Andrei Ivanov.

My Reggery – Reggae, Ska and Ska-Punk in St. Petersburg

In 1985 UB40 performed a three-day concert at the Leningrad sport arena Iubileinyi with an after-party at the Leningrad Rock Club (Andrei Ivanov, pers. comm., 04.03.2009). Inspired by the concert the musician Andrei Ivanov became interested in reggae and in 1990 joined the group Streetboys as their vocalist. Since there were no clubs to play in they took to the streets performing at the crossing Nevskii prospekt, the main street in the city center, and Dumskaia Ulitsa – hence the name – at first playing covers of Bob Marley, Third World, Alpha Blondy and Black Uhuru. Andrei added that by playing on the street they became acquainted with people from Holland and Germany who brought them new reggae records from abroad to study (Wickström 2004). The band eventually became Reggistan and still remains active today playing a mix of covers and their own songs.1

Besides pointing to the commodification of reggae as a transnational music style this example also highlights the complexities of how music flows to new locations: Not only foreign groups performing live in St. Petersburg, but here also tourists play a central role in transporting reggae music to Russia. This opens the question around what new meanings music takes on when appropriated within a new context, in this case St. Petersburg. What happens when second generation groups begin to play reggae as well as ska? What sources do they draw on? The Jamaican originals or the local pioneers? And how are the cultural symbols connected to the music appropriated?

Inspired by Hannerz’s (1992; 1996) concept of cultural flow this article outlines the emergence of reggae and ska as well as ska-punk in St. Petersburg. Based on fieldwork I conducted in St. Petersburg where I lived from 2004 until 2006 conducting research for my phd (Wickström 2009)2 this article’s focus is on the meaning this music has for local musicians and the music’s recontextualization in the city. I argue – especially for ska-punk – that the local pioneers of the 1990s and not necessarily the original Jamaican ska and British ska-punk groups are the main source of inspiration for contemporary musicians in St. Petersburg.

Transcultural Flows

In a difficult hour, in minutes of success
In the circle of friends or just alone,
In the cold winter, hot summer
This motive will be with you:
Reggie, Reggie, Reggei
Everything can be easy, can be difficult
People are like songs: their music is life
Beauty and happiness, warmth and tenderness
In each of you, in each of you,
In each of us
Reggie, Reggie, Reggei

Reggi, reggei (Reggistan 1999)

When discussing how meaning and meaningful forms arise in local contexts the social anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (1996, 69) argues that cultures are «shaped and carried by people in varying social constellations, pursuing different aims». He points out that cultural production and circulation in social relationships operate within four frames: form of life, state, market and movement. These four frames involve different agents who manage meaning and who have different motives and dimensions of interaction.3 In the following discussion, I will focus on the frames form of life, which refers to everyday communication and interaction between people, and market, which involves the commodification of meaning and people relating to each other as buyer and seller. Hannerz (1996, 132) argues that

«a large part of world city cultural process [can be viewed] in both its local and its transnational facets, in terms of an interplay of cultural currents within and between these organizational frames [form of life, market].»

This includes music production which to a large extent operates within these two frames.4 Reggistan’s lineup provides a good example of exchange within the form of life frame: Having changed over the years the line-up also included non-Russians: René (vocals, guitar from Burundi), Anzh Kombo (guitar, from Congo) and Emanio (vocals, from Jamaica). In personal conversations Andrei several times stressed the importance of the «Africans» for both himself and the band’s style.

Their song Reggi, reggei (Reggistan 1999) provides a good example: Andrei sings the first verse, René the second and Emanio sings what Andrei (pers.comm., 13.11.2008) calls the ragga part (chanting over the drum/percussion and bass). Not only are the timbres of the vocalists different, but also the diction (both René and Emanio have distinct accents when singing in Russian) – including Emanio chanting in English with a Jamaican (?) diction (the transcription is in normalized English – I left the beginning in Russian marked by italics to point out the language shift):5

«Vy gotovy? Ea. Vy gotovy? Ea. Smotri! Ia pridu, ia pridu, ia seichas pridu. Ia pridu, ia pridu – obiazatel’no pridu!6 We no give a damn about the color of our skin, one hit you with the rhythm in a dancehall style. Got to make your move because it fun feel a good and we are coming with the rhythm in a dancehall style. Roll you belly like we don’t just care, forget about the propaganda – this for real. Sit upon the rhythm like we don’t look scared, feel comfortable with the drum and the bass. He knows just where them [unclear] mmm, la-la-la-la-la. Davai7 (Reggistan 1999).

