Boris Grebenshchikov

Boris Grebenshchikov

Boris Grebenshchikov ( _ru. Бори́с Гребенщико́в) also known as Boris Purushottama Grebenshikov, is one of the most prominent members of the generation which is widely considered the "founding fathers" of Russian rock music. Due as much to his personal contribution as to the undisputed and lasting success of his main effort, the band Åquarium, he is a household name in Russia.

Colloquially known as "BG" (after his initials), Grebenshchikov was born on November 27, 1953 in Leningrad. He co-founded Aquarium with a childhood friend, Anatoly "George" Gunitsky, in 1972 as a post-modernistic theater-centric effort that involved poetry and music. Gunitsky provided absurdist, highly symbolic lyrics to some of BG's earliest songs.

Despite an eventual graduate degree in Applied Mathematics, Grebenshchikov had always been a voracious consumer of culture, especially music. His school-years enamorment with The Beatles eventually extended to include a deep appreciation of Bob Dylan, which slowly transformed Aquarium into a low-fi electric blues band that moonlighted in acoustic reggae. The first song he managed to play on guitar was The Beatles' Ticket to Ride; his first public performance, in 1973, featured him performing songs by Cat Stevens.

Early years

The first six years of Aquarium's history lacked cohesion as Grebenshchikov and his various bandmates followed the Soviet equivalent of the hippie lifestyle: playing apartment jams, drinking the low-quality port wine available from the Soviet stores of the time, and intermittently travelling to remote gigs, even hitchhiking on rail freight cars.

Youthful philandering was heavily frowned upon by the Communist Party regime; decent recording facilities were out of reach because experiments in non-standardized self-expression were routinely suppressed as a matter of policy. The several homebrew 2-track recordings hacked out over those years ("Temptation of St. Aquarium" ("Iskushenie Svyatogo Akvariuma"), "Count Diffusor's Fables" ("Pritchi grafa Diffuzora"), "Menuet for a Farmer" ("Menuet zemledel'tzu"), and a motley crew of "singles") were of necessity extremely unprofessional, but already showcased the off-kilter wit, showy erudition, and a pervasive interest in Oriental thought and mysticism that eventually became BG's trademarks.

The year 1976 also saw the recording of BG's first solo album, "On the Other Side of the Mirror Glass" ("S toy storony zerkal'nogo stekla"), and a dual album with another prominent nascent Russian rock-n-roller, [ Mike Naumenko] (web site in Russian), "All Brothers - Sisters" ("Vse brat'ya - sestry").

Classical years

BG's big break (or, in retrospect, his and the band's "watershed" moment), however, came in 1980, when [ Artem Troitzky] (web site in Russian), the first public Russian rock critic and "the" enabling figure in many a Russian rock musician's carrier, invited Aquarium to perform at the Tbilisi Rock Festival.

The festival was a state-sanctioned attempt to channel the then-burgeoning Russian rock music movement into a controllable ideological vessel. It featured a laundered line-up of government-approved rock bands, but also Kraftwerk, whose performance was accompanied by frisbees being launched into the public. Members of the jury (the occasion was officially an artistic contest) were not amused. A covert KGB-bound report pinned the shennanigans on Aquarium, which caused BG to lose his day job at a backwater design bureau (of a kind that employed the majority of technical specialty graduates in the Soviet Union; Russians called them "P.O. Box" ("pochtoviy yaschik") because their street addresses were never revealed), and membership in Komsomol, the Young Communist League, which was a career kiss of death for a Soviet citizen in 1980.

The band's underground profile, however, had continued to rise sharply over the next 7 years, post-Brezhnev KGB-fueled reactionism and Gorbachev's "perestroika" notwithstanding. This was both due to talent, and the scarcity of supply - Western rock music was still officially banned at the time. Over the first five albums, the band attracted guitarist Alexander Lyapin, considered to be among the best rock guitar players of Russian origin, the pianist Sergey Kuryokhin, renowned for the impressive speed and virtuosity of his playing and boundless avant-garde experimentation, and [ Igor Butman] , a world-class jazz saxophone player and one of the reigning kings of Russian jazz.

