Only Becoming: Ulyap Songs Re-Imagined By Minami Deutsch, Zongamin & More

The latest mix of archival and re-interpreted musics from the Flee Project, Ulyap Songs: Beyond Circassian Tradition, captures the music of the Northern Caucasus without isolating it from the convivial atmosphere it stems from

“We must reject the conventional fiction of ‘unchanging human nature’. There is in fact no permanence anywhere. There is only becoming.” Those spoke the poet Alexander Trocchi in his 1964 sigma manifesto, ‘The Invisible Insurrection’. His text could be readily applied to some of the music heard on Ulyap Songs: Beyond Circassian Tradition, the latest double album from the young FLEE label. Trocchi was someone who often tested the limits of societal conformity, and one of the main strengths of this joyous, sometimes elusive release is the sense of devil-may-care autonomy heard in the on-location recordings. Despite these being the sort of artefacts you’d expect the dead hand of the curator to be all over, their core independence wins out.

Ulyap Songs… is the result of a multi-headed research project based around the village of Ulyap, a tiny settlement in Adygea, located in the Northern Caucasus in Russia. Adyghe culture seems to be a wellspring of some remarkable music, which we hear, courtesy of archive and on-location recordings. As with their other releases, FLEE looks to contemporary artists to add their own interpretations, widening the optics on the subject matter at hand. This means another record’s worth of new tracks from, (deep breath): Minami Deutsch, Valentina Goncharova, Jrpjej and Ben Wheeler, Zongamin, Emmanuelle Parrenin and Colin Johnco, Misha Sultan and Simone Aubert, and G.A.M.S and Vatannar. 

A lavish and thoughtful 288-page ‘art book’ with texts in English and Russian accompanies the discs. In it, we get essays and discussion points from those best placed to comment; here, Ored Recordings’ live-wire compiler, Bulat Khalilov, the curator and artist Nikita Rasskazov, Paris-based researcher and documentary maker Lina Tsrimova, and anthropologist Madina Pashtova. Together they present a careful and thought-provoking analysis of Adyghe culture’s roving music form and its hydra-like history.  Their texts are often at pains to avoid any form of mythologising or claims of authenticity. For their part, the FLEE organisation offers up an equitable statement about understanding one’s own past, from the Marxist poet and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Once you’ve digested the texts, you will probably be left feeling this music is – due to its earthy and mercurial nature – fairly resistant to any form of appropriation, whether by criminals, politicians or academics. It’s still played in cafes and social gatherings and seemingly updated by those who play it, when needed.

Before anyone thinks this begins to sound too worthy or solemn to even consider hooking up to your loudspeakers, I have to say that, for sheer listening pleasure, this record will be a hard one to beat in this gloomy January of 2024. Its power lies in the unbridled human enjoyment heard in the playing of the local and original found recordings, and the imaginative reinterpretations – dare we say ‘becomings’ – from the likes of Valentina Goncharova, Jrpjej, and Ben Wheeler. 

The local stuff first. The driving elements on all these numbers are the relentless percussive “splashes” from the pkhatsych rattle and the crackle and wheeze of the garmon, a type of button accordion common in the region. The tracks ‘My Beloved One’ and ‘I Miss You’, belted out by the Women from Cherkessk, are fabulous. Spitfire recordings of real soul and warmth, their music is interspersed with laughter and the clink of drinks glasses. When the fellas take over they sound more circumspect and crafty, though their recordings possess a sense of real elan and a fair bit of cheek. I think one track, ‘I Swear I Won’t Drink’, mentions Reagan, and Gorbachev’s reforms amongst a lot of background laughter. A number of dances and themes are repeated, in a gradual way that Trocchi would doubtless approve of. One is the lilting ‘Aminat’, which has a wistful quality, though I have no idea what it’s about – it could be gun running. This track gets two local outings, one by the lads, and a more circumspect soliloquy by male singer Damir Guagov. 

Then we deal with the reinterpretations. The greatest contrast to note with what has gone before is the sudden presence of the recording studio. You can hear it in the sampled sounds, the compression of atmosphere whilst creating other atmospheres, and the lack of other people, apart from the artists themselves. This should not be seen as a “lesser” thing, rather the change provides a new focus. Unsurprisingly, all tracks pick up on the Adyghe culture to some degree, even if sometimes in spirit. ‘Siii Babe’, by Misha Sultan is a polished instrumental possessing a silky sense of calm, while Emmanuelle Parrenin and Colin Johnco’s effort, ‘Au dela du vent’, is pleasingly psychedelic. Simone Aubert looks to discombobulate us with fragments of sound on ‘Ease’, whereas ‘Evergrowing Tree’ by Valentina Goncharova, is a remarkable drone document that puts us in a trance.

There are some knockout numbers to watch out for – one, by Minami Deutsch, places the song ‘Animat’ in a decompression chamber. G.A.M.S and Vatannar make a spine chilling dirge from the same track, a piece of music that has more than something of the underworld about it. Jrpjej and Ben Wheeler whisk up an imposing contrast between a beautifully sung melody and acoustic-electronic bedlam with ‘Si Animat’. Finally, on ‘My Darling’, Zongamin harnesses the energy of the Women from Cherkessk in a beautifully wobbly dub.

The fact that we get to hear the original recordings and their newly minted cousins at all is due to that ‘state of constant becoming’ we deal with on a daily basis, the internet itself, which can still act as a valuable repository for forgotten, or obscure cultural phenomena. This is true of the recordings from Ulyap, which were anonymously loaded onto the net and left to sit and quietly eat up server space. Thankfully the valuations of such artefacts is driven less by a desire to appropriate than blind enthusiasm. The redoubtable Bulat Khalilov, an engaging and committed man, notes that “originally, our interest in it had nothing to do with research. It appealed to us on an emotional level. […] Ulyap was a recording of a loud party that did not conform to the rules of ethnographic documentation.’ Hence this record. Hence the discussions around hybrids, and what can be considered ‘authentic’,  hence the reinterpretations. When does such a state of becoming – from lost file to new recordings and new audiences – start to change the things that originally inspired the process? And does it really matter?

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