This is just one example of how musicians interact on a daily basis both with each other and with visiting groups.8 They exchange ideas, participate in projects and draw on each other’s musical (and other) resources. At the same time, the musicians are part of a market, selling commodified meaning (here music which has been created through interaction from the form of life frame) both live at concerts and medialized, as recordings. Unlike the previous this is more asymmetric or one-sided (from group to audience/consumers) (cf. Hannerz 1996, 69).

Externalizing and distributing meaning and meaningful forms in society through media enables people to communicate with one another without being in each other’s presence.9 This implies both a spatial separation in the production and consumption of forms of meaning as well as a temporal separation, since meaning can be stored (records, CDs, mp3-files etc.) for later use. This separation is essential to the functioning of radio and discotheques where the material is primarily stored on CDs and LPs.10 The impact of media also implies a broadening of the concept of relationships (from a face-to-face to a detached one) and contributes «greatly to making the boundaries of societies and cultures fuzzy» (Hannerz 1992, 30).

Even though cultural flows are to a great extent mediated through the increasing mobility of media, the human component and its increasing mobility also play an important role. These are the two components Hannerz (1996, 19) and Appadurai (1996, 3) identify as particularly important in changing the cultural organization in the late 20th century. Even though media is available, it first becomes accessible through human interaction (either face-to-face human contact, virtual chatting or surfing the net) as the example with tourists bringing recordings to Reggistan demonstrates.

Thus, the musical flows operate on different levels of interaction between media and human agency. One example is the flow from Jamaica to Great Britain, the United States and to Russia of the musical styles ska and reggae whose main style indicator – defined as «any musical structure or set of musical structures that are either constant for or regarded as typical of the ‹home› musical style» (Tagg 1999, 28) – is the accented up-beats/backbeats.

Ska emerged on Jamaica from the late 1950s and onward following a rise in national awareness and the country’s independence in 1962. The style is marked by a blend of different influences including local music (mento) and Afro-American music from the United States. Jamaican ska is characterized through the use of a horn section, an upbeat tempo (110-130 bpm), staccato offbeats played on the guitar (aided by piano and horn section) which is contrasted with accents on the downbeat on the drums (which are rhythmically aided by a walking standup bass). Today the rhythm together with the use of a horn section playing (short) riffs provide the main style indicators for the musical style ska. Reggae, which emerged in the late 60s is slower, mostly without a horn section and with a more prominent electric bass and pulse-like metre (cf. King 2002, 20ff; Chang et al. 2005; Davis n.d.; Steffens n.d.).

Both labour shortage in the United Kingdom in 1950s and early 1960s (Hebdige 1987, 90) as well as poverty and anti-Rasta repression in Jamaica since the early 1960s (Manuel 1988, 78) opened for migration from the West Indies which created, amongst others, Caribbean communities in the United Kingdom. These migrants brought and played ska and subsequently reggae which not only became popular within the already established Caribbean emigrant communities, but also with white Mods, Rude Boys, Skinheads and Punks (Barrow and Dalton 1997, 325ff; Webb 2007, 14) – in other words the flow of humans and interaction on the form of life level. But there was also a flow of phonograms amongst others enabled through the businessman and producer Chris Blackwell, one of the founders of Island Records. The music also developed further, with local musicians and Jamaican emigrants combining reggae and ska with punk and hard rock (Manuel 1988, 78).

Besides distributing records in the West Indian communities of London Blackwell (and others) started to market reggae in the 1970s to a white European-American audience. This was done through a «careful tailoring of audio and visual texts to fit audience biases and record-label market preconceptions» (Alleyne 2000, 19) which included changes to the sound, instrumentation, lyrics, band image and graphical layout (King 1998, 45ff). Marketed as rebel/protest music this form referred to as international reggae and first embodied in Bob Marley and the Wailer’s style is often juxtaposed with Jamaican roots reggae of the late 1960s.

International reggae became a commercial success not only catapulting Jamaican bands to fame, but also influencing African, US-American and European musicians (cf. Alleyne 2000). In addition to the music and its artists symbols of Jamaica (primarily the Jamaican tri-colore) and references to Rastafarianism have since become global commodities. While popularizing reggae and Rastafarian philosophy to a broad audience the success of international reggae was, however, also criticized for straying away from reggae and rastafarian core values.

