Back in mid-December 2016, I returned to St. Petersburg for a 3-week break. I went back for two main reasons: to revisit the lovely city where I lived for over a year and catch up with some of my friends there, and to attend Russian classes at a language school in the hope of giving my command of Russian a kick-start.
However, I also had a third aim: to catch up with Fedor Tarabukin, of the Siberian Cossack Systema group.
I’d trained with Fedor during the period when I was going out to Pushkin, where Andrey Karimov was running his classes. While I’ve been in China, Andrey has left Pushkin and is now based in Novosibirsk again. What I wanted was to work on the cultural aspects of the Siberian Cossack System, though: the balalaika, and Cossack lezginka, and for these Fedor is the expert. Plus, of course, he speaks English. So, before I left, I got in touch with him on Facebook, and we arranged to meet up on the first weekend after I arrived.
So, I duly went down to the south of the city, to an area that definitely feels more like it’s still Leningrad than St. Petersburg!
The class was structured into three sections:
1. Empower the Child: fathers bonding with sons and beginning the process of raising them with Cossack values; I sat this part out.
2. Nagaika: the adults in the group (all men on this occasion) trained in hand-to-hand applications of the nagaika. I took part in this; we trained in escaping from rear choke holds.
3. An individual session with Fedor. At my request, we worked on some Cossack lezginka for an hour. I found the moves to be very familiar: I’d worked on some of them with the Dagestani lezginka group Ensemble Imamat during my time in St. Petersburg, as well as with the material I found online from Ali Askerov. Unfortunately, I’d sprained my knee shortly before my trip, and this session exacerbated the problem – to the extent that it’s only starting to get better now as I write this, a month and a half later. So, although I’d originally had plans to meet for further lezginka classes, those plans had to be ditched.
On the topic of dance, I also bought all of Fedor’s DVDs on Russian male dance. These don’t cover lezginka; rather they’re from the Russian (not Cossack) folk tradition. Still, it’s good material. I had hoped to have tried some of the steps by now, but I need to wait until my knee is back to normal. Here’s an example of Fedor in action (not from the DVDs):
Instead, Fedor came just after the New Year to the apartment I was renting on Zagorodny Prospekt, and we worked on the balalaika.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I already have two balalaikas in China, which I brought with me when I moved here from Russia. However, they’re both much-used examples of a mass-produced model that were cheap when they were new – so, now that I’ve got some savings behind me, I decided that I would take advantage of this trip to get a better one. This is what I got: a hand-made version from the music shop next to Dom Knigi on Nevsky Prospekt.
The sound quality is much, much, better – as you would expect. I’m very pleased with it.
Given the break for New Year, Fedor’s schedule, and my schedule, we would only have time for one class, so I asked Fedor to help me work on Barynya, one of the basic dance tunes that Andrey uses most often – and the one he first showed me in Pushkin. I had the basic chord pattern down, but didn’t know what else to do with it, and it seemed very limited. On many YouTube videos where Andrey is shown using this tune to control the tempo of training, he’s adding lots of embellishments to the basic tune, and I wanted to learn some of those.
So, that’s what we did. Basically, Fedor showed me five or so variations to the basic tune, took me through them, made sure I’d noted them down correctly, and left me with a good solid set of of work to get on with once I’d returned to Beijing. Then we very quickly went over one or two similar embellishments for a couple of other tunes.
I have to say I found this one less to incredibly useful. Fedor explained the basic tune and the variations very, very clearly, and gave me a framework for thinking about the way I play that I’d been lacking before. After this lesson, learning to play the balalaika seems far more achievable, simply because it now makes sense in a way that it hadn’t before. That, in itself, was hugely motivating.
Now that I’m back in China, I’ve got the enthusiasm to take my balalaika on the road with me as I travel for my job, practising every evening in my hotel rooms. I’m struggling to make the transitions between the emebellishments and the basic tune smoothly, but I’m getting there slowly. Generally, even I will admit that I’ve made huge progress, compared to where I was before my trip to Russia.
Once I’ve got as far as I can with the material from that one lesson, I’m hoping to continue with further lessons over Skype.
If anyone is interested in learning the folk balalaika, I’d strongly endorse Fedor as a teacher. He speaks English, he’s patient, and he conveys the material in a structured manner that I at least find incredibly helpful.