Denver Band DeVotchKa Channels Russian Chanson The Denver-based band DeVotchKa makes music that's been described as indie-gypsy-rock. Now it's delving into Russian chanson music — songs that originated in pre-revolutionary, anti-establishment Russia.
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Denver Band DeVotchKa Channels Russian Chanson

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Denver Band DeVotchKa Channels Russian Chanson

Denver Band DeVotchKa Channels Russian Chanson

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Back now with DAY TO DAY and a musical history lesson.

Mr. ALEXI STEELE (Russian Artist): Today we're here to look in the heart of a people who lived on the shadow of Stalin.

COHEN: That's Russian artist Alexi Steele introducing a concert last night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall here in Los Angeles.

Mr. STEELE: Imagine exquisite people and time that were swept away by the drama of tragic history. Ladies and gentlemen, Timur Bekbosunov and DeVotchKa.

Mr. TIMUR BEKBOSUNOV (Singer): (Singing in Russian)

COHEN: The concert was part of a two month-long multimedia series called "The Shadow of Stalin." Last night's show focused on a genre of Russian music born in the time of Stalin and known as chanson.

Ms. JOANNA REESE(ph) (Program Manager, Walt Disney Hall): To me, I likened it, actually, the chanson movement, to punk rock.

COHEN: Joanna Reese is the program manager for special concerts at Walt Disney Hall. She explains chanson is a music of social protest. Modern-day chanson speaks to the difficulties of post-Soviet life, but the style started off with songs of life in the gulags and forced labor camps.

Ms. REESE: The common thread through the movement that still continues in the music today is emotion. The thing that held the Russian people together and gave them power and a belief in a God was music. Certainly the message changed with the times, and it went from sort of an optimistic time in Russia to a very dark time to sort of a more commercialized version of where we are today with the chanson movement.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: The music heard last night at Disney Hall was a bit of a hybrid. The songs were old-school chanson, but they were given a contemporary twist by young performers, including the band DeVotchKa.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NICK URATA (DeVotchKa): (Singing in Russian)

COHEN: DeVotchKa is a quartet from Denver. Their modern brand of gypsy music was recently featured in the film "Little Miss Sunshine." Their name comes from the Russian-tinged slang in the book "A Clockwork Orange," where devotchka means naughty young girl. Nick Urata is the band's front man, and as we sat down backstage before the show began, Nick seemed somewhat tense.

Mr. URATA: I'm a little bit nervous because, I mean, obviously we're used to playing dives and coffee shops and we're playing Disney Hall tonight...

COHEN: Which is no dive.

Mr. URATA: Yeah. It's no dive and I have to open the entire program by myself, singing in Russian. A song that I - I'm not that familiar with. I mean the language...

COHEN: Okay, but we're going to make lemonade out of lemons here.

Mr. URATA: Yes.

COHEN: We're going to give you a chance to practice and warm up. Tell me a little bit about what you're going to be singing.

Mr. URATA: That's right. This is by Cozen(ph). It's called "Autumn." It's basically a yearning love song. And do you want me to try a couple of lines?

COHEN: I'd love it.

Mr. URATA: Okay. (Singing in Russian)

COHEN: That was great.

Mr. URATA: Hopefully there's no one who speaks Russian listening to it right now.

COHEN: I don't, so you're fine by me. What does that mean in English?

Mr. URATA: It means autumn transparent morning, foggy skies, horizon in pearly tones, sun is cold and too early when our first meeting took place. So it's kind of setting the scene for this love lost, yearning love song.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. URATA: (Singing in Russian)

COHEN: Of course, once he was on stage and backed by a band, Nick betrayed little of his anxiety. He sounded as if chanson was something that coursed in his veins.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. URATA: (Singing in Russian)

COHEN: Do you have any Russian ancestor yourself?

Mr. URATA: No, I don't.

COHEN: Do you mind if I ask what your background is?

Mr. URATA: I am - my family's Italian, Sicilian to be more specific.

COHEN: I kind of always picture you growing up as a child in some like wonderful gypsy tent camp. You know, where the kids are running around barefoot and everyone's got a scarf around their head. Where did you actually grow up?

Mr. URATA: Yeah, let's go with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URATA: Yeah, that's kind of how I fantasized about my childhood. But I grew up in New York, outside of the city a little bit. And I did get exposed to some of that as a young kid, not gypsies, but accordion music and immigrants that would drink and dance and hold hands in a circle. And it just kind of stuck with me ever since I was a kid and I always kind of pined a way for those lost, lost days and I tried to reinvent it with my band.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. URATA: (Singing in Russian)

COHEN: I take it that you've never spent any time in anything like, you know, an early 20th-century Russian prison. I would hope, right?

Mr. URATA: No, I haven't had the pleasure.

COHEN: Oh, glad to hear that. So how do you channel that...

Mr. URATA: Well, that's the thing. I don't have to. I've always kind of had a romantic take on music so they kind of gave us the romantic part, and so we really don't have to deal with the anger stuff. But I mean there's a little bit of fire in our music that I think is a little revolutionary, counterculture.

COHEN: Most of the people fitting in Disney Hall last night hadn't done any time at a Soviet labor camp either, but that doesn't mean the music isn't just as important today for American listeners, says DeVotchKa front man Nick Urata.

Mr. URATA: It's kind of relevant for today. I mean I think there's a lot of unrest here in our own country and people feel powerless and don't want to speak out, and here's a form of song that does that. I don't - you don't really hear that too much anymore. It a kind of - it's not really in vogue to sing a protest song.

COHEN: Last night was the first of a series of shows DeVotchKa will be playing across the country this summer. Nick Urata says they'll be performing more of their standard DeVotchKa fare, but the band has been so moved by the music they've been playing this week, they may break out into a chanson tune every now and then.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. URATA: (Singing in Russian)

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