Celts carol through Russia





By Peter Henderson 

"We want to open the Celtic world for Russians," ambitiously declares Mikhail Gladkov, a fairie-thin Russian with long hair and specs who speaks a little Gaelic, is host of the ever-popular "Celtic Time" radio programme on Rakurs radio, and recently founded the Russian Celtic Society. 

Most people ask 'Why?' 

And the answer, from all over Russia, is: Celts are hip. 

On a recent Monday night in the smoky Mexican bar La Cantina, folk group Western Gate's rendition of an exuberant and mystical thousand-year old Gaelic tune fit in right well with their version of "Jail House Rock." 

Already, six professional groups croon their way through the Moscow bar circuit on a wave of Gaelic hymns on mandolin and electrified banjo. Russian versions of moody incomprehensible Irish classics, such as James Joyce's Ulysses, have been snatched up by a Russian public not satiated by their own moody dramas. 

"Celtic is the original country music," urges Gladkov, who was turned on to elves and four-leaf clovers by one of the founders of Russian rock, Akvarium leader Boris Grebenschikov

Akvarium used to play Celtic tunes during rehearsals, and Grebenschikov passed around tapes of the original music, Gladkov says. 

Now he passes tapes and Celtic histories off to southern Krasnodar, for instance, where a group of Russian Gael-o-files is in desperate need of an Irish Fix. "They heard about the Russian Celtic society and they wanted help. They have already read all their J.R.R. Tolkien," Gladkov says. No one is quite sure where Celts came from, and no one is quite sure why Russians are interested in Celts, either. 

Celts today live in Ireland and parts of Scotland, Wales and French Brittany. They are descendants of a hardy people, including the Gaulles, who terrorised Caesar's Rome and took over the British Isles before apparently even hardier Anglo-Saxons pushed them to the fringes of the islands. 

Celtic lore, spun by druid priests, included all sorts of fairies and elves and other creatures who ended up in Tolkien, and now are sung about on Moscow stages. 

Certainly something has clicked between the two, since the 400-odd Irish in Moscow are catered to by about six Irish bars as well as a handful of supermarkets. 

Earthy Irish traditions point to a worldwide trend towards musical roots that all countries share, Yaroslav Agafonikov, the mandolin player for Western Gate said during their gig at La Cantina. 

Agafonikov explained his group's future. "We're going to be famous. That's because we are unplugged," he said, referring to MTV's popular acoustic concert series. "People need that unplugged sound to relax. They are tired of unrelenting electric music. Unplugged has a huge resonance." 

So bring on the pipes, the mandolin, and a bass guitar for good measure. 

The group is even planning a tour to Ireland to show off, which Clare said could be a big hit. After all, there are more Irish in America than in Ireland, so why can't Russians be more Celtish than Celts? 

In the end, Gladkov says, Russians may learn more about themselves. "You learn more about your own culture through studying another's. For instance, a Georgian highland tune sounds a lot like a Celtic jig." 

So maybe that's where the Celts came from. 

Celtic bands will play in the St. Patrick's Day Parade at 2 p.m. on Mar. 17 at Novy Arbat. AM, Rakurs radio. 



(The Moscow Tribune 51 (841), March 16, 1996)