In early May, Sergei “Seppa” Zobnev will turn 35. And when all the members of his folk band Myllarit (“The Millers”) gather round to hoist a toast in his honor, they will surely praise his multiple roles as band director, backup vocalist, public relations manager and organizer.
But all of those things take a back seat to his skill as a musician. More specifically, Sergei Zobnev is a world class accordionist and one of Russia’s most talented folk musicians.
The son of railway workers, Sergei entered music school at his father’s urging, first in the town of Tikhvin, then, upon graduating from secondary school, in his native Petrozavodsk, in the Karelian Republic.
His musical education was interrupted by military service. But luckily, when he was drafted, the recruiters took into account his musical skill and he was placed in a folk singing and dancing group attached to the Russian Rocket Forces.
In his third year at the Petrozavodsk Music School, Zobnev met Alexander Bykadorov, who recruited him to Kantele, the Karelian State ensemble. Both played in the ensemble for a time, but soon hatched the idea of forming their own folk group. Myllarit was born.
“It began nine years ago,” Zobnev recalls, “when folk music was not as popular in Russia as it is today.” But Zobnev and Bykadorov were tenacious. The cash-strapped young musicians followed the tried and true path of itinerant street musicians, touring Europe by minivan and playing their original arrangements of Karelian and Russian folk music in the streets. The experience developed their performance skills and forced them to write music. And it paid the bills.
But what was truly unique is that Zobnev, Bykadorov and Myllarit assimilated into their arrangements popular world music styles – at times their ballads can sound like Celtic folk tunes, but of course there is still something quite different in them.
In 1997, the group recorded its first CD, Eta Pravda, on the Warner label. And there have been two independently recorded albums since then, In the Light of the White Night (1999) and the just-released A Voi Voi! Karelian Fever! Their exhuberant and colorful music is gaining praises from around the globe. The Scotsman rightly called their style “a majestic, multi-colored wall of sound.”
After nearly a decade of hard work, Zobnev and Myllarit have come into their own and are popular both at home and abroad. “Karelia represents a rich mixture of so many different cultures,” Zobnev said. “Our rather severe climatic conditions help to hone this musical style. It is the music of the Russian pomors [White Sea coast natives] and Finnish and Karelian songs. It all mixes together and provides food for Myllarit. The air of Karelia and it’s geographic position are propitious for the creation of folk music, the organization of festivals and the launching of a new folk project.”
Not surprisingly, therefore, Zobnev has organized a world music festival in Karelia, “Folk Marathon,” making his hometown of Petrozavodsk a focal point for Russian folk music. And, indeed, for world folk musicians: in 2001, internationally renowned Banjo Dan and the Midnight Plowboys will travel to Russia for the festival.
But none of this means Zobnev is resting on his laurels. He is always on the lookout for innovative new twists to the group’s sound, adding new (and old) instruments and new young musicians to pump life into the group. Which gives hope that the group’s current national and international popularity is but an early stage of their artistic development.
Whatever the future will hold, music and Myllarit will be a guiding passion in Zobnev’s life. As his wife Viktoria (pictured above with Sergei at Karelia’s Kizhi island) is quick to point out, what with the concerts, festivals, rehearsals and traveling, she and Sergei – and their 15 month-old son Daniil – live a rather hectic, exhilarating life. Viktoria, a producer with a private TV company, proudly notes that Sergei, despite his crazy schedule, never shuns housework and can be a great cook. “He is a fairy tale of a husband,” she says. “When he is home by my side, that is.”
Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567