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    You ain't seen nothin' nyet

    From the Russian emigre community springs the mighty Yoke, a rock band combining the broodingly poetic music of its homeland with New York influences from Latin percussion to Jamaican rap.


    Yoke is not just your run-of-the-mill guitar-smashing, Russian-speaking, Hendrix-quoting, surrealist-poetry-spouting bar band. No, the years in New York have left their mark on these Russian-born rockers, which means that during any given show you might see the band joined by a small horn section, an opera singer, a Latin percussionist, and a Trinidadian rapper. Toto, I don't think we're in Moscow anymore.

    Ilias Muratov (vocals, guitar)
    Ilan Frid (guitar, bass)
    Ruslan Khain (bass)
    Ernest Brown (percussion)
    Oleg Butman (drums)
    Sharkman (vocals)
    Eugene Varva (accordion)
    Vera Second von Banchette (trombone)
    Gregory Rivkin (trumpet)
    Michael Siropin (tenor saxophone)
    Anna Fidelia (opera singer)
    Katie Mawer (harp).

    Related links: Official site
    Fire (live)   RA  RV
    I'm Not Always Happy   RA  MP3
    Outrun   RA  MP3
    Understand (live)   RA  RV
    © 1998 Yoke. Used by permission.
    Bandleader Ilias Muratov says that's what Russian culture is all about — mixing influences — since the world's largest country has absorbed the influences of ethnic groups from Gyspies in the east to Eskimos in the west, and every kind of ethnic music can be heard on television. A decade in New York has just expanded his horizons.

    Muratov — a painter first and musician second, actually — — grew up in Penza, Russia, and came to New York in 1991 for a group exhibition and never left. Playing his own folk songs, he gradually was joined by guitarist Ilan Frid and then other like-minded musicians until they had a real rock band. Yoke has been playing for about five years, one of what Muratov says are dozens of Russian bands in New York playing underground gigs and club dates for hundreds of fans a night among the burgeoning Russian community.

    What you hear on the band's folk-flavored CD and see in its live show will be a little different. The songs on the CD are intense, guttural ruminations, like "I'm Never Always Happy" (hear it on RealAudio or MP3). If you're a westerner, the brooding growl may remind you of Leonard Cohen or Serge Gainsbourg, but it makes Russians think of communist-era dissident singer Vladimir Vissotsky, Muratov's musical idol. The grimly fatalistic lyrics (a Russian specialty, don't you think?) translate to something like:

    I'm never always happy
    Plums in the box turning rotten
    There is a pink worm in an apple
    Regret I've wasted my time
    In the heat of empty polemics
    My vocal chords were strained in vain

    You kind of have to understand the original Russian to get the full flavor, Muratov insists.

    "It's kind of metaphorical. There's no straight story — it's all about associations, what you're going through. A lot of Russian people who are living here, they can relate to it," he says. "It's hard for me to explain from Russian because it's like a labyrinth. You're going through the words and the answer is always something different."

    On stage, the band is transformed into a quintessential hard-edged, avant-garde rock outfit. Frid tosses off staccato guitar rhythms and the paired percussionists spin out intricate beats while Muratov sings ominously and roams the stage with a sense of showmanship that's part Tin Pan Alley and part Pete Townshend.

    The recent addition of a rapper from Jamaica named Sharkman has added a strangely appropriate counterpoint, ratcheting up the intensity of the smolderingly mysterious music. The band's recording engineer hooked the two up and showed them how the combination could work by playing the band's recording and letting Sharkman rap percussively over it.

    "I was surprised," Muratov remembers. "Each time he put it on and he started singing, everybody was shocked because it's completely different but it fits really well."

    For an example, check out "Understand" (see it on RealVideo or hear it on RealAudio). For the linguistically challenged, the cryptic lyrics go something like:

    I understand you
    But you also have to understand me
    If not shortwave then an ultraviolet beam.
    Who's going to open the door for you?
    Who's going to make coffee for you?
    Who's going to talk to you and understand?
    Look how the birds are shitting on the ground.
    Look at the sunset and the fallen airplane.

    After 10 years away, lyrics like these are not exactly related to the feelings of living in Russia anymore — they're personal statements about his experience as an immigrant, an artist and a human being in the city.

    "Each song is about something different. One is about a hangover. One is about your girlfriend left you but you try to keep on going," he says.

    "It's more connected to New York, because I am here and I write what I see. Except I write in Russian."

    FEBRUARY 22, 2002

    Reader comments on Yoke:

  • YOKE at CBGB's Feb. 22nd   from alex, Feb 25, 2002
  • Love Yoke and Sharkman   from David, Mar 3, 2002
  • Pure Talent   from Marina, Mar 4, 2002
  • Speechless   from Alina, Apr 26, 2002
  • boss   from popa, May 1, 2002
  • Cool stuff   from Igor, May 2, 2002
  • Ilias - you are the best, I love you!   from Roman, Jul 19, 2002
  • We love you man!   from Beso, Sonia, Roma., Jul 19, 2002
  • you make my body groove!   from star jewel smith, Oct 17, 2002
  • Talent--less   from KoolTide, Oct 4, 2004

  • Post a comment on "Yoke"