This song was written in 1861, and nobody in the Western hemisphere had heard it until the late 1980s. Now just about everyone has.
I’m not going to tell you where you’ll recognize it from. Just go into it with an open mind, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on musically. Take the instrumentation, for starters, each piece of which owes its existence to the Russian countryside. There’s the contrabass balalaika (members of the balalaika family are identifiable by their trademark triangular bodies), which serves basically the same function that a double bass or bass guitar does in the music a lot of us are used to hearing. Then there’s the garmoshka – played here by the lead singer – a button accordian (no less a wind instrument than a tuba or saxophone, but mouth-free) which plays a rhythmic and melodic role similar to that of the keyboard in rock. There’s the balalaika, which is similar in tone and function to the mandolin or ukelele. And the tambourine and backup singer in the funny hat are self-explanatory.
It’s also worth paying attention to a few narrative devices (if you will) used here to drive a song which is, in terms of structure, pretty repetitive. For example, note their use of dynamics (in volume and velocity), beginning with the introduction into the first verse. The song, which starts with a pretty brisk tempo, slows way down to start the first verse, giving the melody some upward motion and a dash of unpredictability.
Most interesting to me, though, is how the group trades solos throughout the song – a system which provides enough variation to keep the audience entertained, and lets a given musician have a little fun by stealing the spotlight for 10 or 20 seconds. Note in particular the contrabass balalaika solo that comes in at 1:47 – it sounds remarkably like the kind of walking bass line that’s traditionally been so integral to the jazz sound.
And isn’t this one of the great things about popular music? My urban American lifestyle may have very little in common with its rural Russian counterpart, but peel back a few layers and I start to see my own roots – folk, blues, jazz – cropping up in faraway places.