«My ne rastamany, my reggery»: Reggae in St. Petersburg

«My ne rastamany, my reggery»
We are not Rasta-men, we are reggae-people – Iatsenko (Wickström 2006a)

The above mentioned cultural symbols were also present in St. Petersburg especially at ska-punk and reggae concerts. These included visible elements linked to reggae (e.g. dreadlocks, garments in the Jamaican tri-color, pictures and silhouettes of marijuana leaves and Bob Marley) as well as people smoking marijuana. Two reggae musicians I interviewed, the previously mentioned Andrei and Tat’iana «Tania» Iatsenko (vocalist in Ackee Ma-Ma Urban Reggae Band) also confirmed that reggae enjoyed some popularity in the city (Wickström 2004; Wickström 2006a). Drawing on his observation as a reggae musician and former art direktor (booking manager) of the dedicated reggae club Dzhambala Andrei said that «reggae has a varied contingent, first, because the music is going through some kind of second wave. Thus now this music is interesting for those who are 19-20 years old and simultaneously, I think, that there are people coming who are already 30-40 years old.» (Wickström 2004)

The reason for this popularity was, in his opinion, the positive and calm aspects of reggae. This makes it attractive and easily accessible to a broad range of listeners which include both the last Soviet generation as well as young adults. Besides the inherent musical qualities (calm, energetic, positive) Andrei mentioned he also attributed the music’s popularity to reggae’s inherent struggle for African rights proclaimed in the lyrics. Such struggles were, in his opinion, not foreign to listeners in a Post-Soviet Russian reality where many Soviet complexes were still present.

That said, both Tania and Andrei lamented that the inhabitants of St. Petersburg barely knew what reggae was about – the common associations being dreadlocks and red, green and gold berets which had become stylish in St. Petersburg. Referring to these individuals Andrei added

«he knows very little about reggae. He knows – Bob Marley, that you have to smoke ganja, and that’s it, as a rule, and he doesn’t know anything more. Thus I think that it is a superficial effect, fashion.» (Wickström 2004)

This points to a reception of reggae which has been influenced by the marketing of international reggae (images of marijuana, the colors red, green and gold as well as Bob Marley as the central icon – cf. King 1998, 47f). This superficiality (or use of clichés) was also at times seen at Dzhambala where the waiters wore bandanas with marijuana leaves (the bandanas could be purchased at the club) and where an African waiter was employed.

Both Andrei and Tania also distanced themselves from Rastafarianism. Andrei is a practicing Buddhist and criticized Rastafarianism for being a young religious mix. He added that it would be quite hard to be a practicing Rastafarian in Russia. While Tania defined reggae as her life and realization – as the music where she found herself – she pointed out that the members of her group were not rastamany also distancing herself from the religion. Instead both Andrei and Tania defined themselves as reggery (people who play reggae, reggae-people)11 – Tania using white reggery – in other words stressing the musical, not the ideological aspect.

Smoking marijuana is also frequently associated with Rastafarianism and reggae (as the case with Dzhambala above shows). Both consumption and dealing was also common amongst musicians in St. Petersburg. While there are songs which specifically deal with marijuana by the group Respublika Dzha (Jah Republic), Markscheider Kunst (see below), Svoboda (the group I was active in as a trumpet player during my fieldwork) and Ackee Ma-Ma, it does not necessarily reflect on the consumption habits of the musicians. Rather it reflects a commonly made linking of reggae and marijuana. In Svoboda’s case, a song based on a reggae rhythm about smoking marijuana – Ganzhubeilo – evoked different opinions between Svoboda’s fans Denis and Anton: While Denis condemned the song as provocative since drugs are bad, Anton commended the vocalist Aleksandr «Sasha» Rudenko for bringing up the topic, since in his eyes everybody smoked anyway, but nobody talks about it (Wickström 2006b).

When discussing the reggae played in St. Petersburg Andrei pointed to a possible way of how music flows – by covering original artists:

«In our reggae culture very often people play music from 1978-80. Don’t know why they do that. Maybe they don’t have the material, they have not heard, you could say. Because we definitively have a big deficit: if you now go to any music store, in the best case they at once offer Bob Marley, UB40, or some kind of reggae compilation, as it is, from 1978-80. That is, accordingly, what people have heard, they also do.» (Wickström 2004)

The recordings serve as a point of departure for the local bands who adopt it to their local musical possibilities and abilities. Andrei went on to criticize a general musical conservatism in the local groups, since they, in his view, primarily imitated the international reggae of the 1970s, and people were not listening to newer material from the 1990s and 2000s. Experimenting with more contemporary forms of reggae and combining the music with the possibilities enabled through digitalization and computers was unusual he pointed out. This he attributed to the lack of newer material in shops and the peoples’ lack of knowledge.

