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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Pop's Best-Kept Secret Out At Last




She was famous before anyone had even seen or heard her.


Her debut album released last week has already sold out, and she has the Russian press swooning at her feet.


Zemfira, a 22-year-old singer from Ufa with the voice of a jazz diva and a style more akin to P.J. Harvey than Alla Pugachyova, is probably the most eagerly awaited act in Russia.


Her debut single "SPID" or "AIDS" with its chorus of "You've got AIDS, so we're gonna die," has received continual airplay on otherwise conservative Russian radio stations.


And Zemf's first Moscow concert was standing room only at Sixteen Tons on May 8 with fans chanting "AIDS, AIDS, AIDS" in request of the single.


Next week she plays only her second concert in Moscow at the place where it all began - the Maxidrom festival at Olimpiisky Sport Complex.


Just over a year ago at the festival, a friend handed Zemfira's demo tape to Leonid Burlakov, also the producer of teen and critic darling Mumy Troll.


Ten days later Burlakov, a former ship navigator from Vladivostok who founded Utekai-Zvukozapis records with Ilya Lagutenko, lead singer of Mumy Troll, played the tape for the first time and was captivated by "some note of genius in the voice."


"She came to me like a wild girl from wild Russia," Burlakov said Wednesday. He chose Zemfira out of hundreds of tapes he and Lagutenko received from groups all over Russia.


Burlakov, who is more of a Sex Pistols man, said he was attracted first of all by her voice, which reminded him of that of a 40-year-old, then by her direct, honest confessional lyrics and only then by her music.


The buildup was, by the standards of the Russian music industry, coy and sophisticated. At a press conference last October, Burlakov began the buzz by promising a wonder from the provinces. In March, his company released an album of up-and-coming bands which included the song "Rakety" or "Rockets" (which appears now on the debut album).


Inside the compact disc, every band was pictured except for Zemfira. Rather like the candy bar in Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" there was only one cassette in the whole land with a picture of Zemfira and the owner of the cassette received a free trip to Vladivostok, where Mumy Troll was playing.


Advertisements for her debut album "Zemfira" only showed her legs, while the video for the single "Arrivederci" was similarly secretive about showing her face.


She finally appeared in public at a press conference in March. Sitting down next to Burlakov on stage at the Respublika barshe immediately grabbed for her beer, lit a Marlboro light and, with a bemused expression, peered through her long fringe at the crowd of journalists.


Asked if she considered herself a star, she gave the honest response: "I guess I already am." When skeptics questioned whether there was more Mumy Troll than Zemfira on the album, she sang a gorgeous Bashkiri folk song in response.


"If she isn't successful here, I'll give up and go and become a sailor again," Burlakov said, and the Russian press has been similarly and uncharacteristically optimistic.


"It's a sin not to write about her," one journalist said at her concert. "After all, we usually write about such crap."


It's true: She is different from the usual Russian pop stars. She is a singer-songwriter in the Alanis Morissette tradition, an obviously talented musician with immense confidence.


Born in 1976 in Ufa, Zemfira Ramazanova studied music from the age of 5, composing her first song at the age of 7. A skillful basketball player, she was captain of the junior Russian team when she was 15, but eventually chose music instead and trained to be an estrada (music hall) performer at music college.


At night she sang in a restaurant, an experience she initially found discouraging as she performed a mixture of soul and jazz to the heads of people dipped over their dinner.


"I learned how to do it so that people lifted their heads from their plates," she said in an interview with OM magazine.


Later she worked as a sound engineer at the Ufa version of the radio station Evropa Plus. There she recorded her demo tape alone, later joining up with the back-up musicians: drummer Sergei Sozinov, lead guitarist Vadim Solovyov, bass guitarist Rinat Akhmadiyev and keyboard player Sergei Mirolyubov.


With scores of songs already written, Zemfira will start recording a second album in August, and the group will tour all over Russia in September with the album, which is set for release in spring 2000.


"Zemfira," recorded at Mosfilm studios and mixed in London, is a mixture of influences: a bit of jazz, ska, folk songs, Russian rock, estrada and the singer's presence. Her live performance at Sixteen Tons was polished, perhaps a bit too polished, but backed by a powerful, passionate voice.


Among her musical influences and loves, Zemfira lists Queen from her childhood, Nick Cave, Massive Attack, Britpop, trip hop and Portishead. She's now deeply into glam rock. She has a reputation for being as forthright as her lyrics and professionally uncompromising.


She and Burlakov broke off contact for a week after arguments over her work. In fact, Zemfira and Burlakov's company still only have a verbal agreement, not a contract. Burlakov compares it to Depeche Mode's original unwritten deal with their record company.


One story in Moskovsky Komsomolets tells of how Zemfira turned up at the door of one producer before she got a record contract, kicked the door open with her foot and said: "A star. Not the kind of..." The rest of the sentence consisted of extremely strong Russian swearwords of the tryokhetazhny or three-story type.


Her response to some people's complaints about "AIDS" was similar.


"Why is everyone so upset about it?" asked Zemfira in an interview with the Sobesednik paper. "You'd think I'd sung about the eighth wonder of the world or lied. Let me tell you a secret to console you. The second album, which comes out next February, won't have 'AIDS' or a remix but it will have 'Incest.'"


Zemfira will play in the Maxidrom festival at Olimpiisky Sport Complex on Sunday along with Alisa, Mashina Vremima, Agatha Christie, Vopli Vidoplasova, Masha i Medvedi, Splin, Nogu Svelo, Krematoria, ChaiF, Tequilajazzz and much more. Tickets are sold in kiosks across town and cost 230 to 750 rubles. Tel. for tickets: 937-2828/2825. Delivery: 50 rubles. Concert starts at 4 p.m. The complex is at 16 Olimpiisky Prospekt. Metro: Prospekt Mira.