Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Russian culture includes an iconic image of a certain kind of elderly woman. She's called a babushka, sitting on a roadside selling vegetables from her garden. This morning, that stereotype is going to explode.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's going to happen as we hear the latest story from The Hidden World of Girls - Girls and the Women They Become, a collaboration with the Kitchen Sisters. The Russian babushkas you're about to meet sing Beatles tunes. They fly around the country for concerts. They even have a Facebook page. Yet, as modern as they appear, they also embody some sad realities of Russian life.

NPR's David Greene has our story.

(Soundbite of song, "Let It Be")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me...

DAVID GREENE: Hearing a musician playing a Beatles song is pretty common. What's unusual are the voices you're about to hear.

(Soundbite of music)

BURANOVO BABUSHKAS (Singing Group): (Singing)(Udmurt spoken)

GREENE: These are the Buranovo Babushkas, a group of elderly singers who have been charming audiences across Russia. The dozen or so women, mostly in their 70s and 80s are singing this Beatles hit, translated into Udmurt, the native language of their region in central Russia.

(Soundbite of song, "Let It Be")

BURANOVO BABUSHKAS (Singing Group): (Singing)(Udmurt spoken)

GREENE: The Babushkas used to just sing around their village, but a few years ago a local fan suggested that they experiment - with rock. The ladies got to translating and they began covering songs from iconic Russian rocker Viktor Tsoi and Western bands, like the Eagles, and the Beatles. YouTube videos went viral. They were invited to audition for Eurovision. The message from these women became clear: it can be hip to be a babushka.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GREENE: I went to meet the Babushkas 600 miles east of Moscow. Their tiny village Buranovo is like so many others in Russia - old, wooden and brick homes, dirt streets that are largely empty, as an older population is dying off.

(Soundbite of laughter and conversation) (Udmurt spoken)

GREENE: We met in one of the Babushkas' kitchens and here's how I was greeted.

(Soundbite of singing)

BURANOVO BABUSHKAS (Singing Group): (Singing)(Udmurt spoken)

GREENE: On stage and here in the kitchen the women wear traditional Udmurt clothing - long dresses and colorful head scarves. Their native language is closer to Finnish than Russian, and yet these women share a tough reality with women across Russia. Because of a history of hard work and alcoholism, life expectancy for men in Russia is 62. Russian women generally live more than a decade longer and so often live their later years alone.

For these babushkas, music has become a reliable companion.

Ms. VALENTINA PYATCHENKO: (Udmart spoken)

GREENE: Seventy-two-year-old Valentina Pyatchenko left her alcoholic husband in 1984, shortly before he died. She got along on her own, but it was tough. Thirteen years ago the tiny woman was using an electric saw to build a new porch.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Ms. VALENTINA PYATCHENKO: (Through Translator) (Unintelligible) take the sleeve of my sweater and...

GREENE: Her lower right arm was cut off. She showed me her prosthetic arm. It's too heavy to wear all the time, but she puts it on for concerts. And at those events she sings, she smiles and life seems OK. I'm an optimist, Pyatchenko told me. You'll never hear me complain.

The senior member of singing Babushkas is an even tinier woman named Elizaveta Zarbatova. She's 84 and she performed a solo for me over tea.

Ms. ELIZAVETA ZARBATOVA (Singer): (Singing in Udmurt)

GREENE: Zarbatova wrote this song in 1967, after her husband was electrocuted and killed on the job. The song is about a woman losing honor when her man dies. Today, Zarbatova looks back to her husband's death and she believes it made her stronger. And turned her into a musician.

Ms. ELIZAVETA ZARBATOVA (Through Translator) After I lost my husband I received some kind of gift - the ability to compose songs. The music comes from my heart. The suffering comes right from my heart.

GREENE: And there's 72-year-old Galina Koneva. She lost her husband in 2004 to drinking and diabetes. But what's the good of being depressed, she said. And then she started singing.

Ms. GALINA KONEVA (Singer): (Singing in Udmurt)

GREENE: Those lyrics mean life moves on.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GREENE: And it sure has for these babushkas.

(Soundbite of music)

BURANOVO BABUSHKAS (Singing Group): (Singing) (Udmurt spoken)

GREENE: Last year the Babushkas were invited to the finals of Russia's Eurovision music contest. The flashy stage design and the neon lights seemed better suited for a Lady Gaga concert, but the Babushkas soaked it all in. They danced around, beaming, as they sang about how to raise children, and how to sow the seeds of the land.

(Soundbite of music)

BURANOVO BABUSHKAS (Singing Group): (Singing) (Udmurt spoken)

GREENE: The Buranovo Babushkas did not win the right to represent Russia at the international Eurovision competition, but they sure stole the show that night. And they're making their community proud. The Udmurt republic of Russian was know for Soviet weapons factories and as the home of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of the AK-47.

Resident Alexander Pilin says this may be changing.

Mr. ALEXANDER PILIN: Many people says that Russian is Kalashnikov.

GREENE: Yeah.

Mr. ALEXANDER PILIN: And Udmurt republic is Kalashnikov, too. And now I think it's Buranovo Babushki, it's best brand in our republic.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

GREENE: We're walking now into a building that is called the Dom Culturi. That is Russian for the House of Culture, and it's a old brick building that the Babushkas still use today for their concerts, for rehearsals - and we're going to get our own concert today, it looks like.

(Soundbite of song, "Yesterday")

BURANOVO BABUSHKAS (Singing Group): (Singing) (Udmurt spoken)

The Beatles hit "Yesterday" is one of their crowd pleasers. The Babushkas have gotten themselves a producer in Moscow who's booking their gigs. They make a bit of money and they donate most of it to try to rebuild a church in their village that was destroyed during Stalin's time. This year, so far, they've raised $4,000 for that church.

As for what's next:

(Soundbite of music)

BURANOVO BABUSHKAS (Singing Group): (Singing) (Udmurt spoken)

GREENE: If you listen to professional sounding tracks like this one, seems like the Babushkas would be ready for another shot at Eurovision. Mostly though, they're just having fun on the road, and enjoying each other's company.

David Green, NPR News, Moscow.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.