Building U.S.-Russian Bridges with … Banjos?

Both Russia and the United States have great musical traditions. Now, one of the traditional American instruments — the banjo — has helped strengthen relations between the American and Russian people.

The California-based Deering Banjo Company recently chose Liza Karpacheva, a 15-year-old Russian orphan from Obninsk, Russia (sister city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee), to receive the Brian Friesen Banjo Award. U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle presented Deering’s new Eagle II banjo to Liza at a special November 16, 2010, bluegrass music event at Spaso House, the ambassador’s historic residence in Moscow.

“I am honored to present you with an engraved Eagle II Deering banjo,” Beyrle told the winner. “You are the very first person to receive one of these awards outside of America. You have impressed us all.”

Liza, who speaks no English, had been playing with a borrowed banjo in the Russian bluegrass band Cheerful Diligence. Pete Wernick, known as “Dr. Banjo,” met Liza while on a special goodwill tour in Russia, and he contacted the Deering Banjo Company and Orin Friesen to nominate her for the memorial banjo award named after country radio personality Orin Friesen’s son, Brian, who died in 1994 at age 7 from a brain aneurysm.

Wernick and his wife, Joan, had come to Russia at the invitation of the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg to exchange songs and ideas with the nascent but enthusiastic bluegrass community in Russia. The Wernicks and fiddler and violinist Justin Hoffenberg headlined the first-ever Russian Bluegrass Festival, July 20–21, 2010, in the cities of Vologda and Semenkovo in “deep Russia.”

“Bringing the sound of bluegrass this far [10 time zones] is something I’m sure Bill Monroe would have approved of,” Wernick wrote on his Drbanjo.com website. Monroe, 1911–1996, is often referred to as the father of bluegrass music.

“The hunch of the U.S. Consulate, that this music might connect two distant cultures, turned out to be true,” Wernick said. “Our trip was arranged expressly for the purpose of bridging the gap between Americans and Russians. … I felt a serious responsibility, representing America to such a large number of Russians, and representing bluegrass music as well.”

Why bluegrass and banjos?

“We decided it was time to share other American root musics with our audiences, to show that America contains much more than just jazz and rock ‘n’ roll,” said Eric Johnson, U.S. public affairs officer in St. Petersburg. “Bluegrass seemed like the perfect place to start, as it blends country with the jazz and blues and features America’s native banjo as its primary instrument.”

Johnson added that he had plans for the future: “In 2011, we plan to introduce some of Louisiana’s native music to Russia — both zydeco and Cajun.”

In addition to performances by the Wernicks, two Russian country-bluegrass bands participated in the festival: St. Petersburg’s impressive Fine Street and Obninsk’s crowd-pleasing Cheerful Diligence, whose members range in age from 9 to 15.

Cheerful Diligence and Fine Street also performed at a November 16 event hosted by Ambassador Beyrle. “We have a special treat in store for us today, in that we have two bands that are Russian practitioners of a traditional American folk music genre, bluegrass,” Beyrle told his guests. “They are excellent examples of how our two cultures influence each other and, through their interaction, create something entirely new.”

Earlier in the year, Vladivostok hosted its first bluegrass music band, as Ryan Cavanaugh (banjo), Mike Bub (bass), Scott Simontacchi (mandolin), and Bob Grant (guitar) shared their spirited bluegrass music on the stage of Primorye Regional Philharmonic Hall. In less than 48 hours, these four musicians introduced indigenous American music and culture to more than 2 million citizens of Primorskiy Kray through two concerts and a press conference.

All of these activities were carried out under the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission announced last year by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as a way to improve communication and cooperation between their countries.

To keep the spirit of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission’s first Russian Bluegrass Festival alive, the U.S. Consulate in Leningrad has decided to “adopt” Cheerful Diligence, Russia’s newest country-bluegrass band. The adoption starts with special classes for the young Obninsk sextet in “American English for Russian Bluegrass Musicians.” Can similar classes in Russian for American bluegrass musicians be far behind?

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. )

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Remote Publishing: Daniel Sreebny Staff Writer

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