By the time Aquarium disbanded amid internal squabble in 1987, they had 11 "official" records under their belt and were considered a living legend of Russian rock. BG himself was likened to Bob Dylan, not least because of his borrowing amply from Dylan stylistically in his earlier years. "Railway water" ("Zheleznodorozhnaya voda") off the 1981 "Blue album" ("Siniy albom"), for example, is a spitting image of Dylan's "It takes a lot to laugh" off the 1961 "Highway 61 revisited".

Going West

Perestroika has ushered in a new era of opportunity for rock musicians; several of the more prominent ones got breaks in the West. BG's came from Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame). Stewart-produced "Radio Silence" was released in 1989, featuring covers of Alexander Vertinsky's "China" amid songs by BG, including a song written to Sir Thomas Malory's "Death of King Arthur". Annie Lennox, Billy MacKenzie and Chrissie Hynde helped out, as did several of BG's bandmates from Aquarium.

The name of the album proved self-ironic in the extreme as it hasn't made so much as a dent in the charts. Part of the failure can be attributed to the fact that unlike the Anglo-American rock-n-roll culture, the Russian song tradition heavily emphasizes lyrical complexity over hooks or drive, which reinforces the not entirely fair comparisons between BG and Dylan.

BG issued another English-language album, "Radio London", in 1990, which consisted of demos, but had some very appealing material to it.

Returning East

Disillusioned in the possibility of exporting the Russian song-writing tradition to the West, BG returned to Russia and entered a phase of returning to his Russian roots. The year 1991 saw him come out with a "Russian album" ("Russkiy al'bom"), backed by an all-new, eponymous BG Band. The album featured a line-up of songs very "Russian" in both lyric and tune, and wasn't initially met with much public appreciation (in retrospect, however, it is considered by most critics one of his best records). BG was defiant, however, and went on record as having flipped a bird off the stage toward someone yelling demands for him to perform songs from the Classical period. His career since has proved time and again that he is not fond of rehashing the past, however glorious.

No matter the defiance, the Aquarium brand was too strong to eschew and even the next two albums, one mostly filler ("Favorite songs of Ramses the 4th" ("Lyubimye pesni Ramzesa IV")) and one all B-sides ("Sands of St. Petersburg" ("Peski Peterburga")), were released under the name Aquarium. By the time of 1994's "Kostroma Mon Amour" BG's mastery of folk melody and lyric has grown to new heights, and a new band lineup was going full steam.

The band's next three albums (effectively BG's solo albums published under the band's brand) - "Navigator", "Snow lion" ("Snezhniy lev"), and "Hyperborea" - also have a stylized Russian feel. Navigator especially is widely recognized as a classic example of Russian songwriting, albeit with notable touches of blues and French chanson. The songs are melancholic bordering on heart-rending; the lyrics are either drenched in Byronic spleen, or full of BG-branded variant of Russian irony steeped in a sense of separation between self and the world.

And back to basics

As of 1997, however, the Russian nationalism seems to have run its course for BG. His 1997 album "Lilith" is still mostly Russian in lyrical theme, but is recorded, by way of a chance meeting, with his idol Dylan's one time backup band, The Band. In 1998 BG, who was by then settling into a cult classic status in Russia, played a one-man-and-his-guitar show of 1970s and 1980s songs to a small audience of fans in a San Francisco bar, and decided to return to reggae-n-rock-n-roll roots.

1999's "Psi" features just that, as interpreted through a post-modernistic lens with ample, highly inventive use of keyboard-triggered samplers. 2002's "Sister Chaos" ("Sestra Haos"), 2003's "Fisherman's songs" ("Pesni rybaka"), and 2005's "ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM" feature the same, painted by sparse touches of Armenian (Jivan Gasparyan on "Northern Wind"), Indian (the entire of "Fisherman's songs") and African (some of "ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM"). Despite all of these having been issued under the Aquarium brand, it is recognized that by now Aquarium is "the people who play with Grebenshchikov".

