In short, its the perfect time for a Celtic musical festival.
Russian Gael-o-philes are preparing to break out their bagpipes and tin whistles to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the founding of Russia's first Celtic band.
Celts live today in Ireland, parts of Scotland, Wales, Spanish Galicia and French Brittany, but their exuberant and mystical lore is tremendously popular around the world.
The latest revival of Celtic folk, Europe's oldest musical tradition, which remained uninterrupted for some 2,000 years, started in Ireland in the 1960s and spread to the United States, combining with a general interest in new age, ethnic and ambient music.
In Russia, the first peopie to dabble in Celtic culture were the members of the St. Petersburg cult band Akvarium, who experimented with Celtic elements in their music in the early 1980s. Celtic folklore also gained popularity in the form of J.R.R.Tolkien's fairies and elves, based on Druid characters. Today Tolkienists dressed in helmets and elfish cloaks stage weekly sword fights in Moscow's Neskuchny Sad. Tattoos with intricately ornamented, archaic Celtic symbols are considered the hippest.
The first Russian band performing purely traditional Irish music. Puck & Piper, appeared in 1992. The majority of Celtic musicians now playing in Moscow at one point were members of Puck & Piper. Moscow has six Celtic bands, two of which have lots of faithful fans packing into the Vermel club every Tuesday night for a dose of heartfelt, simultaneously merry and melancholic, songs about freedom and love.
But music is not everything for real Celtic enthusiasts. "There is also literature, history and decorative art," says Alexei Raspopov, a member of the Moscow band Si Mhor, or Hill Dwellers, which is organizing this weekend's festival together with the Russian Celtic Society and the Irish Embassy. "There is no other culture so much talked about but so little known. You have to immerse yourself in it."
The pony-tailed Raspopov, who wears formal attributes of a Gael-o-file such as a tatoo of a Celtic harp on his shoulder and a carved wooden symbol called a triskel around his neck, pays more attention to history and linguistics than to trinkets. He studied the Breton language at Moscow State University, where the Si Mhor guitarist and lead singer Maxim Bonyushkin graduated from with a specialty in Welsh and Irish Gaelic.
"I've been interested in this culture for six years and the longer I study it, the deeper it gets into my heart. I'm not sure why I'm so predisposed to this particular place in the world," muses Raspopov.
Eugene Downes, cultural attache of the Irish Embassy, says the attraction of Celtic culture for Russians is not hard to understand.
"[Celtic history is] a very rich and colorful history that goes down several thousands of years, and it makes a deep impression on the Russians," he. says. "Music is one of the most vibrant parts of the Irish culture. It is very accessible on all levels of the population. ...It crosses national boundaries. It is really very relaxed and informal. Russians like to relax.
"[Russia's Celtic bands] do sound amazingly Irish, with a Dublin accent which is almost scary to hear," Downes adds.
As a result of their fundamentally academic approach. Si Mhor, who call themselves Russia's leading Celtic band, perform songs in Gaelic, Breton and English, and sets of jigs. The band also experiments with computer ambient and world music, and has a joint project with members of the Pokrovsky Ensemble, which plays Russian folk music, and African drummers. They celebrate Druid holidays, and this year are planning to perform at the Festival Inlercellique in Lorient, Brittany, which brings together people of Celtic origin from all over the globe for 10 days of singing, dancing and beer drinking.
The actual half-Irish band member, mandolin player Neil Hammond, usually goes unrecognized by compatriots. The most colorful Si Mhor character is Vladimir Lazerson, who wears a long ginger beard and a kilt. Lazerson, known as the best Russian piper, and Bonyushkin toured Scotland's pubs last year with huge success.
All six Moscow bands specialize in different styles of Celtic music. Veteran band Puck & Piper offers folk-rock renditions of Irish songs. The newest band Ulchabhan Ban, or White Owl, follows the line of ethnic Irish music. Telenn Gwad, or Bleeding Harp, whose leader Oleg Boiko also has a Brit-pop group, Mother's Little Helpers, plays romantic, English-language songs written by Boiko and performed by him with Irish and Scottish accents.
