Thursday, 21 February 2013

In Russia Funk Compilation Plays You

I love Russian symphonic music almost as much as I love jazz.  The Sir Thomas Beecham and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade is definitely one my desert island disks.  Yes, that is the nerdiest thing you've read all day.

So you can imagine my elation when I happened upon Secret Stash's 2010 Soviet Funk, the purported lost tapes of 1970s jazz flutist Pavel Sysoyev of Abakan, Khakassia.

In 1968 Sysoyev came in contact with some rudimentary recording equipment owned and operated by the USSR State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting.  As a studio employee and unbeknownst to the Kremlin, he availed himself of this hardware to covertly tape original compositions that he penned and arranged with his underground jazz ensemble.

As the album's liner notes explain, "Just about any jazz or funk band in the area that ever made a recording did so with Sysovyev manning the board.  With a few exceptions, most of these recordings were never released because they were illegally recorded using government facilities."  These notes further cite communist control over imported and emulated western culture as another reason why these tapes remained hidden throughout the 1970s and up until very recently.

This fascinating account, paired with the equally engaging music, piqued my attention.  

The album cuts themselves aren't funky in the traditions of James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone.  Rather, the music is better classified as instrumental soul jazz and fusion. But oddly enough, it's soul jazz and fusion of a sort that was barely being pioneered in America in the early 1970s.  Meanwhile, were implicitly expected to believe that these backwater Russians (Abakan currently has population of 165,000) trapped behind the iron curtain had already mastered these foreign sounds. Equally as fishy, all of the tracks on Soviet Funk are exceptionally clean for dusty tapes supposedly found in a garage.  Secret Stash contends, however, that it remasters all of its source material.

With a bushy eyebrow raised, I resolved to dig a little deeper, immediately discovering two blogs readily dismissing the authenticity of this collection.  

My Russian is rusty but Google Translate assisted in corroborating others' claims that the band and song names are unexpectedly colourful, if not comically offensive.  As examples, vyrodok translates as degenerate or monster; agentura as hostile or secret agents, chernosotenec as Black Hundreds (a facist and anti-semitic political organization), and snokhachestovo as "the practice of having sex with minor women in the big family." Some of the band names, as mentioned elsewhere, have handles more befitting punk rockers than classically trained musicians, see: Help Me and Yes/No.

However, speculative trashtalking on the internet should always be consumed with a boulder of salt. 

What does Secret Stash have to say about the allegations of its ner'dowelling?  As the label's Eric Foss recounted to The Find Magazine in March of last year:

"Yeah I’ve heard that [rumours about fake releases] about some of the older stuff, and I guess…all I can say is what I know about our licensing sources. If you’ll notice, you don’t really hear those claims anymore about the newer stuff because we’ve moved on to some different licensing sources. I guess that’s about as much as I can say about it. I know who I paid and what they told me they had. I saw their tapes and did that sort of stuff, but that’s about as much as I can say about it definitively. […]

So yeah I know the records you are talking about, actually there is a guy who used to at the label that set up those first few releases, we don’t work with him anymore, but I met his sources man and I can just tell you that from the people I met and the tapes I saw, I didn’t see anything fake you know what I mean? The other thing I can say is that they are great records. So I know it’s not the most definitive answer. Some people, a very small group of people, are just taking opinions and in their minds turning them into facts. I’m just gonna stick with the fact that I know, cause that’s the right thing to do. I saw the tapes, I talked to these people and I know who we licensed them from you know what I mean?"

From the sounds of it, the label genuinely aims to release good comps but may have inadvertently brokered some bad business in its early days.  Attribute it to the folly of youth. It seem to be back on the level.  Just today someone verified to me the legitimacy of Secret Stash's awesome Persian Funk collection, as he owns an original press of one of the songs selected.  

Thus, with a guilty conscience I should apologize for churning the rumour mill, for feeding the beast of negativity, and for detracting from the music itself.  The story, however, is too interesting not to share.  

As discussed in my last post, people often get hung up on records because of what they represent, while ignoring their sonic content.  Consequently, with questions of national and historical authenticity put aside, I can attest that Soviet Funk is an authentically good album.  It lays out a varied sampling of 70s jazz styles, executed by accomplished musicians.  There are several killer flute and fender rhodes pieces, backed with funky drum breaks.  The eastern bloc typography and constructivist album art, as well as the red vinyl also shouldn't go unacknowledged.  It's a quality product, comrades.  Even if its origins remain unclear.

Unfortunately, every Youtube video for this album has been pulled.  But you can listen to samples of the album on the releases page at the Secret Stash website.  Don't miss Pomogite "Avantyuris," and Da/N'et's "Deagogiya."

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