Russia Gets the Blues: Music, Culture, and Community in Unsettled Times

By Habeck, Joachim Otto | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Russia Gets the Blues: Music, Culture, and Community in Unsettled Times


Habeck, Joachim Otto, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


URBAN, MICHAEL WITH ANDREI EVDOKIMOV. Russia gets the blues: music, culture, and community in unsettled times. xviii, 179 pp., fig., illus., bibliogr. London, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 2004. [pounds sterling]25.95 (cloth), [pounds sterling]10.50 (paper)

One need not be a blues fan to find this book inspiring. US anthropologist Michael Urban and his collaborator, Russian blues expert Andrei Evdokimov, have jointly committed themselves to a thorough exploration of the blues scene in Russia. The resulting book is comprehensive without being tedious, it employs multiple conceptual approaches without indulging in intellectual frills, and its style is distinct yet accessible.

The first of the book's seven chapters contains an explanation of the 'attraction of the music' (p. 9) and an outline of Urban's ideas on the transmission and reception of music as a cultural form. Four aspects are sketched out here: (i) the creation of cultural distinction through the maintenance of English in the lyrics and through other stylistic means; (ii) status inversion, expressed in the permutation of 'low culture' into 'high culture', i.e. in the introduction of a historically marginal and subversive style of Afro-American music into the Russian intellectual sphere; (iii) the existence of a network of individuals who are willing to take on and promote the music's cultural import; and (iv) cultural imperialism, which is hardly applicable in the case under study, as 'blues produced in Russia can hardly be considered commercial music' (p. 22). Chapters 2 to 5 describe the development of blues bands and venues across time--from the 1980s to the 2000s--and space (Moscow, St Petersburg, and the provinces). Bands are identified as the elementary social units and 'core mode of organization' (p. 116). Venues and other means of performance constitute the key resources that blues musicians require and, at times, compete for. In chapters 6 and 7, Urban aptly draws conclusions on 'identity and community' and the 'politics' at work within the blues scene. The main argument of the book consists in the finding that 'the community's overarching norm, authenticity (p. 116, my emphasis), is constantly disputed among blues musicians as it serves as the main component constituting the boundary between inclusion and exclusion of bands in/from the blues community. Even if bluesmen would like to make a living from their music, they confront a paradox: the very commercialization that could make their music profitable would, at the same time, render it 'inauthentic'. …

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