Thursday, April 4, 2013

Кино, or You Ought to be Ashamed if You Haven't Heard of These Guys

You know what's been missing from my life lately? Music!

Music is a universal passion. It's a drug for your brain- it can make you feel invincible, make you laugh, make you cry, make you furious. It's at weddings and funerals, piped into elevators, played around campfires, found in prisons and playgrounds. We all share the common thread of music and I miss listening to it. All I listen to these days are the yowls of the cat demanding more food in his bowl.

So this is me, committing to listen more (to music, not to the greedy cat) and, of course, to share it with you!

This awesome song represents my mood today. As far as drugs go, it's a downer, a barbiturate. If you can't understand the lyrics, it sounds like a song for the end of the world. No hope, nothing left. If you can understand the lyrics, well, probably the same

As my friend played this song in his car the other week, we drove through slushy streets of the city.  Past mothers and children still bundled in winter jackets, fidgeting on the curb. Alongside ancient yellow-and-red city trams, the paint flaking off their sides in thick crusts. This song was the perfect backdrop to the scenes around us. My friend pointed out a building in the distance. The building looked new and habitable save for a construction crane still parked off the side. "A guy I know bought an apartment in that building", said my friend over the music. "He's got a family, you know, and decided it was time to move them all out of the grandparents' home. Paid the money, got all ready to move, and then the government said no one could live there after all. Everything just stopped."

"What?" I replied, "what about the money and everything?"

"It's just the way it is", he answered. Вот так, like the song goes.

Okay, I admit I didn't just pick a totally random song (even though I have been listening to it on repeat today!). This song is done by one of the hands-down most famous Russian (or USSR?) rock bands of all time- Kино (Kino). Even though their music ended with the death of their lead singer in 1990, Кино is still everywhere: on the radio, in karaoke clubs, in graffiti scrawled on walls. If you are interested in Russian-anything (culture, language, women, history), learn something about the band; I guarantee you it'll come in handy or at least get you some bonus points somewhere.

On a side note, there's a lot of publicity in the western press about skin-heads and white supremacy in the former Soviet Union, but I want to point out that historically people of mixed roots have been accepted and praised. Victor Tsoi, the lead singer of Кино, was partially Korean. Read Wikipedia's Корё сарам for more on this. And Pushkin, that great god of Russian poetry, had African ancestry (supposedly Ethiopian). So if you ever hear a skinhead reciting Pushkin or singing Кино... well, that's kind of ironic, isn't it.

Кино, by the way, takes me back to my earliest days of learning Russian, back when I hunted down a book at the college library at age 19 and poured over its pages like it was from Mars. Look at those strange letters!, I thought to myself, wow!!! From all that study and amazement I only learned one thing: Что это?, or "What is this?" But that one thing was more than enough simply because of the letters ч and э. Being able to recognize just those two Cyrillic letters felt like an amazing feat. I'd sit in my poetry class and write что это что это что это что это что это что это about a million times and get all proud :p

About that same time, I used Audiogalaxy to download music. (Does anyone else remember those glorious old days, before the label "internet pirate" came along?) Using Audiogalaxy meant that playlists were a smorgasbord of whatever other users uploaded: corrupted Sesame Street songs about getting high next to arias, Chopin followed by Star Wars gangsta rap, seriously whatever! And in whatever language, which is how I happened to find this song-

My first Russian song that I didn't even know was Russian!
A Pack of Cigarettes (Пачка сигарет) is still one of everyone's favorite songs. In fact, if you type the first 3 letters (пач) into Google's search box, the first result is Пачка сигарет (A Pack of Cigarettes). The third is Пачка сигарет текст (A Pack of Cigarettes lyrics). The fourth is Пачка сигарет аккорды (A Pack of Cigarette chords).

Back when I first heard this song, again, the only thing I knew was the phrase что это? that I'd copied approximately four billion times during classes. As I listened to the song I thought I could hear the word "cigarette" (turns out it is pronounced the same in Russian!) but I had no clue if the song was in Russian or Polish or Serbian or absolute gibberish. I just dubbed it "The Cigarette Song".

The Cigarette Song traveled on my hard drive for several years. It took that long to get from что это? to figuring out it was indeed a Russian song. I must have learned this sometime before arriving to Siberia, because A Pack of Cigarettes became our most popular parlour trick. Foreigners were rare enough in Yaktusk, and foreigners who could do karaoke to the Кино song? Let me tell you, my friend and I won the crowds over with that one! And the vodka would flow and the better we'd pronounce the lyrics :p

Speaking of the lyrics, am I the only one who thinks that all Кино songs are practically a soundtrack for depression? Don't misunderstand me, please- I really really like their music, but the melodies are slow, Tsoi's voice sounds sorrowful, and the lyrics agree with both previous points. Uh, excuse me- D says I'm wrong. "A Pack of Cigarettes is uplifting!" he just informed me, "it's about hope!" But really, I wish I could have gone to one of their rock concerts just to see how thousands of fans stood and acted when singing this-
I sit and look at a foreign sky out of a foreign window

I cannot find any familiar stars  
I walked all the roads- back and forth
Turned back and couldn't retrace my steps...
But if there's a pack of cigarettes in a pocket, everything is okay.

It's practically a new genre: sad rock.

So if it's a gray day and you can't find any familiar stars in the sky, listen to some Кино. You might not feel any happier afterwards*, but at least you'll know that someone else has felt the same way. Isn't that what music is all about?

*barring the appearance of a pack of smokes in your pocket

Цой жив!


  1. Those are the sad songs indeed but he has a lot of upbeat songs too. Like this one :)

    1. The beat reminds me of the Ramones. It definitely has a happier and more energetic vibe!

  2. Oh, one more thing that you must do when you are writing about Tsoi. You must finish with the following words:

    Цой жив!
    (Tsoi is alive!)

  3. Thank you again for an education I would miss entirely in my little world. It does sound depressing but melodious.

    1. Itinerant yak, glad you enjoyed : ) Have you fallen for any bands or singers from this part of the world?

  4. Но если есть в кармане пачкааа...сигарет
    Значит все не так уж плохо на сегодняшний день.

    Согласен с мнением что в этой песне есть надежда. Человек пережил трудности, понимает что всё позади, закуривает и поёт!

    Не перестаёшь удивлять.

  5. Кстати, фрагменты из фильма "Игла". Он простой по смыслу и языку. Думаю, тебе бы он понравился!

    1. Да, очень хочу посмотреть этот фильм! Скоро...

  6. Он про любовь. Разве может девушке не понравится фильм про любовь?!!! :)

  7. Kukushka is my favourite Tsoi-song, he was legendary. Both Bi2 and Zemfira has made covers of that song.

    Nice blog btw, you are a good writer! I've been to Ukraine a couple of times too, love it, my heaven on earth.

    1. Hi Molibar, and thanks for dropping by! : ) I've heard the Zemfira cover... on my way to check out the Bi2 cover on YouTube now. Cool tip!