Vedan Kolod’s Birds

cover, BirdsThe Russian folk music ensemble Vedan Kolod has created a triumphant album in the midst of personal and national upheaval. Birds, their tenth album since forming in 2005, is a master work of world music combining traditional Siberian folk songs and new songs in the traditional style, played on an array of acoustic instruments.

The band was formed in Krasnojarsk, Siberia’s third largest city, but the members have spent many years in Moscow. Over the course of several albums they mainly recorded and performed very traditional medieval Russian music and Siberian shamanic music before moving into experimental world music. For most of its existence Vedan Kolod has been: singer and percussionist Tatiana Naryshkina, multi-instrumentalist and singer Valery Naryshkin, and vocalist and drummer Daryana Antipova. In early 2023 Daryana, with her husband and young son left Russia for the U.S. Her role in Birds was limited to assistance with production and publicity, and some of her percussion duties are now done by Valery and Tatiana’s pre-teen daughter Alisa Naryshkina.

(Disclosure: both Daryana and Tatiana began contributing reviews of Eastern European world music to Green Man Review in late 2024.)

Daryana in late March posted on Facebook that Vedan Kolod has now been listed by the government as “not recommended to work with.” She learned from a contact in a Siberian cultural institution, “that Vedan Kolod is banned from performing because we look not ‘orthodox enough’ and were ‘too active’ in the media recently promoting” the new album Birds, which was released by a German label.

Sometime after 2005’s Gorodische (which was re-released in 2014 by CPL-Music) they began incorporating more instruments into their performances including resurrected traditional Siberian instruments like wooden flutes, a Jew’s harp called the vargan, a zither known as gusli, and most recently a homemade reproduction of an ancient Scythian bowed harp, as well as popular world music instruments like bouzouki and kalimba (thumb piano).

The sounds produced by these instruments plus Valery and Tatiana’s vocals make for a riveting experience. You don’t need to know Russian to be moved by these songs, although the CD’s accompanying booklet provides translations (I believe by Daryana although she’s not credited). Many of the harmonies set up between instruments and singers can sound quite dissonant to “western” ears, and Tatiana in particular with her high-pitched vocals is easy to compare to the flatted style of Appalachian singing.

True to the album’s title, all of these songs are “about” birds, with the exception of “Aviatrix” about a human pilot. The lyrics tend to be highly symbolic and metaphoric, often to the point that the references are hard to grasp even with the translated lyrics. The opening and closing songs both come with particularly high emotional overtones. The first, “Peahen,” is a traditional song that touches on folk rites involving feathers, cradles and wreaths, backed by woozy droning from Valery’s bowed Scythian harp and Tatiana’s plucked bouzouki. The last song “Wanderer And Vulture” was written by Valery and features a call and response duet between the two singers following a spoken introduction about a wandering traveler. The lyrics offer a veiled message about death coming from the skies: “A Black Vulture is in the clouds / turning his eye and flying in circles / Singing a song of lies/ ‘Come on, come on, come on / Give up your life!” Valery sings the final verse in Siberian throat style as Tatiana repeats the chorus in high harmony

The somber title track, another one by Valery, sung by both in harmony, also seems to speak symbolically but fairly clearly about current events in Russia and Ukraine. A flock of birds is flying over an active battlefield, watching armies moving toward each other with “different emblems on their shields … there are no emblems in heaven.” In another verse they sing “Birds look down at people / they see battles of different colors / They don’t see great ideas, they only see dead people.” “Aviatrix,” which I previously mentioned, is another Valery original, and he sings lead on this chilling ballad about a pilot who may or may not have been shot down. It’s couched in symbolic language about a battle between a flying serpent and a falcon, played on bouzouki and with droning low notes on the Scythian harp.

Some of these songs will have a familiar sound to longtime folk music fans. The quiet ballad “Cuckoo” is more haunting than hair-raising, with layers of acoustic sounds from bouzouki, thumb piano, Jew’s harp and flutes; just listening to the instrumental parts you could imaging you’re hearing early Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span. Likewise “Raven,” which has a kind of a bluesy Americana vibe with bouzouki chording and Morricone-esque whistling, ocarina trills, and even some slide bouzouki. The melody of “Swallow” has a bit of a “Sally Go Round The Roses” vibe as sung by Tatiana, but that bowed harp gives it an otherworldly sound. Likewise “Flock Of Ducks,” which is my immediate favorite for the deep, droning bowed harp.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the cover art by Marusya Katkova. It’s one of the best covers of the year in any genre, in my opinion.

It’s understandable that some cultural gatekeepers might find Vedan Kolod’s latest outing threatening. Birds uses traditional instruments, melodies and motifs in some very experimental and modern ways. And their lyrics, though couched in metaphor, reflect the disquieting mood of today’s world. Even if I wasn’t slightly acquainted with some of the musicians, I would heartily recommend Birds as world music of a very high order, worthy of wide exposure.

You’ll find promotional videos for “The Raven” and “The Traveler And The Vulture” on Vedan Kolod’s Facebook page. I’ll embed a selection from the album as soon as it’s posted on Bandcamp.

(CPL-Music, 2024)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

More Posts