Russia’s Got Funk

Russina Funk

Contrary to what your instincts might tell you, funk – the soulful, syncopated, groove-led genre first given life by African-American musicians in the 1960s – had a presence on Soviet land long before the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

One of the earliest examples came, rather unexpectedly, in the form of the soundtrack for 1974 family movie Dorogoy Malchik [or Dear Boy, in English]. The film, which featured a groovy tune called “Zhizn Eto Gonki” [“Life’s a Race”], told the story of a kidnapping-gone-wrong that allowed an unlikely friendship to blossom between Russian and American teenagers. Not only did the director Aleksandr Stefanovich basically introduce the music video format to Russia (making the musical scenes in his films look like standalone pieces), movie composer David Tuhkmanov also created a series of songs that were a little too punchy and cool for what was ostensibly a kids’ flick.

Just a couple of years later, the Soviet Union received its first funk-fusing collective – the Moldovan band Orizont, who formed in 1976 as an all-singing, all-dancing 16-piece. Orizont mixed funk with blues, disco and pop, and were often dubbed “the Soviet Earth, Wind & Fire”. The collective lasted for almost 20 years (they split in 1994) and were run by the late composer Oleg Milstein, who was equal parts inspiration and discipline: Orizont ex-members still recall how they were banned from having guests in their rooms, a policy they dubbed “sex control”. Maybe it was for the best, as the artists were forced to channel all of their mojo into the gigs.

Funk wouldn’t be funk without confidence and a sense of playfulness. One contemporary artist who oozes both of these things in impressive amounts is Anton Belyaev, the frontman of Therr Maitz. They formed back in 2004 but their big break arrived in 2013, when Belyaev came second on the Russian version of The Voice and used his fame to promote the hell out of his band.

Therr Maitz’s sonic palette is wild to say the least: they manage to funnel elements of pop, disco, funk, trip-hop, acid-jazz, house and other genres into the mix, while Belyaev frequently gives lectures on how to stop patterns and rules dominating studio sessions, aiming to create music that is more instinctive. They are a force to be reckoned with: in their short time in the spotlight they’ve toured extensively, scored several TV shows and won a bunch of accolades, including the gong for “Best Russian Act” at the 2016 MTV Europe Music Awards.

Another artist who’s found a considerable degree of success is the Russian-born, Ukraine-based singer Ivan Dorn. After leaving the duo Para Normalnyh in 2011 he launched a successful solo career, creating some of the finest and catchiest Russian pop tunes of recent years, including “Styzaman” and “Bigudi”. His pop stint didn’t last long: on second LP Randorn, Dorn decided to basically hit the “random” button and try every genre under the sun, from funk to hip-hop. He even shot a trailer for the record that paid homage to Jamiroquai, Freddie Mercury, Lenny Kravitz and other artists who influenced his work.

Dorn’s showmanship works best in the live environment, where he can be seen busting signature dance moves and creating funkier versions of his biggest hits. Earlier this year he released his debut live album Jazzy Funky Dorn, before unveiling his new – and perhaps most daring – project OTD [Open The Dorn], recorded in LA and launched with the five-minute-long ode to prostitutes, “Collaba”. The music video featured another nod to Queen’s frontman, with Dorn appearing in a leopard-printed mini-skirt and purple wig. Just like Mercury, Dorn clearly wants to break free from any label the press might care to put on him and with his latest longplayer – recorded for the first time in English – he’s succeeding with flying colours.

Last but not least are Easy M, a nu-disco/funk collective from Moscow who frequently perform at the bigger music festivals and venues across the country. While a lot of contemporary indie bands opt for Russian lyrics and introspective gloom, Easy M sing in English and radiate sunny vibes; several members moved to Vietnam recently but continue supplying the band with energetic songs from overseas. Supported by the London-based label NANG, the band recently released the new EP Dreamers and plan to drop a full album later this year.