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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Bards Are Back

The '60s are over, but the era's guitar-toting poets haven't been forgotten. Their fans gather Saturday for a Yury Vizbor tribute.

In 1981, Avrora magazine contemptuously labeled Yury Vizbor and singers of his kind as "boys with guitars."

But in 1998, 14 years after Vizbor's death, this "boy with a guitar" gets credit for helping to found a new Russian art form, and Saturday night, some of Moscow's top musicians will gather at the Rossia Concert Hall to remember him with a tribute concert titled "Hello, I'm Back."

"Vizbor practically has come back," Nina Vizbor, the singer's wife, said Wednesday at the Center for Amateur Creative Work as the Moscow country band Grassmeister rehearsed Vizbor's "Blue Ship" for Saturday's show. "His songs are being performed more and more often now."

Vizbor's art was the art of avtorskaya pesnya -- which translates roughly as "author's song" -- a type of performing art elusive enough that its devotees can't quite agree on how to define it, let alone translate the term into English.

The leader of the popular band Mashina Vremeni, Andrei Makarevich, once tried calling it "poetry music."

"Maybe he came close," said Alexander Kostromin, who runs the center, which serves as a spiritual hub for Moscow songwriters and lovers of avtorskaya pesnya.

The songs themselves are less music than romantic, populist poems half-sung as the artist picks out a soft accompaniment on a guitar.

It's not exactly the norm for Saturday's venue, where pop serenaders and Sinatra-style crooners tend to be standard fare.

But the Rossia Concert Hall is far from the cradle of avtorskaya pesnya, which was originally called alpinistskaya pesnya after the mountaineers who wrote such songs to entertain themselves on long treks.

"The first songs were written to keep people from dying of boredom and loneliness out in the wilderness," says Kostromin. Vizbor wrote his first songs for members of the hiking expeditions he led in the late '50s.

Enter the guitar.

"The guitar is democratic," Vizbor said in an interview with Avrora 17 years ago. "It's simple, accessible and universal. By weight, it's the lightest instrument. This prosaic little circumstance is of no small importance in our century of universal movement."

Vizbor and his colleagues, who became known as bards, sang the Russian version of the rugged individualist: the mountaineer, the geologist on endless expeditions, the miner panning gold on the Siberian tundra.

It wasn't exactly what the collectivist-minded Communist authorities wanted to hear.

Neither was the current of protest against the Soviet system that ran through the bards' lyrics. The heyday of avtorskaya pesnya came after the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, just as Nikita Khrushchev's thaw was starting to take hold of the public consciousness.

Vizbor, Vladimir Vysotsky, Alexander Galich, Bulat Okudzhava and other bards became icons of the 1960s in no small part because they offered an alternative to officially sanctioned, patriotic music that young people were told to sing.

"The students didn't want to sing the official songs anymore. A lot of the [avtorskiye] songs were parodies," said Andrei Krylov, an expert on avtorskaya pesnya and the deputy director of the Vladimir Vysotsky Museum, near Taganskaya Ploshchad.

Though some bards, including Vysotsky and Vizbor, gained enough fame to be cast in movies, their music and the movement that grew up around it stayed half underground.

"It started at that time as a form of free expression, but the form -- a person with a guitar saying what he thought ought to be said -- was never exhausted," said Kostromin. "Whenever [the authorities] started to encroach upon human rights, a person with a guitar showed up."

Today's bards may be surviving on past glories. The giants of the genre are mostly dead: Vysotsky, the most famous of the bards, died in 1980; Galich died half a decade earlier; Vizbor, half a decade later. Okudzhava died in Paris in June of last year. Of the great bards, Krylov says, only a few, such as Alexander Gorodnitsky, are left, and the younger generation hasn't produced their equals.

"That kind of person can't be duplicated," he said. "Those heights haven't been reached by anyone else. In scale, maybe. But it's always funny when they say that [singer Alexander] Rozenbaum is today's Vysotsky."

Nikita Vysotsky, who directs the museum dedicated to his father, agreed.

"People like my father can't have heirs in the creative sense. Maybe in the spiritual sense," Vysotsky said. "But I think that in the case of Vysotsky, there is no need to continue his work. He already did everything."

"This genre is no longer a basic means of communication," he added. "Maybe its time is over."

The songs of Vizbor, as the least political of the bards, may be the exception.

"Vizbor wrote about the eternal, about good and love," said Nina Vizbor. "Vysotsky and Okudzhava can only be understood by people who lived back then. But everyone falls in love, and everyone wants to be good."

Kostromin agreed: "The younger generation thinks of Okudzhava as old songs, but they think of Vizbor as one of their own."

Andrei Shepelyov, a guitarist for Grassmeister, which plays the odd Vizbor cover when it performs at Moscow clubs, said, "We love him for songs about kindness. We love him for the reasons everybody loves him ... and stylistically, we try to find common ground."

Original songs are still written and performed by the likes of Mikhail Shcherbakov, Vadim Yegorov, Veronika Dolina, and Sergei Matveyenko.

But covering the past masters is an increasingly popular practice among members of the small circle who perform bard music.

Lidia Cheboksarova, 28, is one such singer who makes her living by performing all over Russia. She plans to sing two of Vizbor's songs at the tribute Saturday. For her, the music comes naturally.

"I just grew up with this kind of music," Cheboksarova said. "I had a teacher who used to invite me over to play around with guitars so that I did something worthwhile. It's turned out well for me."

"Hello, I'm Back," a concert celebrating Yury Vizbor's birthday, will take place Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Rossia Concert Hall. Tickets cost 15 rubles to 60 rubles ($2.50 to $10) and are available from the Center for Amateur Creative Arts at 73 Sadovnicheskaya Ulitsa, Building 19. Nearest metro: Paveletskaya. Call 953-2171 for more information.

After the concert, die-hards will head north from Savyolovsky Station to the town of Iksha for more music and a cruise on the Ikshinskoye Reservoir aboard the ship Yury Vizbor.

Other excursions and concerts will take place throughout the summer in Moscow and beyond, including an annual bard festival beginning next week in Samara that draws more than 100,000 to a hillside on the banks of the Volga River. Call the center to find out how to join in.

Bards play nearly every night in Moscow clubs and halls.

Some to check out:

Perekryostok, a venue run by renowned Moscow bard Viktor Luferov. 13 Volokolamskoye Shosse, metro Sokol. Tel. 158-1700.

Gnezdo Glukharya, which holds concerts almost daily. 22 Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa, metro Pushkinskaya. Tel. 291-9388.

Polytechnical Museum, a legendary bard venue. 2 Polytekhnichesky Proyezd, 9th entrance, metro Kitai-Gorod or Lubyanka. Tel. 924-5114 or 923-6916.