Odessa Underground (Part II): The Dragons

By our correspondent of Odessa’s nightlife, ExPat Phil E.

You’re pulling the Devil’s beard

Dima Datsov

It started out innocently enough. A light-hearted survey of about a hundred performers, club managers, sound technicians and assorted night crawlers to see whom Odessa may claim as its favourite local band. Having explored the dungeon venues of Odessa’s underground stages, it was time to consider the music itself. Not for artistic merit, though artistry at times peeks through, but rather for sheer entertainment value.

So I contacted a close and knowledgeable friend, Dima Datsov. As a composer, performer and part -time booking agent, his ear is particularly close to the musical ground. He responded: “You know, there is quite a painful competitive climate among musicians in Odessa. Everybody disrespects everyone else deep inside, and in small whispers behind the scenes. So this ‘question’ of yours can give birth to some new beasts.” Before long I started to see exactly what he meant. I shared a few of the more rancorous comments with him. He replied, “See? You’re pulling the Devil’s beard.”

Datsov’s beasts are the dragons of the Odessa Underground. I had selected the metaphor even before the survey and, in doing so, disclosed my own preference for bands that could both breathe fire AND fly. I also understood that dragons had been reborn in pop-culture as symbols of true nobility, legitimate claimants to some mystic monarchy. By posing my question, however, I had entered the dragons’ lair. Once inside, the parallels between the battle of the bands in Odessa and the saga of the Game of Thrones simply exploded. Both epics are rife with rapidly shifting scenarios, bad blood grudges, heroic characters suddenly extinguished, giants, charlatans, incest, treachery, strategies, war councils, betrayals, allegiances, repression and suffering. To name just a few tasty vices. In both sagas, it seemed that each faction (be it a band, a fan or a family) was more than willing to deploy an arsenal of deadly sins in pursuit of an Iron Throne.

Here is the (alphabetical) list of Odessa’s favourite club bands:

  1. Benton’s Boots
  2. Biehu
  3. Birdsy
  4. Calypso Crew
  5. CLC Band
  6. Coyotes Band
  7. Drop the Roof
  8. Evergreens
  9. High Voltage
  10. Jolly’s
  12. LaLa Band
  13. Lightning Jeck and the Slackers
  14. Lil Jew b2b Ruvinov
  15. Lump Sugar
  16. Mercury ‘s Moustache
  17. Mess Around Band
  18. Mestizo Trio
  19. M.Tusso
  20. Orchestra “I”
  21. Pill break
  22. Pokaz Trio
  23. Rum Pum Pum
  24. She Looks Sad
  25. Sho?!
  26. Singing Beards
  27. Sinti-Jazz Manouche

Ambition, for musicians, is defined by not what you leave on the stage but, what you take from it. You see, different bands, and even players within certain bands, define success in vastly different terms. And THIS, my friends, is where all the friction is born.  Many musicians start out with dreams of wealth and fame. Particularly the young, before icy fingers of experience began to jade their hearts. Others seek adulation, if even for a moment.

So, on a deeper level, and for my own selfish purposes, I also tried to capture the moment when the expectations of the audience meets the anxiety and adrenaline of the band. Call it what you will – the buzz, the switch, the thrill. It’s that moment when all the blood sweat and tears leap from the stage and lure the fans to the dancefloor. In this moment, the dragon becomes a seductress. If the band is successful, it can recreate this dynamic more than once. The number of times it can do is the exact duration of their popularity. Then gradually and inevitably, the roles are reversed, and the chemistry begins to fade, this romance between a band and its fans. Like an old married couple, each wants something more, or at least a fresh set of eyes to impress, or heart to capture, who may appreciate even and old trick.

The question I posed prompted a dialogue between two friends who were apparently old timers and long-time observers. Their discussion began by tracing the success of one band, but ended up capturing the essence of the entire Odessa music scene. One wrote: “Now Pokaz Trio is one of the brightest export projects in Ukraine. Their debut album was released one the Norwegian label ‘Löshen Records’ and awarded many enthusiastic reviews from the authoritative jazz media. Their cover group (the house band at Odessa’s Central Bar) is cool too, yes!” His friend responded: “In fact there are a lot of cool young musicians on this list. But they are still forced to live and work within our city, although many deserve so much more.” The first man agreed, and added,“… Some artists go into orbit, but it is unrealistic to fulfil themselves completely in our country. But it doesn’t always work outside of Ukraine either – there’s really tough competition.

Although, I’m really happy (so-and-so) left. In the States, musically, there is space. Even if you’re a simple jazz vocal teacher.” Perhaps its pure physics: kinetic particles colliding with each, building toward an explosion. But a supernova will flash brilliant for a mere second, then fade in an instant.  The result is an exodus. One-by-one, Odessa loses its most talented artists. In desperation, some sign long contracts to perform on international cruise ships.

But, like everything on the commercial lines, the music is a pre-set package of recycled pop – a torturous exile for the truly talented. So where to go – Kyiv? A closed shop even more compromised by commercial schlock. At least in a small market a fresh act can get gigs. So most groups, those without the guts or good fortune to escape, simply stay in Odessa. And here they inevitably fracture, splinter, and regroup with other dissenters. Just to survive, you pinch a clever lick or two from your previous act, plug your second-hand Fender into the nearest amp, and keep performing on local stages. But your dreams of success shine a bit dimmer each time the house lights fade.  

All this may be fascinating to watch, but don’t miss an episode. Blink and you’re abruptly ejected from the “small council,” the inner circle. For example, a male lead vocalist informed me that all three of his funk bands had broken up and should be removed from the list.  A one-time contestant on Ukraine’s Got Talent, he was off to try his luck in Kyiv.

The day after the “Dungeons” article was published, the Odessa Food Market unveiled its interior re-design. Overnight the largest indoor concert stage in Odessa center simply vanished, replaced with (yet another) upscale cocktail bar.  So, what became of the survey? Who IS Odessa’s favourite band? Perdón, Señor Cervantes, but clearly I tilted THAT windmill a bit too hard. Let’s just say that I’ve learned better than to ask toxic questions. So “want’s in it” for a true fan of live music in Odessa? For what it’s worth, in my own humble opinion, Odessa has its own Dulcinea in Julie Kolovertnykh, whose sultry voice and stage mystique outclasses any other local act. She and her tight group Rum Pum Pum are certainly ready to take the next step, and may soon escape the dungeons of Odessa.

But what of the rest of the pride? Vigilant fans may be rewarded somewhat for their dedication with an occasional rush of musical bliss. But if you step back from that moment and consider the whole canvas, and even the fidelis may sense the mounting advent of an apocalypse. Coronavirus, you ask? No, something far more insidious and predatory. A cultural contagion that knows no national boundary and lays waste to the artistic horizons of the human species. As bands battle for Odessa’s Iron Throne, the pestilence grows. Winter is coming, the night walkers have already arrived and are feeding on the casualties of the musical fray. They are relentless and ubiquitous and poised to devour live music. They are the soulless, the undead. It’s the horror show obituary of Odessa music I hope I never write: “The Dawn of the DJs.”

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