Sasha Ilyukevich: dictatorship blues

Rocking against repression in Belarus.

In the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, change is needed but the voices of dissent against Europe’s last dictator are few. Rob Dumas’s debut documentary, The Nonsense Express, portrays Sasha Ilyukevich as Belarus’s answer to Bob Dylan, although the 32-year-old “folk’n’roll” songwriter now lives in London and rejects the label of protest singer. After writing a string of politically charged songs, however, he found his music banned from radio play in his home country.

“One song [“Son of the Motherland”] was a fable where I compare myself with a street dog, just barking with nobody understanding me,” he explains. “At the end, I say, ‘Well, maybe it’s good to be a milk cow so I can get looked after and milked and be part of that society, where you obey everything they say.’ I then start barking and mooing and it’s a contradiction – I’m questioning myself. Some KGB agents heard the song and forced it off the air. After that, they banned the rest of my songs.”

As a response, he wrote “Kolya”, his most overtly political song to date, performed with his band, the Highly Skilled Migrants. It’s about President Lukashenko’s son, Nikolai, nicknamed Kolya, who, at the age of nine, is already considered the nation’s leader-in-waiting.

“This boy goes everywhere with his father, to all the important meetings and military parades,” says Ilyukevich. “He’s visited the Pope, he’s met Hugo Chávez and once the former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev gave him a gun made of gold, because he collects guns.”

In 2011, a journalist was detained by the Belarusian KGB for being in possession of a banner that read: ‘Where is Kolya’s mum?’ The identity and whereabouts of the boy’s mother is unclear, though she is believed to be the president’s former doctor. “It’s really strange and quite disturbing,” Ilyukevich adds.

Last dance

There’s a disturbing quality, too, to his song and accompanying video. Over a chugging electric rhythm guitar, Kolya’s name is angrily repeated, while animated images show faceless citizens, storm clouds, animals and soldiers. By moving from subtle criticism to outright expressions of dissent, Ilyukevich and his band have received what most emerging acts crave – media attention. Not all of it, however, has been welcome.

“I had an interview on the BBC about [the song],” he says. “It was a Monday and I remember we had about 680 views on Youtube. The next day, we got over 20,000 hits and it was all over the news in Ukraine and in Belarus. The same day, someone tried to hack into my Facebook, Twitter and Youtube accounts and I got quite a few insulting emails and comments. As a musician, you want to be heard but when this kind of song is heard and it’s all over the news, I don’t know if I should go to Belarus for the next few months.”

It's not the first time Ilyukevich has got on the wrong side of the state-controlled Belarusian media. The Nonsense Express follows the band on their tour of Russia and Belarus in 2010. The hard luck tale of poorly attended gigs and broken instruments reaches its climax with the group travelling to Minsk and finally securing a big audience reaction – only it comes in the form of patients of the city’s mental health hospital.

“A friend of mine worked there and invited us to play,” he explains. “They have very basic conditions; they don’t even have mattresses to sleep on – just wooden beds. But when we came, the people were so happy and welcoming, dancing and interacting with us. It was an amazing experience.”

Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. A journalist who witnessed the concert wrote a stinging appraisal, which criticised the group's decision to interact with the patients. Soon afterwards, Ilyukevich's friend was sacked from her job and the studio where the gig had taken place was forced to close down. “These people are left out and the studio was where they would do painting, make dolls and try out different crafts,” laments Ilyukevich. “But they just closed it down. Our gig was the last event there.”

Homeward bound: Sasha Ilyukevich (far left) with his band in Belarus in 2010.
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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.