Tania agreed by stating that in Russia it is common to play roots reggae, defined by her as reggae in a 1970s style. She stressed that reggae had developed from the 1970s so roots reggae had to be adopted to the 21st century. This was the reason why they played what she called urban reggae – a form of reggae with harder sounds than roots (or «original» reggae groups):

«In general, the music sounds tougher due to the guitar which plays with a fuzzbox [distorted], but, I think, and due to that, that our performance, especially at concerts, is more emotional. That is, if you take Jamaican roots-reggae for example then you can relax to that music on the beach and it can be background music. I think that our music can be liked or not liked, but it will probably not be taken for background music.» (Wickström 2006a)

While Tania (and others in St. Petersburg) frequently invoked the term roots reggae neither Andrei nor Tania distinguished between roots and international reggae nor did they comment on the shift started with Blackwell’s promotion of Marley. While their criticism regarding the lack of knowledge in St. Petersburg is that other musicians only know what is referred to as international reggae both Tania and Andrei’s main complaint was that the music is outdated and should be adopted to a more contemporary sound, e.g. expressed in Tania’s urban reggae.

Tania mentioned Dr. I-Bolit12 (aka Andrei “Rastaman” Kunitsyn) as an example of a musician from St. Petersburg who plays roots reggae.13 One of the most visible reggae musicians in St. Petersburg, he is usually seen in a top hat colored in the Jamaican tri-colore14 and frequently heard at local reggae festivals. His 2004 album Go Rastaman Go (Dr. I-Bolit & Tribal Roots 2004) pays tribute to reggae and Rastafarianism on several levels: Visually it incorporates the Jamaican tri-colore, lions and two drawn musicians with dreadlocks. The lyrics employ Rastafarian code words like Jah (God), Babylon (Earth / modern society), Rasta (short for Rastaman) and includes a special thanks to Haile Selassie I. Musically most of the songs are in a laid back tempo with a pulsating guitar accenting the backbeats. While there are lyrics in Russian and French the majority of the songs are in a stylized Jamaican English.

Tania Iatsenko.

The key motor of reggae in St. Petersburg is, however, Tania.15 She frequently organizes reggae festivals (e.g. in honor of Bob Marley’s birthday) with the motivation to create a local reggae community which lack she lamented: «Here that [reggae festivals] happens, sorry to say, seldom and because of that our reggae movement is not very developed.» (Wickström 2006a)

Besides Ackee Ma-Ma, Dr I-Bolit and Reggistan other dedicated reggae groups from St. Petersburg are DiaPositive and Bro Sound. Many more bands pay tribute to reggae by incorporating reggae style indicators, including the Soviet rock groups Chaif and Akvarium. Akvarium, arguable the most influential Soviet rock group, has from the beginning of the 1980s repeatedly composed songs close to reggae. Still active and popular today the group recently released a compilation of their reggae songs (Akvarium 2005).16Thus through the group’s sheer impact on Soviet and Post-Soviet popular music Akvarium has also familiarized its listeners with reggae style indicators.

Another current example is Markscheider Kunst, founded in 1992 and veterans of the (Post-Soviet) St. Petersburg music scene. Their style is influenced by musics from Central and Southern America (initially also African). One of these influences is also reggae which can be heard in their adoption of the Rasta-poet (Wadada n.d.) Zhak/Dzhakobo Montekki’s (vocalist in Respublika Dzha) poem Den’gi (Money) on their album St. Petersburg – Kinshasa Tranzit (Markscheider Kunst 2004). Here Zhak Montekki sings the poem together with Dr. I-Bolit and the Congolese singer Seraphim Selenge Makangila who was Markscheider Kunst’s vocalist at the time.17

While it is very hard to point out why groups in St. Petersburg and Russia have appropriated reggae (going beyond a personal appreciation of the music) it is easy to see how the flow has reduced reggae for a large part of the population to a few recognizable key style indicators (here expanded to include non-musical aspects – marijuana, dreadlocks, the colors red-green-gold, Rastafarianism and musically, an accent of the off-beats). This points to how musical styles are reduced and commodified as easily identifiable packages and flow between borders, and where the cultural context is to a great extent sidelined or reduced – something Alleyne (2000) labels cultural dilution when discussing Euro-American reggae inspired artists.

