For over a year, Zemfira’s name has been everywhere ... on the radio, on billboards, spray-painted on buildings. Her face is emblazoned on the chest of every teenager and twenty-something in Moscow. Her bellowing, beckoning voice floods the radio waves.
This mysterious Russian phenomena has its origins in Ufa, capital of Bashkiria. Ufa, an oil and chemical processing city located some 1,300 kilometers east of Moscow, is perhaps best known to most Russians as the location of civil war hero Vasily Chapayev’s famous battle.
Born to two Ufa doctors, Zemfira Ramazanova’s passion for music began when she was just five years old, first with piano lessons and then singing. Yet her artistic interest competed with a love for basketball—she played for nine years and even captained Russia’s junior women’s team.
In October 1998, Zemfira was plucked from remote Bashkiria and thrust toward pop stardom when Mummy Troll, one of Russia’s biggest acts, together with its record label, chose her demo from among hundreds of others. They were searching for fresh and unique musicians, and they found one in this singing hoopster from Ufa. Zemfira was brought to Moscow to record her first album. Three days before the album’s May 10, 1999 release, Sergey Chernov of the St. Petersburg Times predicted that the young artist would be Russia’s “next big thing.” It may well have been the understatement of the year.
Zemfira seems to be quenching a thirst in Russia’s young generation for their own Vysotsky or Okudzhava – a beautiful, poetic voice to give resonance to their generation’s hopes and concerns. As a modern-day rebel, Zemfira breaks all the current bubble gum boundaries in pop music. She dresses not unlike a Bashkirian horse rider—rarely donning short skirts, she prefers plain blue jeans, simple hair styles and make-up.
More importantly, Zemfira’s lyrics do not have the usual popsa fluff. If she sings about love, it borders on drama and self-sacrifice, like in her song “Khochesh?” (“Do you want...?”). She asks her beloved: “Do you want oranges or a view of the Alps from your window? ... Or would you rather I killed the neighbors because they disturb your sleep?” She also sings about issues; instead of coating her voice with cotton candy, she broaches subjects like drug abuse and AIDS and shocks you into listening to what she has to say, be it through irony, sarcasm or just plain kourazh — the Russian equivalent of chutzpah.
So it is that you can hardly switch on the radio these days without hearing her latest hit, “Do svidaniya” (Good-bye). The music begins with a single guitar strumming simple, rhythmic chords that evoke the calmness of the ocean before dawn. Softly, Zemfira begins to croon and instantly you notice her raw, clean sound. Her deep voice coats your ears like liquid warmth. Then, when you actually listen to what she is saying, she carries her poetry with clarity. The build up of emotion to the refrain doesn’t really take you by surprise, but the force of her voice is remarkable. She doesn’t scream or yell, but makes you sit up and take notice of the force in her voice:
Good-bye, my beloved city
I almost made it to your chronicles
Expectations are the most boring
We need so little for the two of us.
These lyrics are powerful, yet hardly autobiographical. Zemfira has already gone down in the annals of Russian rock-n-roll history. And certainly not by accident. Legend has it that, before she “made it big,” Zemfira went to several record companies, telling each that they would regret not recording her music, because she was their future.
If there is even a kernel of truth to this legend, surely many music executives are wishing they could have seen the future as clearly as this persistent artist from Baskiria.
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