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Russia: Grammy Nomination, Documentary All Part Of 'Bering Strait's' Passage To Stardom

  • Kathleen Moore

Once upon a time, seven talented Russian youngsters formed a country music band. They were very good. Still teenagers, they traveled from their homes near Moscow to the capital of country music -- the city of Nashville in the U.S. They didn't quite live happily ever after, and there were setbacks along the way. But now, the years of hard work appear to be paying off. Bering Strait has been nominated for the top U.S. music award, a Grammy. And their journey is the subject of a new documentary film.

Prague, 21 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It seems as if it's all coming together for Bering Strait's seven young members. Last month their performance of "Porushka-Paranya" sung in Russian met with cheers and cries of "Thank you so much! Spasibo!"

That was something slightly out of the ordinary for an audience at the Grand Ol' Opry, the best-known venue in the home of country music in the U.S. city of Nashville, Tennessee.

Last month, the group released its first album, simply titled "Bering Strait." This week saw the release in U.S. theaters of "The Ballad of Bering Strait," a documentary film about the band's journey to stardom.

And they've been nominated for a Grammy Award -- the U.S. music industry's answer to the Oscars -- in the Best Country Instrumental Performance category for the track "Bearing Straight." That's a first for a Russian band in any country music category of the Grammies:

Bering Strait has hardly been an instant success, however. It took them four years and five different record labels before they managed to release their first album.

Indeed, their story is attracting as much attention as their music. In addition to the documentary, the band is also due to be profiled on the respected CBS television show "60 Minutes" on 23 February.

It started when they were still children, all students at a music school in Obninsk, near Moscow. For fun, a teacher had the idea of bringing them together to play bluegrass, an acoustic style of country music that features banjos, fiddles, and a lot of vocal harmonies. They learned the instruments and became good players -- very good.

Banjo player Ilya Toshinsky was the first to visit Nashville, when he got the chance to go to the Tennessee Banjo Institute as a guest of Kukuruza, another Russian country band.

Over the next few years, the band members traveled back and forth to the U.S., finally deciding to move there long-term. They hooked up with a Nashville music manager and started the long road to securing a record deal.

It wasn't easy. Visa restrictions meant they couldn't hold other jobs to earn money. The group's manager supported them and even let the whole band live in his house for two years. For a while, all the effort seemed hopeless, as singer Natasha Borzilova recalls in the press release for the film.

"I was in my first apartment. I was all alone," she says. "I had no friends in Nashville, and we didn't know if things would ever improve or if we would ever get our record deal back."

But it would be hard to go back to Russia, as banjo player Toshinsky says: "It's very pop there. Trying to be a country band in Russia, we'd be bound to play clubs for all our lives."

At the end of 2001, the band's manager was going broke. The members of Bering Strait gave themselves a deadline -- find a record contract within a month.

And that's what happened. Dan Rogers, the Grand Ol' Opry's marketing manager, says Bering Strait's story has helped attract publicity. But he says their music is good, too: "I think that publicity probably only goes so far, and in Nashville you have to have some great music to back up what you're doing. It's incredible, the range of what they do. And I've [watched] them just capture a crowd. They actually did an outdoor series that we have called Opry Plaza Parties every summer. An outdoor crowd that isn't seated -- sometimes it's hard to capture everyone's attention, particularly when they're moving in and out of the Opry house and that sort of thing. But they had everyone's attention that night."

Some critics have been less kind. They complain that only the Russian folk song "Porushka-Paranya" and the instrumental "Bearing Straight" sound fresh or interesting. They say the other songs, such as, "I Could Use a Hero," are bland.

A reviewer on www.gazeta.ru says Bering Strait's songs are as similar as pieces of the band's favorite food, pelmeni -- a kind of boiled, meat-filled dumpling, "only without sour cream, vinegar, or most importantly, pepper."

Aaron Fox is a country music specialist at New York's Columbia University. He says most of the songs on Bering Strait's album are technically good but indistinguishable from mainstream country music. And he says he was surprised to learn that the song "Bearing Straight" had been nominated for a Grammy: "They're certainly highly competent musicians. But when I listen to ['Bearing Straight'], I hear second-rate bluegrass. That's my frank opinion of it. Although they're technically proficient, I don't hear much soul."

Country music is a global phenomenon. Many countries have lively homegrown versions -- some close to the American style, others with more local flavor. But it's rare for bands from outside North America to achieve success in the U.S. A Dutch singer called Ilse De Lange and Australia's Keith Urban are two notable exceptions.

Fox says Bering Strait's popularity shows that the country music industry is looking for something different to catch people's imagination. He says this search intensified after the huge success of the bluegrass soundtrack to the 2000 film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

"I don't see anything Russian about [Bering Strait] or different about it other than the marketing of it and the name of the musicians and the one song ['Porushka-Paranya'], which is clearly there to call attention to the story of the band. And the story is compelling and interesting and it is, indeed, different. I think the bottom line here is that Nashville is looking for 'different.' ...The last really big success that broke the paradigm in Nashville was 'O Brother.' The key word for it was, 'This is different,' and [people have been asking ever since], 'How do we tap into that?' "

The winners of the 2003 Grammy Awards will be announced at a ceremony on 23 February in New York.

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