Africa Meets Russia in Na-Na Folk Band

Eduard Mikembo remembers the tanks, the soldiers and the machine guns. He remembers being told not to wander too far for fear of stepping on a mine.

But most of all he remembers everybody breaking out into a frenzy of dance and cheer as soon as he and his colleagues began to sing their popular songs in a concert last fall to celebrate the end of the Chechen war in August.

"We stood on the tanks to play because there was no stage," said Mikembo, 35, the lone African singer for Na-Na, one of the most well-known folk groups in the former Soviet Union.

Russian and Chechen soldiers and citizens gathered in Khankala to hear Mikembo sing his patented reggae-style folk songs, which Russians across the country have come to love.

"After the concert we had a party, and everyone drank together," he said. "People were dancing with their machine guns."

Mikembo is perhaps the most famous African student in the former Soviet empire, having cashed in on his musical talent to become a household name. He plays the bass and rhythm guitar, and his songs are a mixture of pop and exotic folk music, an increasingly well-received combination.

"It's very popular here," said Mikembo, whose voice can be heard on most radio stations throughout the country. "It's a form of diversity that has been turned into something black and white."

Na-Na's popularity has crossed the boundaries of Russian pop folk music to become a recognized entity worldwide. They travel all over the globe including stops in America, Europe and Asia. They performed at a royal birthday party in Thailand and recently finished a 12-city swing through Germany.

Na-Na's concerts have taken the Russian regions and former Soviet capitals like Kiev, Riga and Vilnius by storm, and people flock to see them. Mikembo said he is especially popular in the regions where most people have never seen an African perform live.

"When we perform in the regions, we have many fans," he said. "I think they want to see me because there are not so many Africans there."

Mikembo, who hails from the Congo, first came to Russia 10 years ago to study at the prestigious Institute of Economics and Statistics. He is currently working on a graduate degree in computer programing.

After having played with a group back home, Mikembo said he only had time for his studies when he first came to Russia. But, five years later, in 1991, he started a group with some of his fellow countrymen. They performed in newly opened night spots such as the Hermitage and the Pilot and at the annual Bastille Day celebrations at the French Embassy. In 1994, at a concert at Patrice Lumumba People's Friendship University, he met the members of Na-Na, who asked him to join their group.

Today he is so popular that people stop him on the street for autographs. Nevertheless, he hasn't been able to cash in on his success.

"I haven't made any money," said Mikembo, who is married to a Russian and has a 5-year-old son. "I like it here. I don't know the future, but here I have a family. I have to work to feed them as my son grows up."

Looking back on his short but illustrious career, Mikembo said he has been truly blessed to have discovered diverse cultures in the former Soviet republics that mirror the music he performs.

"I've been to places like Baku where I saw the old mosques," he said. "It's been just unbelievable to be able, through this group, to travel and come to understand so many different places and different cultures."