Another important aspect is that not only foreigners or highly mobile people influence others within transcultural flows, but also locals active within the form of life level: Andrei introduced Tania to reggae (according to both of them) and Tania also counts Dr. I-Bolit as an important source.

While there is a budding reggae community in St. Petersburg as the discussion above has shown, the boundaries to ska and ska-punk are quite fluid. This can be seen in band personnel overlaps, reggae festivals like Bob Marley’s birthday (05.02.2006 at Red Club), where groups playing ska like Svoboda have participated, and in reggae compilations like Dzha do it (Various Artists 2008) which features both local reggae groups (e.g. Ackee Ma-Ma, Reggistan, DiaPositive) and ska groups (e.g. Svoboda, Porto Franco, Batareia).

Flyer from reggae festival in honor of Bob Marley's birthday (05.02.2006 at Red Club).

«A v etom slove zalozhen gruv»: Ska in St. Petersburg

I know a three letter word
and that word grooves.
The Hockey team from the Neva banks
And the music which we play.
S-K-A, Skaaaaa Let’s go!
The word ska [СКА] is similar to dick [хуй],
Because it has the same amount of letters
But in the word dick there is much less
Of that Groooooovvveee
S-K-A, Skaaaaa Let’s go!

Ska (Leningrad 2000)

Originating in St. Petersburg the band Leningrad (active from 1997 to 2008) is currently among the most well-known ska-punk groups in Russia having achieved national visibility. Leningrad positions itself in relation to the average (male) Russian, who over-employs mat (swearing as the use of khiu – dick – in the epitaph points to) and Leningrad’s vocalist Sergei «Shnur» Shnurov sings about sex, drugs, alcohol and everyday problems from the perspective of a Russian (working class) male. The group’s songs also incorporate and mix influences from Russian and Soviet as well as Western popular culture. Accompanied by an aggressive rhythm and horn section playing in a ska-punk style,18 Shnur in the song Ska (Leningrad 2000) sings about how groovy ska is – a style which many groups in St. Petersburg (and Russia) are currently influenced by.

Leningrad is, however, not the first group to be influenced by ska in Russia.19 According to Andrei Burlaka, ska appeared in Russia with the Beatles’ song Obladi oblada and the first band to play ska in the Soviet Union was the Leningrad band Strannye Igry (Strange games) which debuted in 1982.20

In the 1980s ska was not incorporated by many bands. The style, however, experienced a boost of popularity in the 1990s, when people started to travel and were more exposed to Western popular music. In St. Petersburg the group Dva Samoliota (Two airplanes) which emerged in the late 80s/early 90s was one of the first groups to include elements of ska followed by Spitfire (founded 1992) who combined ska with punk and contributed to popularizing the style. In Moscow, the group Distemper (founded 1989) also combining ska and punk has been an important influence. Finally, the group Leningrad through its success is often credited with the popularity of ska in Russia.21

While the above mentioned groups have been influential, other popular and visible Soviet and Russian bands from the 1980s and 1990s like Markscheider Kunst and (to some extent) Akvarium have not only contributed to the awareness and spread of reggae, but also ska.

During my fieldwork there were quite a few local bands such as JD & the Blenders, Froglegs, St. Petersburg Ska-Jazz Review, Batareia, Barocco Flash, Porto Franko, Svoboda, Beshenye Ogurtsy and Banana Gang drawing on ska. «Drawing on ska» is intentionally used since the bands incorporate style indicators of ska and combine it with other indicators, primarily from punk. This was also mentioned by Andrei Burlaka when he talked about how ska is recontextualized in St. Petersburg adding that nobody in Russia plays like the original ska artists.22 These local groups tend to combine ska with punk – which was backed by the journalist Sergei Chernov’s following comment:

«In the 2000s ska in its ska-punk form is very popular in St. Petersburg and Moscow clubs (the Moscow-based bands Distemper and Skalpel, for example, not to mention Spitfire), but not with the general public.» (pers. comm., 02.08.2006)

