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From L.A. to Luhansk in a minor key

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Oct. 5, 2011, 4:51 p.m. | None — by James Marson

David Brown, Brazzaville's singer/songwriter
© buryatia.rgo.ru

When American singer and songwriter David Brown started receiving emails from Artemy Troitsky in 2000, he thought he was communicating with a Russian college student. It took some excited Russian fans at a concert in the U.S. to tell the Los Angeles-born musician that Troitsky is, in fact, one of Russia’s most prominent music critics. He had bought a CD of Brown’s band Brazzaville in London and started playing it on the radio; eventually, he organized for the group to play in Moscow.

Eleven years later, Brown and his band have played concerts in cities across Russia and Ukraine, from Luhansk to Vladivostok, created an English version of the classic Russian song “Star Called Sun” and taken up the 1980s Soviet tradition of playing kvartirniki, or micro-concerts in people’s apartments.

Brazzaville is an unusual band in that it enjoys more popularity in Russia and Ukraine than in its home country.

Brazzaville is an unusual band in that it enjoys more popularity in Russia and Ukraine than in its home country. On its website, the group is described as “a big family with members stretching from L.A. to Barcelona to Siberia. The exact make up of the group changes from show to show.”

Brazzaville is currently in Kyiv, preparing to play at the Crystal Hall on Oct. 6. Brown will then travel with the band by train to Zaporizhzhya and Luhansk for two further appearances, before heading to Russia.

“There is a sense of adventure in Ukraine that you don’t get so much in Europe,” he said in an interview on Oct. 4, reclining on a sofa in the offices of MTV Ukraine after recording a set.

Brown, 44, played saxophone with American musician Beck from 1997 to 2000. At the same time he formed Brazzaville, releasing three albums. In 2003, he moved to Barcelona, where he now lives with his wife and two children. The time in Europe has yielded one solo disc and six Brazzaville albums, including East L.A. Breeze and 21st Century Girl.

Brown travels widely, especially in Russia, Ukraine and Turkey and his songs, perhaps best described as a kind of indie pop, often tell stories from his travels – the things he experiences and the people he meets.

Brown travels widely, especially in Russia, Ukraine and Turkey and his songs, perhaps best described as a kind of indie pop, often tell stories from his travels – the things he experiences and the people he meets. From this part of the world come songs such as “Girl from Vladivostok,” “Hotel Ukraina” and “Night Train to Moscow.”

Asked what Brazzaville’s new album, Jetlag Poetry, is about, he replied: “What’s going on in hotels and airports.”

Brown has also covered legendary Russian band Kino’s “Star Called Sun,” tweaking the lyrics to create a song about the death of his mother.

“I read the lyrics in translation and couldn’t find a way to do them in English,” he said. “Anyway, it would have been disingenuous as it was about specific time in Russia in the 1980s. You have to believe in what you’re singing.”

Brown has roots in Ukraine: His grandfather was a Jew from Galicia in the west of the country. It was “by chance” that he started coming here, but he does perceive a link. “Genetically, I love minor keys. They have always appealed to me, just like for Jews and Ukrainians in that area,” he said.

Brown speaks a little Russian and said he enjoys travelling in second-class kupe train compartments. He also picked up here the idea of holding kvartirniki, small performances in apartments with audiences of 20-40 people. The band even took the format to the U.S., performing 25 kvartirniki.

“It’s better in Russia than in America, as there are usually no loudspeakers,” he said.

This format lends an intimacy to Brazzaville’s music that is inherent in the lyrics and mood, which often describe a sense of loneliness and longing, of beauty tinged with melancholy. “Sometimes it’s good to hear that other people are going through similar things to you,” Brown said. “People have a need to feel less alone.”

This is central to the appeal of Brazzaville’s music across different countries and cultures. Playing a show in front of stiff corporate types in Moscow recently, Brown said he realized that “these are just people, with the same fears, wants and cares as anyone else.”

Brazzaville performs at 9 p.m. on Oct. 6 at Crystal Hall. Dneprovsky Spusk 1. www.crystalhall.com.ua

Kyiv Post editor James Marson can be reached at marson@kyivpost.com
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