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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Medieval Ballads and Folk-Rock Win for Melnitsa

MelnitsaNatalya O'Shea plays the Irish harp, sings and writes songs for the group.
Thousands of fans chant as they wait for their favorite group to emerge. Out of the dark steps Hellawes, the female lead singer of Melnitsa, or Mill, the cult folk-rock band of the moment.

She stands holding an Irish harp. After a few moments of silence, a medieval flute begins to play, and then the sound of acoustic guitars comes in.

The audience, some bearded, some with long hair and some with both, begin to dance in circles as the mix of rock, folk, nostalgia for a mythical past and mystery rings throughout the concert hall.

Natalya O'Shea, or "Hellawes," and Alexei Sapkov, or "Chus," founded Melnitsa in 1999. Ten years later, they are the only two original members left in a group that is growing in popularity with its fusion of Celtic, Scandinavian and Russian folk and rock songs.

Many of Melnitsa's songs are inspired by medieval ballads and fairy tales. Indeed, O'Shea's pseudonym is taken from the name of a witch in 16th-century English writer Thomas Malory's tales of King Arthur.

The lyrics are just as important as the music, said student Mikhail Kuzmin, a fan of the group.

A slim, pretty brunette, O'Shea is the clear leader of the group and has a stage presence that explains much of the band's popularity. Her look on stage has something magical, seemingly glancing into a far and mysterious distance.

She said in an interview that they "just compose and perform music that comes naturally to them," and the myth-laden songs do probably come natural to a linguistics Ph.D. from Moscow State University who has also studied medieval languages and cultures at Trinity College in Dublin.

O'Shea now lives in Switzerland, where her Irish husband is a diplomat in the United Nations, but she returns to Russia regularly, and Friday will see the start of a nationwide tour.

Apart from guitars, the six-member group uses traditional old instruments such as the Irish harp and an ancient type of flute that makes a sound that is both ancient and modern.

O'Shea also studied the Irish harp in Ireland and Scotland and says she is "the only harp player with true Celtic technique in Russia."

Fairy tales and folk elements have long been an inspiration for Russian music, including Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," and Melnitsa continue this tradition, making them one of the most original, authentic and innovative contemporary Russian rock groups.

There are plenty willing to knock them for their folk connections and sometimes obscure lyrics, but music critic Alexandra Aminyeva claims that they stand out from other folk groups.

"They are very natural, not playing a show, and not at all pretentious like other groups in the same musical direction," said Aminyeva, adding that they are all "well-trained musicians."

The otherworldy music and lyrics mean that a typical Melnitsa crowd is a mixed bag, ranging from fantasy subcultures to goths as well as the ordinary music fan.

The music "helps to imagine a world which we are never going to live in," said Kuzmin.

Melnitsa does not have a special connection to any of these movements, said O'Shea, claiming that sewing her own clothes and "being a breastfeeding mother" were the only folksy parts of her lifestyle.

Still, the diplomat's wife has praised the energy around ancient Celtic menhirs in interviews and can be seen dressing up as a medieval knight in videos.

Melnitsa's biggest hit so far is the song "Nochnaya Kabyla," or "Nightmare," from their most lauded album "Pereval," which is no ordinary hit but a complex allusion to Mara, a Norse mythical entity that caused nightmares.

The song was a radio hit for its compelling drive, and it is this kind of melodic and catchy sound that distinguishes them from other folk-rock bands, which explains their growing mainstream popularity.

If you are a folk fan, then Melnitsa must be heard, and even if you are not, the music will still win you over.

Melnitsa play April 18 at SDK MAI, 8 Dubosekovskaya Ulitsa, Metro Voikovskaya. www.cdk.ru .