Andrei Ivanov added that ska derived its popularity from punk, which was and still is popular. He explained that Russians like to drink and when they are drunk they like to move, jump (skakat’) and push/shove (tolkat’), which ska and punk encourage. Chernov had a similar comment when discussing the group Leningrad:

«Probably it [Leningrad] has managed to blend ska and the Russian anarchic, drinking spirit and became sort of band for everybody, from rednecks to yuppies.» (pers. comm., 02.08.2006)

Andrei Ivanov added that reggae is not so popular in Russia, because it is more profound, slower, and with a different energy. Andrei Burlaka noted that it is too cold to play «Southern music», like ska in Russia, and that this is why the groups play a mixture. Groups are also conscious of this, e.g. S.O.K. which advertises their music as «Reggi narodov severa» (Reggae of the Northern peoples – SOK n.d.). Finally, Alexander Kasparov, one of the directors of the Berlin-based record label Eastblok Music, commented on the popularity of ska like this:

«I think for the Russians that is a good rhythm, good music, and has to do with the Russian rhythm, with Chastushka or with all others… It’s not too foreign for Russian ears this ska rhythm.» (Wickström 2006c)

Chastushki (Pl., Sg. Chastushka, from chasto – rapid) are a widespread vocal-instrumental genre which often have humorous (and obscene) lyrics. The musical accompaniment (traditionally balalaika and accordion) can have the chord root on the down beat and the triad on the upbeat which can make the upbeat sound accented – a possible explanation for Alex’s link between ska and chastushka.

While these comments show a certain degree of essentializations of Russia and Russianness, they also demonstrate how Russians place a claim on ska as having inherent Russian elements.23 In other words, ska is not only seen as a foreign import, but something that can be traced to earlier Russian music styles and (essentialized) cultural traits – thus it is «Russian».

While the first generation of bands were influenced by British and Jamaican groups, subsequent generations are also influenced by the first generation. This appropriation of ska-punk through Spitfire, Distemper and Leningrad has mainly produced groups playing within a similar style blending elements of ska and punk which is quite different from the Jamaican ska it hails from (and similar to Andrei Ivanov’s criticism of local groups copying 1970s style reggae). Here local interaction between musicians play an important role since most musicians learn from other local musicians either in face to face contact or at concerts and through media (form of life and market frame). While «older» groups (with older musicians) like Markscheider Kunst or Spitfire also know and listen to Jamaican and British ska (Markscheider Kunst also helped organize a concert with the Skatalites in St. Petersburg 2007 which was then cancelled), younger ones (those from the bands which appeared in the 2000s) have a more limited knowledge of the music.

Svoboda at Okna oktroi! 2005 (with the author playing the trumpet). The second song is Mama anarkhiia:

One example of such a «young» band which has Leningrad as one of their models is Svoboda. Musically Svoboda’s songs remain mostly within a ska-punk idiom where style indicators from ska such as the accent of the up-beats/backbeats and the use of a horn section playing short riffs are taken and mixed with punk style indicators such as sustained (power) chords on the downbeat, straight beat and I-IV-V progressions. These two idioms tend to alternate with the verse usually drawing on the ska rhythm and the refrain on the punk idiom.24

Svoboda’s cover (2005) of the russkii rok–anthem25 Mama anarkhiia (Mother anarchy) originally performed by the Soviet group Kino (1986) is a case in point: The verse is over a ska rhythm where the guitar together with the high hat accents the offs on all four beats of the measure while the bass shifts between the root and fifth in the triads on each beat. The snare accents the 2 and 4 and the bass drum the 1 and 3. This can also be seen in the song’s wave form: In the last three bars of the first verse (it spans the beginning of the wave form excerpt to 34,1s) two peaks are grouped together and then almost fade out.26 The first peak in such a group is the bass on the down-beat while the second, mostly shorter peak, is the guitar playing a staccato sixteenth on the offbeat.

The refrain answers with a hard rock/punk idiom where the heavily distorted guitar creates a sound wall of sustained chords (represented in the wave form through the amplitude not decaying between beats)27 and where the chords change together with the bass on the downbeat of every measure. The high hat plays slightly shuffled fourth notes, accenting the on-beat while the snare continues to accent the 2 and 4. The bass drum plays a four measure riff, mainly accenting the 1 and 3, but accenting the 3+ in the second and fourth bar.

