Interview with Irina Dubrovskaja (Ersatz Musika)
by Francisco Martínez (EHI, Tallinn Univ)
Fronted by the achingly melancholic voice of the conceptual artist Irina Dubrovskaja, the band Ersatz Musika is a great example of the cultural contribution of Russian emigrées to Berlin.The six members of the band immigrated to Germany at the beginning of the nineties and have been enriching the Russian diaspora with various musical projects ever since. Ersatz Musika combine gypsy folk with blues and cabaret to produce an uncanny sound, full of Russian irony, existentialism, absurdism, mistery… and somewhat with a wry heart.
From picking up wild mushrooms, to seeing that the water begins to drop from the ceiling or finding reasons to getting drunk, every song tells a story and exposes between the lines a tortured and surreal vision of modernity. Their debut ‘Voice Letter’ (2007), took its name from the flexidiscs that Soviet people would mail across the Empire as musical postcards. The album’s tracks were sung in Russian and the sound was exquisite and thick.
With ‘Songs Unrecantable’ (2009), their second album, the band translated the Russian beat into a chunky English (“If you’ve got a watch, means you’ve the time”). In few months they will present their third album; we hope it will be as unique, warm and human as the previous two.
FM – In one of the reviews of ‘Songs unrecantable’, it was written: “Dubrovskaja sounds like a Russian accented Marlene Dietrich”. Is that the way you want to sound?
ID- I don’t have a high opinion of my own voice at all. The comparison is, of course flattering, but I don’t have any particular ambition or models. I’m glad if people are pleased. If not, what can I say? It’s simply my voice.
FM – How is it going with the new album?
ID- It’s almost complete. This time things moved very slowly; countless musicians took part and I felt that circumstances conspired against me; but I’m growing used to that. I shall probably call it “Blue Deck” since it’s sad. I’m surprised myself that, given my happy character, how such sad songs come about.
FM – Was the reception of your previous albums very differently in Western Europe and in Russia?
ID – My albums were well received in the west, which surprised me very much, and ignored in Russia, which did not surprised me at all.
FM – If I’m right, you came to Berlin escaping from the collapse of the Soviet Union and not because of being a ‘Spätaussiedler’ (ethnic German coming from Eastern Europe)… Is Ersatzmusika still a Russian band? Is there something that distinguishes a Russian band besides the geographic origin?
ID – It isn’t quite that simple. I arrived in Berlin as a visual artist, invited by an art agency to take part in the painting of the Berlin Wall –my work is still there–, and this wasn’t my first time “abroad”. After the exhibition I went back to Moscow proclaiming “I’ll never return to Berlin”. Fate had other ideas. By 1992 I’d gone back again for another exhibition, and now I’ve been in Berlin for almost twenty years.
The majority of the musicians I recorded or performed with were from Russia, from the former USSR, to be more precise. The material didn’t require explanation for them. It didn’t matter if the bassist had played metal or the guitarist punk rock. Each of them knew subconsciously what the subject was. In that sense we are of course a Russian group.
Otherwise, we are “Rootless Cosmopolitans”, as the first single of my new album says. Eventually, if my material finds an audience and brings out a desire to participate it makes me happy. That’s why my second album was made with a co-author and English translator Thomas Cooper.
FM – How were your early years in Berlin?
ID – I managed to combine in this fantastic city my painting with making ends meet. I worked as a truck driver, played rock as a keyboardist, participated in a number of exhibitions. I liked being in Berlin as if I were living in the railroad station. I can talk about this city endlessly. Being so emotional about Berlin I have recently wrote a few essays under the title “Berliner Beastiarium”. Emigration is always hard but it is not always a failure. All this time I have been coming back to Russia quite frequently. I used to live there a few months at that time, always thinking of coming back to Russia for good. However, not seeing any possibility there to survive as an artist I did not want to belittle myself.
FM – But Berlin has also changed a lot…
ID – Of course I was lucky. I was in Berlin in her most interesting period, immediately following the unification of Germany. The abyss between East and West was still visible. Old half empty buildings with traces of bullets on run down walls, smell of coal, inexpensive rent and a possibility to have a studio. Purely euphoric life! House communes… many concerts of totally unknown bands, as well as somewhat famous groups performing everywhere in Europe and having Berlin as their base. I saw live everyone who I was interested to see such as Lou Reed, John Cale, Pere Ubu…
FM – You participated in the East Side Gallery, in the original project and the re-make. What’s your view of the tension between preserving the rest of the wall and giving it up according to economic criteria?
ID – The remaining of the Berlin wall is a historic monument. Certainly, I won’t oppose if the municipal government decides to preserve the site, but the obvious commercial orientation, selling souvenirs etc, has converted this place into a ‘Disneyland’.
I don’t consider the art-work on the Berlin wall a masterpiece worthy to remain there forever. I re-made for 3 months as a remark for the anniversary of the falling of the wall, a very joyful moment. As far as I know, that part of the wall had to be destroyed. But it remained… and successfully still brings income to some people. If it is torn down, I won’t begin to cry.
FM – Wladimir Kaminer and the Russendisko were for many years the most known exponent of the Russian diaspora in Berlin –were you in contact? What do you think about that cultural phenomenon?
ID – Yes, I know Wladimir since 1995. We were neighbours. Something similar to Russendisko… I saw it in New York City in 1989, in the Russian restaurants, on Brighton-Beach… Accompanied by unimaginable Odessa pops a bunch of colourful people of Russian Diaspora dance there and born and raised Americans come to see this as a tourist attraction, while the bravest souls attempt to participate in the orgy. This looks quite exotic and makes it clear that Russians know how to have fun as if there is no tomorrow. I believe, this concept was sold in Berlin quite well and to everyone’s satisfaction.
FM – Folkloric anti-folk, gypsy-cabaret, psycho-folk… it’s not easy to categorize your music…
ID – I do not really care what to name it all but any of your suggested names works. I came out of ersatz-environment, grew up and matured when an empire fell apart and from little bits and pieces I assemble my palette with love.
FM – And which are your referents whilst composing?
ID – I love folk songs, although not professionally performed, urban folklore; I cry when I hear war time songs and for myself I occasionally sing the gulag songs. This is not some finicky aesthete in me. I do not have any ironic feeling about this. I just see and feel what’s behind it. Often folk songs have an author but no one remembers his/her name, yet a song keeps living – this is the highest honour. If a song does not have a truth in it would drown in a stream of time.
I am also influenced by my feeling that I am a small link connecting different times, and I desire to use art as a way to connect what I have experienced myself with what was before me. It is more applicable to my lyrics rather than music. My melodies are too simple and every musician contributes something to them. But the lyrics are mine and I am responsible for them.
FM – Was music overshadowing your work as a conceptualist artist in any moment?
ID – It has been going in such a parallel way that I learned to gain something out of it. If I don’t come up with a song I grab a brush. Then the visible helps the invisible. There are many examples of painters that compose music so I am not an exception.
FM – What do you think about art engaging in political matters, as the case of Pussy Riot?
ID – Russia is ruled by man-eaters and vampires. The girls were brave enough to make this desperate attempt to publicly request help from the higher authority. I am in awe with their bravery. I could probably not been able to do the same. But I also could not call it art. My criteria are perhaps different.
FM – Is there something you miss particularly from Russia?
ID – I am quite nostalgic. I do not simply miss Russia. It pains my soul and it is incurable even when I stay there.
* A shorter version of this interview was previously published in Spanish in Russia Hoy.