In a very appealing touch of overcompensation, as technology and funds had begun to permit, sometime in the 90s BG had become incredibly quality-conscious with his records. As the state of sound engineering in Russia left (still does) a lot to be desired, he had begun tracking in London's studios. "Navigator", a predominantly acoustic album with a highly refined, "the-band-is-in-the-room" intimate soft of a mix saw BG sell his car and part of his guitar collection to cover tracking costs. The quality of his recent recordings may give the better of Western singer-songwriters a run for their money.

Worth noting

BG has virtually always been able to skilfully combine his interests into a cohesive, if highly eclectic, whole. His lyrics can and often do feature Hinduism, Russian Orthodoxy, and drug use in the same quatrain. The ability has only grown stronger over the years. 1999's "Psi" switches from detailed references to samurai culture to mentions of a certain carpenter's son to data storage on hard drives, all the while maintaining tight lyrical cohesion.

His output has been rather prolific. Over the 30+ years of his career he wrote 500+ songs, most of which were recorded and/or performed publicly. At this point Aquarium has 21 albums in the official discography, approximately 12 "unofficial ones", and about as many live records. Additionally, BG recorded cover albums on material from the two most prominent Russian-language songwriters -- Alexander Vertinsky (1994's "Songs of A.Vertinsky" ("Pesni A.Vertinskogo")) and Bulat Okudzhava (1999's "Songs of B.Okudzhava" ("Pesni B.Okudzhavy")) --, two albums of mantra music with Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors, (1998's "Refuge" and 2002's "Bardo"), and an album of electronica versions of Aquarium songs from late 1970s - early 1980s with the Russian duo Deadushki. Which left him time to be credited on records by big-in-Russia bands Nautilus Pompilius, Mashina Vremeni and Kino, as well as the UK acts Shakespears Sister and Kate St. John. This list is not exhaustive, either.

BG is also known as a student of religion and mysticism. He translated several Hinduist and Buddhist books for publication in Russian, travelled the Orient widely, and is friends with A-list spiritual celebrities. He is just as familiar with the Russian Orthodox tradition (Aquarium web site has had a call for discovery of Orthodox relics going for years), and used to mix them freely in his lyrics. "Russian Nirvana" ("Russkaya Nirvana") off "Kostroma mon amour", for example, is a dual-pointed send-up containing a reference to "sitting down in the lotus posture in the middle of Kremlin". His relentless promotion of Tibetan buddhism in the 1990s and his tendency to use buddhist-derived logic with touches of absurdism to avoid answering questions in interviews make him pretty distinct amongst other Russian artists.

BG also translated several Buddhist and Hinduist texts to Russian, including:

*Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche (son of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche) "Bardo Guidebook" - "source material for the "Tibetan Book of Living & Dying" also known as "Tibetan Book of the Dead" Bardo Thodol, in 1995;
*Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche "Repeating Words of the Buddha" - "the essential points of spiritual practice, inseparable from everyday life.", in 1997;
*Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche "Rainbow Painting" - "addressing the topics of practices of accumulating and purifying to facilitate unification of view and conduct", in 1999;
*Shibendu Lahiri "Kriya yoga" - "authentic teachings and techniques of Kriya Yoga", in 2003;
*"The Katha Upanishad", Upanishad belonging to the Yajur Veda, in 2005.

He has a unique singing voice. A combination of his natural timbre with a specific vibrato with downward expansion of range and unusual resonation acquired through training make his voice immediately recognizable.


External links

* [ Aquarium web-site]
* This article borrows from the " [ Short history of Aquarium] ", which seems to be public domain.
* [ Boris Grebenshikov Concert ] - Site for Grebenshikov's concerts at the Royal Albert Hall.
* [ Aquarium Bookshelf with Buddhist materials translated to Russian by BG]
* [ The Bodhisattvas of Babylon, an English-language fan site]

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