The waveform also marks the energetic difference in the overall sound quite well – the ska idiom being quieter and more open than the punk idiom. This rhythmic division is common for the group’s songs.28

This excerpt marks the rhythmic and energetic difference between the ska and the hard rock/punk idiom (separated by the vertical line at 35.5s) in Svoboda's Mama Anarkhiia.

That said, the ska-elements arrived more as an afterthought in Svoboda’s style which in the beginning was closer to the russkii rok idiom. An acquaintance often pointed out to me that Sasha did not know anything about ska or reggae and that Sasha was not interested in listening to «original» ska and reggae artists in order to enhance his knowledge. While Sasha’s knowledge of music and musical technique (especially regarding the horn section) was limited, he compensated for this through the other musicians: Trying to persuade the guitarist Prokhor Ivanov not to leave the group, Sasha pointed out that Prokhor, who had played in the reggae-band DiaPositive before joining Svoboda, brought the style indicators linked to ska and thus was needed in the group. This is another example of how the form of life frame works.


St. Petersburg can within a global popular music network be considered the periphery where style indicators belonging to ska and reggae are appropriated by local groups creating new forms of musical expression. These draw on those style indicators as well as local influences like Leningrad’s use of curse words, (Post-)Soviet references and, in Svoboda’s case, the use of Ukrainian elements playing on Russian-Ukrainian cultural ties (cf. Wickström 2008; 2009). While the popularity of reggae and ska (in its ska-punk form) has risen and become part of the St. Petersburg scene during the past years it still occupies a niche where russkii rok and other forms of rock music based on a rhythm section (1-2 guitars, bass, drums and vocalist) remain the dominant (rock) style.

In other words, the flow of humans and media are linked in disseminating and advancing a stylistic knowledge. What remains central here is human agency. While tourists and traveling musicians are important I have argued that certain key actors like Andrei, Tania and Leningrad’s musicians play a central role within the form of life level. They provide inspiration and guidance for other local musicians thus functioning as a filter between a foreign musical style and local musicians. While the images drawn upon remain recognizable as originating in Jamaican ska and reggae and retain an imaginary link to an idealized Jamaica (Rastafarianism, music, national symbols) this filtration creates a new music tradition which not only draws on these globally accessible styles, but also a local Russian tradition.

