Maria Sonevytsky on the process of discovery for her 33 1/3 Books entry on musical artifact Tantsi
Vopli Vidopliassova's Tantsi gets first-ever official release for Record Store Day.
The annual Record Store Day event is a celebration of shops that supply our vinyl addiction, wherein labels release limited-edition titles which are only available in places like Records with Merritt or Gotwhatulike. While there are some big names every year, with this Saturday, April 22, featuring releases from The 1975 and Pearl Jam, it’s the obscurities getting rescued from oblivion which make the pseudo-holiday worth getting up at the crack of dawn and standing in line all worth it.
One such release for the 2023 Record Store Day is the 1989 semi-official album from Ukrainian band Vopli Vidopliassova (VV), entitled Tantsi.
Only ever released on dubbed cassettes, the album’s original session tapes were rediscovered, cleaned up, and now, nearly 35 years after it was recorded, VV’s album gets its first-ever official release, limited to 2000 copies, thanks to ORG Music.
To celebrate this landmark reissue, publisher Bloomsbury accelerated the e-book release of translator and curator Maria Sonevytsky’s upcoming 33 1/3 Europe book on Tantsi to coincide with the Record Store Day release of the record. We hopped on Zoom to discuss the book, her work on Tantsi‘s ORG Music release, and the importance of this music.
The Pitch: You start off by mentioning the fact that you thought was going to be a fun project. The amount of material that you’ve gathered for this book boggles the mind. What was it like for you as it turned from a fun project into this book, and a record on top of it?
Maria Sonevytsky: Yeah, well, you know, it was a fun project. It still was. But it definitely took on a life of its own. It also was so delayed by at first by the pandemic. I completed almost all of the interviewing before the full scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, but you know, after that I had follow-up questions and I, myself, was in just such a state.
I still am just so devastated that it felt pretty meaningless to be writing a short little book about Ukrainian punk rock in the 1980s, but I think it was May, one of my main interlocutors FaceTimed me from his place in France. He was a refugee from the war in France and he was like, “How’s the book?” and I said, “I haven’t like picked it up. I haven’t written a word. February 24.”
He kind of–just through the FaceTime–shook me by the shoulders and was like, “This is what you need to do. You’re battling on the intellectual front, right? Showing people that we existed and that we exist today.” It gave me permission to finish the book. Writing is never for me totally a fun thing, but I will say that the process of discovery in this project was really, really fun and really thrilling, in the nerdiest way. I hope that comes through in the text at least a little bit.
It really does, because the book captures both your sense of personal discovery of VV when you were younger and how it opened your eyes to the difference between here and there and how people here interpret or explain over there.It also sort of opened the reader’s eyes to Ukraine through you as an interpreter.
Oh, good. I’m glad. I do think it’s so important these days to remember that Ukrainians aren’t only victims or not only soldiers or people defending their homeland, but are just as complex as we are and were making very weird music in the 1980s as many of us were. I do hope that it humanizes people who are currently being dehumanized through this brutal war.
There’s so much information that you as an author have to lay down for even the nerdiest of record collectors and music fans because it’s a whole new world most folks are exploring with this book. One has to imagine that discovering this music for you was equally mind-expanding, as you discovered that they were doing stuff over there like we were doing here, or they were doing in Britain. It shows that the Ukraine or the USSR at that time wasn’t as walled off as people like to think.
And also that the Soviet citizens weren’t some weird robots that didn’t have any agency or personality. I think we can see that these young people–who, to me, were so familiar from my own teenage experience growing up here. I was like, “I know these guys,” except I didn’t know them. Obviously, I was a different generation and I wasn’t there, but the ways that they were using humor–I mean, obviously the context is important: the reasons they were using humor in that way, but the whole approach to being a human just felt in a way that was so intimately familiar to me. It felt like a huge discovery for me the first time I heard that record.
When I was approached by this series to pitch a book about Ukrainian music, I really agonized ’cause it felt like, “Okay, there’s gonna be one book about Ukrainian music in the series. There’s so much amazing Ukrainian music.” I kept thinking about this partly ’cause it’s so important for me, but also ’cause it has this incredible story attached to this moment, right? The last years of the Soviet Union when they didn’t know it was the last years.
Now we treat it like it was inevitable but at the time, these kids did not expect that the Soviet Union was about to fall apart and hey didn’t really think of themselves as actively trying to get it to fall apart, either. They weren’t doing some bold activism. They really didn’t consider themselves to be dissidents or anything like that. They were making the system work for them, finding ways around the barriers, sneaking around the censorship regime, really creatively thwarting the system, but without trying to necessarily burn it all down. All of that just really fascinated me.
Every record collector is familiar with the idea of roentgenizdat, the x-ray bootlegs that thrived, but this makes such a point about how cassette culture seems omnipresent throughout the world of underground music, regardless of where it exists. You’re not just telling the story of a band, but you’re telling the story of the whole scene in which they exist. These folks held onto things, and it just seems like such a boon for you as a researcher.
Well, I was definitely lucky. I was definitely lucky. I don’t think I would’ve tried to do the project if a few of the people who I reached out to early on didn’t. Not everybody would talk to me. That’s important, too. There are some people who refused to be interviewed or refused to participate in any way, but a couple of key figures really were willing to talk and reveal things to me, which is not always the case.
The very first meeting I had with Sashko Pipa, the bass player–who I have come to just adore this person, he’s such a wonderful guy–he was like, “My girlfriend doesn’t know why I’m meeting with this American.” He was suspicious of me, which is often the case, and then I explained what I was trying to do.
It helped that it was part of a series that exists already. Eventually, he trusted me to the point that he actually let me take the master tape across the ocean so that it could be so that they could bake it and see if it was salvageable. And it miraculously was. There’s always a lot of serendipity and luck in research–always, in my experience–but there was a lot in this project for sure.
I also just really quickly wanted to say that the point you made about cassette culture is so important. For the vinyl collectors, the story about how Soviet citizens figured out that they could press vinyl onto old x-rays is so compelling and it is an amazing thing. It shows you the lengths to which people would go to try to hear this music that they weren’t officially supposed to be hearing.
But the introduction of cassette technology and how it made dubbing and sharing music just so much easier is such a huge part of this story. The tape that they made in 1989 just spreads like wildfire through these communities of non-conformists because they have access to tape-dubbing technology in a way that like, vinyl pressing was not ever at the same scale.
There’s a story that’s important here about formats and the ways that they make things accessible. It’s been pointed out to me repeatedly a few times how ironic it is that now the ORG Music release is coming out on vinyl which it was not originally how this was ever meant to be heard, but it’ll also be in digital formats and I do think that the vinyl gives us that, those pleasures also of listening, which maybe weren’t originally available to those people.
You can order Maria Sonevytsky’s 33 1/3 Europe book on Tantsi here. The e-book is available now, with physical copies available in June. Check with your local record store to see if they have Vopli Vidopliassova’s album, with a list of participating RSD shops available here.