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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Russian Musician's Paradox

The first time I saw Alexander Samoilov was last May in Prague, where he was playing music on Charles Bridge with the other members of his group, "The Last Chance".


Samoilov danced around the bridge with theatrical abandon, transfixing a crowd of hippie wanna-bes and tourists with Russian songs they could not understand.


Watching "The Last Chance" was like coming upon a group of children banging pots and pans together and suddenly realizing they were making an incredible sound.


It was improvised and silly, but sweetly sophisticated. It was music that made you laugh out loud the way a child laughs at a clown.


This, I thought, was something new: Russian folk singers as wandering minstrels, roaming Europe with little more than simple instruments and a song. These are carefree spirits singing because they are happy, and happy to be singing.


A few weeks ago, I spotted Samoilov's wild head of asymmetrically cut hair at a concert in Moscow. We spoke during intermission, and arranged a meeting at his home.


Samnilov lives on the edge of Moscow in a building beside an electric power station. He is married, and has two young children. He is 43, but looks 20 years younger. As he talked about his musical career, he was surprisingly serious.


Samoilov formed "The Last Chance" in 1975, and began by playing for children. "We play for kids, because you can't fool them", he explained. "For some reason, the way we play is best understood by children and people of creativity".


Rock music was officially banned in the Soviet Union when the group was formed, but their acoustic interpretations of classical Russian poetry became a fixture on the underground scene.


The four-member band took off quickly; within a year they were playing throughout the country.


"Everything was forbidden then, but we played quietly", Samoilov said.


The group's members have changed over the years, but their signature mix of 60 different instruments -- everything from guitar to bass balalaika, cello, bicycle pump and other found objects -- has stayed the same. So have their songs, many of which are based on the poems of Marina Tsvetayeva, Alexander Blok, Sergei Yesenin, Kornei Chukovsky and other beloved Russian writers.


"We use this poetry with contemporary rhythms and sounds", Samoilov said.


Ironically, this joyous music that begins with and celebrates Russian poetry is rarely performed in Russia. The group cannot earn enough money from concerts here to afford to play.


Their European travels are not, as I had imagined in Prague, the wanderings of a quartet of happy minstrels, but a matter of economic necessity. The only way they can keep their music alive is to play for people who, no matter how much they enjoy the spirit and the sound, are oblivious to the cultural meaning.


"I suppose I'm lucky that I'm able to earn money abroad so that I can continue to play music", Samoilov said.


"If I had to turn to business to support my family, I would not be able to write songs anymore. My head would just not go to music".


In the middle of our discussion, Samoilov's son called us into the living room. "Polite Refusal", the band at whose concert I'd run into Samoilov, was playing on the television. A progressive kind of rock band, "Polite Refusal's" songs are more cerebral, and less accessible for a foreign audience, than those of "The Last Chance".


"Look at them", Samoilov said, throwing up his arms. "Where can they go? What can they do? "


Samoilov had a pained expression on his face that would surprise anyone who has seen him perform. It brought to mind the most puzzling thing about "The Last Chance". How can they write and perform such happy songs at such a sad time for Russia?


"You know, I was thinking about that in Prague", Samoilov said. "I saw this incredible group of young musicians from St. Petersburg. They had so much energy, and played with so much joy, it was fantastic. I couldn't figure it out -- why did they seem so happy, why did we seem so happy, when things here are so chaotic? I just don't know".