  • 1. According to the music critic and local popular music historian Andrei Burlaka (2007a) they are the first band in St. Petersburg where reggae dominates the style.
  • 2. Besides interviews with musicians and other actors within the scene I also conducted participant observation as a musician playing the trumpet in the ska-punk band Svoboda discussed at the end of this article.
  • 3. The sum of these frames make up culture which according to Hannerz (1992, 4) should be studied through the concept of cultural flow which combines a cognitive and discursive approach to culture.
  • 4. While the state and the movement frames are also important they play more of an indirect role (e.g. education, laws, import/export tolls) in the processes described here and will due to space restrictions not be discussed further.
  • 5. Musically the song incorporates a keyboard playing chords on the upbeats, a second keyboard sounding like a hammond organ, playing chords, and a third one playing what sounds like short horn riffs. Besides a bass playing a two bar riff consisting of two licks, both starting on the 3 and ending on the 1, and either electric drums or a drum kit, where the bass drum accents all four beats and the snare plays right before the 2 / 4 and on the 2+ / 4+. The harmonic progression is I – IV V – I / C – F G – C.
  • 6. Are you ready? Yeah! Are you ready? Yeah! Look! I’m arriving, I’m arriving, I’m arriving now! I’m arriving, I’m arriving – definitively arriving!
  • 7. Let’s Go!
  • 8. The use of African and Afro-Caribbean musicians can also be seen as an essentialization based on origin and skin color as well as an authentication strategy.
  • 9. The distribution mainly operates through the market frame – either the official or unofficial market (e.g. p2p-networks, piracy), but also the form of life frame (exchange between friends).
  • 10. This is also important when both in- and outbound travel is restricted like in the Soviet Union. Here medialized music available on the radio or through home copied music (Magnitizdat – cf. Steinholt 2005, 38f) circulating within in-formal networks was important.
  • 11. Analogous to rokery – rockers.
  • 12. Dr. I-Bolit (or Aibolit – Ouchhurts) is a Russian/Soviet children’s poem written by Kornei Chukovskii (aka Nikolai Vasil’evich Korneichukov) about Aibolit, a doctor who cures animals.
  • 13. Other groups mentioned were Respublika Dzha (Jah Republic) who had moved to Moscow and Dzha Divizhn (Jah’s Division – a pun of the British band Joy Division) based in Moscow (Iatsenko 2006).
  • 14. In that image he also made a short visual guest appearance in the 2006 movie Piter FM directed by Oksana Bychkova.
  • 15. While it might be tempting to argue that this breaks with the misogynic traits often linked to reggae and rastafarianism Tania’s role reflects more on her organizational skills and contacts (she also works as a freelance music journalist). A male reggae musician I talked to criticized Tania for not being a good reggae performer because she is a woman. Since misogynism was widely present within the male-dominated popular music community of St. Petersburg the comment is not necessarily specific to reggae.
  • 16. Cf. Steinholt (2005) for a discussion of Akvarium’s 1982 song Aristokrat.
  • 17. Musically the song is in a medium tempo (about 120 bpm), sporting a pulsating hammond like organ (not listed on the liner notes) continuously playing a g on the 1+, 2+, 3+ and 4+ and together with the guitar alternatively playing a G and a F major triad on the backbeats (2 and 4). The lyrics primarily consists of phrases which are repeated with little or no variation, stressing that for a Rastaman both money and houses are marijuana – the refrain “Money, it was invented as a mean of deceit, For a Rastaman money is marijuana” (Den’gi – eto pridumannyi sposob obmana, Dlia rastamana den’gi – marikhuana) was often quoted to me in conversations. In other words, the song draws on several cliches linked to reggae lifestyle.
  • 18. The horn section plays a backing riff during the refrain and at the end the musicians take turns soloing (trumpet, trombone, tenor saxophone and tuba). The bass plays mainly arpeggiated triads in quarters notes while a slight distorted electric guitar accents the offs of every beat playing chords. A keyboard continuously plays the root note on the 1 and chords based on that root on the 2, 3 and 4. The high hat doubles the guitar’s accents on the off beats while the snare accents the 2 and 4. The bass drum, which was hard for me to hear on the recording, seems to accent all the beats on the on-beat.
  • 19. This part on ska in Russia is based on short phone interviews with Andrei Ivanov (St. Petersburg, 16.03.2006) and Andrei Burlaka (St. Petersburg, 17.03.2006) as well as e-mail correspondence with Sergey Chernov (02.08.2006).
  • 20. The group which dates back to 1979 took the lyrics from French dadaists (e.g. Tristan Tzara and Raymond Queneau) published in Soviet poetry anthologies. Musically they were among others inspired by the groups Madness, Specials and Bad Manners. In 1985 the band split into Igry and Avia and have remained an important local influence (Burlaka 2007b, Chernov, pers. comm., 02.08.2006).
  • 21. The musicians from Spitfire have been a part of Leningrad since 2002.
  • 22. Burlaka did not specify if he was referring to Jamaican or British groups (or both). Based on the groups that influenced Strannye Igry the groups were probably stronger influenced by British groups.
  • 23. The dichotomies like fast/slow, cold/warm as well as North/South (here white/black could be added) also point to prevalent prejudices in terms of self and other. These questions of representation, however, go beyond the scope of this article (cf. Wickström 2009, 185ff).
  • 24. Furthermore, the band is also inspired by US-American groups (Nirvana, The Offspring) as well as Russian groups from the russkii rok tradition (Kino, Grazhdanskaia Oborona).
  • 25. Russkii rok (Russian rock) is often used for the music played by the 1980s Soviet bands like Akvarium, Alisa, DDT and Kino as well as contemporary bands playing in that tradition.
  • 26. E.g. 32,5s-32,7s – the only exception being 32-32,2s where the guitar sustains the sixteenth note.
  • 27. In this excerpt the guitar starts a bar before the refrain with a glissando on the down beat (34,1s) before playing sustained chords on the following down-beats.
  • 28. In Svoboda’s creative work the horns either double the verse and refrain melody in the introduction, refrain and solo or play a recurring riff – mainly in the refrain. While there were some riffs in the verse the horns mostly did not play rhythmic backings accenting the off-beats/ska-rhythm.


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Published on June 29, 2010

Last updated on January 16, 2020


David-Emil Wickström studied Scandinavian studies, musicology and ethnomusicology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, University of Bergen and University of Copenhagen. He has conducted research on the revival of Norwegian traditional vocal music and the Ragnar Vigdal tradition and on Post-Soviet popular music in St.

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