is even a song in Yiddish („Lomir Zech Iberbetn”) performed by Alyaksandar Pamidorau, who back then worked as a radio DJ and now is a famous hip-hop singer. The assortment of music genres is also very wide – polka, tango, ballades and romances, hip-hop and psychedelic experiments.

The album became a great New Year’s present for the public – it was first performed on 28. December 1997 in Minsk and immediately gained huge popularity. The singers even made a tour in Poland presenting „Narodny Albom“ to Polish listeners.

Uladzimer Kolas, director of the Belarisan Lyceum, the free-thinking Belarusian-language school which was shut down by authorities several years ago, liked the idea of „Narodny Albom“ so much that he decided to create a musical based on it. He brough together a group of Lyceum’s students. They formed a student theatre and prepared the new play for performance on theatre stage. The opening night of the Lyceum’s “Narodny Albom“ took place in 1999 in one of Minsk major theatres and drew a large crowd of spectators. Later the musical play was presented in Poland and Lithuania. Of course students, who were actors then, have long since graduated from the Lyceum, but the idea of “Narodny Albom” lives on. In 2007 Uladzimer Kolas, who runs the shut-down Belarusian school underground, revived the musical play with his new students. They already performed it in Minsk (not as open as in 1999) and presented their “Narodny Albom” in Poland. It is planned to transform the play into a TV musical and have it broadcast on the first independent Belarusian satellite TV channel BelSAT.

Uladzimer Kolas was not the only one who remembered the anniversary of “Narodny Albom”. Its creators, most of them pursuing their own ambitious musical careers, found time to come to Minsk for the reunion concert in December 2007. Even now, 10 years after the album was first performed, the club was so full, that the organizers had to postpone the beginning of the concert in order to let all visitors fit into the hall. Interesting fact: while some singers forgot lyrics, the audience helped them out by singing along. It seems that even those fans who ten years ago were in elementary school, knew the words by heart. Indeed, the album has already taken its rightful place in the treasury of Belarusian musical classics.

By Ales Kudrytski for the ODB