Belarusian rock music archive includes some rather catchy tunes. However, to become fully aware of how it originated, one should really dive into the lyrics that describe a dramatic struggle with a slight touch of hopelessness. Here is a short look at the battle that has been going for around 25 years, a battle between a musician and the sociopolitical system this musician is immersed in.
Back to the 80s of the last century.
At that time, Belarus was a part of the Soviet Union, but there were young people who wanted political independence and were not very enthusiastic about the communist regime.
Some of them could play musical instruments, like four guys from Minsk that founded Mroja (“Dream”) band in 1981.
While their outfits and sound were clearly influenced by western hard rock giants like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, Mroja’s lyrics were full of references to the Soviet regime that was living out its last days but still retained all its infamous attributes.
The song called Kraina kryvavych dazhdzhou (“The Land of Bloody Rains”) fully reflects the creative outlook of the rock quartet:
Tramping of boots on polished urban alleys
Creating a monument of the times, step by step
The chorus reads:
However, the concept of the national revival in music suddenly became out of the picture when Belarus gained independence. This is how Lawon Wolski, the Mroja’s frontman, described those days:
“We could not find our voice during the heyday of democracy. We were fighters with an image and soul of fighters. At that time, fighters were not needed.”
Inspiration came from where few expected it — in 1994, the first presidential election took place. Freshly elected Alexander Lukashenko returns Soviet symbolism to the country. The Belarusian language is becoming the language of protest again.
Members of Mroja said goodbye to hard-rock, changed the name of the band to N.R.M. (Niezaleznaja Respublika Mroja, “The Independent Republic of A Dream”) and embraced the alternative sound, grunge.
The stinging sound of N.R.M. sound was almost completely devoid of romanticism, their lyrics became more vicious, and were sometimes addressed to specific political personalities.
The band quickly gained iconic status, and many of their songs became folk hits that were sung to the guitar. Pavietrany shar (“Aerostat”) is surely one of them, and, ironically, is not about politics, although is imbued with the spirit of escapism.
Around the same time, the punk wave was gaining strength in the west of Belarus, with the band called Deviation at the forefront.
These guys from a town of Vyalikaya Byerastavitsa never bothered to sugarcoat their messages, violently attacking fascist ideologies, totalitarianism and the political regime of Belarus. Hramadzianskaja vajna (“Civil War”) is a perfect example:
Your power against our stones
Your money against our conscience
Your betrayal against our love
Your happiness is our blood
This is civil war!
The 2000s and 2010s brought some drastic changes.
As the state tightened the screws on the free speech and press, being a musician with a strong stance became a much more difficult thing. However, somehow it was a blessing in disguise, because musicians that had been as distant from politics as possible, began to open up about their social positioning.
Lyapis Trubetskoy band, headed by Sergei Mikhalok, who was famous in the 90s for their streetwise songs about love in the hood, recorded the album Capital with the title song bashing power-holding nabobs.
In 2011, the band released the song Hray (“Play”), which in allegorical form describes the powers of state oppression:
These bulls have their truth
They do not need the sun, they cherish the darkness
They do not need spring, they love cold winter
So you would sleep on the stove in bonds, lad
Folk-rock band Dzieciuki, founded in Grodno in 2012, perform historical-themed songs often dedicated to Belarusian insurgents of different times.
The song called Sumnaje rehhi (“Sad reggae”) dedicated to victims of mass executions in Kurapaty and Khatyn:
Many years have passed, but the pain does not pass off
Our memory bleeds as our hearts do
How many wives widowed, how many children orphaned,
When Herod came to our land.
Dzieciuki, like many other Belarusian performers, got caught in a wave of show cancellations authorized by state services in the early 2010s. Such methods are no longer used, but back then they knocked down the activities of many talented musicians.
The song Umyvayu ruki (“I wash my hands off”) by the Minsk reggae band Addis Abeba reflects apathy and hopelessness that reigned among independent artists.
For the new generation of musicians, this long fight is part of history at best and does not exist at worst. As sad as it may seem, that quarter of a century gave birth to many powerful songs that became folk anthems.
And in music, that’s all that matters.
Text by Anton Ananich.