Some Moscow Gael-o-philes cannot stay indifferent to geopolitical issues of the Celtic nations, like Yury Andreichuk of Slua Si, who sings Irish street ballads modeled on The Pogues. Andreichuk is known in Gael-o-phile circles for his English-language songs impregnated with the separatist spirit and emphatic gestures associated with IRA rebels.
In general, the musicians feel more relaxed about the independence issue of the Celtic nations. They believe that, if in some cases, independence is impossible for economic reasons, traditional culture must be preserved -and Russia shouldn't stay away from this process.
"In the 1980s, [Soviet propaganda] supported jazz because it was music of the oppressed black people, while Celtic music was considered the music of oppressors," says Mikhail Gladkov, the thin, bespectacled president of the Russian Celtic Society who used to host the Celtic Time program on the now-defunct Rakurs Radio.
"We are just trying to show people the whole picture of the Celtic world. Celtic culture has a bright future in Russia. Through it, we want to revive interest in our own [traditional] culture," he declares ambitiously.
So why are Celts so admired in Russia, with amateur bands springing up all across the country and the former Soviet Union in Chelyabinsk, Perm, Kiev an Chisinau?
The Russian and Celtic mentalities have a lot in common even though its hard to see where they meet, says Gladkov. The Irish are a very music-minded people, and so are the Russians. Openness, recklessness and soulfulness - as a well as propensity for drinking - are perhaps the main common features.
But for some, there is a deeper, if rather upsetting, motivation.
"People are attracted to a culture they can be proud of," says Raspopov of Si Mhor. "Small nations take good care of their culture. The Irish have become notorious for their national pride. They feel high off their own country ójust listen to the lyrics. We [Russians] don't have that anymore."
Saturday: Greensleeves (St. Petersburg), Telenn Gwad, Si Mhor (in question) and the legendary Dubliner Roy Galvin, ex-Chieftain and specialist in uileann pipe. Galvin will give an Irish dancing class on Monday. Call Mikhail Gladkov at (firstname.lastname@example.org) for information.
Besides the musical program, there will be a historical show staged by the Bran Club and sales of books and records.
Concerts start at 6 p.m. For information, call 238-1955 or see the Si Mhor web site (http://simhor.concord.ru) and the Russian Celtic Society site (http://celtic.atom.ru).
Friday June 5
Celtic Music Festival in Moscow features Si Mhor, Telenn Gwad, Puck & Ripper and Slua Si.
Central House of Artists, 10 Krymsky Val. M. Park Kultury, Oktyabrskaya. At 6 p.m. 238-1955, 230-1782.
Saturday June 6
Friday, June 5, 1998 NO. 1468
"I've got to be very careful that I don't end up trying to be what they think I should be," he said. " I know I look Celtic and that's fine ólamó but I've got to be careful not to end up as a version of myself."
An Irish champion on the uilleann pipes and-a member of bands including The Chieftains, Galvin was the headline act at the first Moscow Celtic Music Festival Saturday.
Promoting Celtic culture has become the focus of Calvin's life. In January he turned his home in County Tipperary into Tig Roy, or Roy's House, a center for Irish culture, providing instruction in language, literature, poetry, visual arts and dance as well as music.
"It's just an extension of my life," he said, "I joked about being too lazy to go to work and wanting work to come to me. It's happened."
Moscow Celtic Society organizer Lia Kuligina was delighted to have Galvin over for the festival and said the creation of a Dublin-based Russian Celtic Society might not be too far off.
Galvin performed traditional compositions oh the tin whistle, Irish flute and uilleann pipes Saturday at the Central House of Artists following inspired sets by bands including Slua Si and lead singer Yury Andreichuk's uncanny Dublin lilt.
Galvin said local musicians had been in awe of him but that at a "session" Monday evening he got a chance to work with them personally. He said his final day, Tuesday, was to involve recording music with a Russian composer and giving performances at the Irish Embassy and Rosie O'Grady's Pub.
Wednesday, June 10, 1998 NO. 1471