Valentina Ponomareva

Valentina is celebrating her 30th anniversary on the jazz scene. If you think about her jamming at the 14th Tallinn Jazz Festival in the presence Jan Johansson, Charles Lloyd and Zbignew Namyslowski, it’s a great achievement. The Russian Far East singer was not included on the bill. She was not featured on the official program and she was not included in the double album that includes the Tallinn Festival live recordings. Her recording debut was delayed for over 20 years because she came alone. 1967 marked the end of the anti-stalinist thaw within the USSR. One year later Soviet tanks attacked the capital of Czekoslovak, but Estonians were first to feel the effects of the cold war’s next wave. With the independence of Estonia in 1990, the Tallinn Festival was reborn. Ponomareva was able to make it to Tallinn, thanks to Anatoly Kroll’s invitation. Kroll had the best big band in the Soviet Union at that time, and she lived in Tula. This legendary band featured the best musicians and was the USSR’s national combined team. “One played with Kroll” was the best sign of quality, the same as “the practical course for classical musicians with Karoyan”. Ponomareva was forced to imitate Ella Fitzgerald, the only jazz singer that could draw a large Russian audience in the 60s. She did her best with Kroll, traveled a lot and made professional contacts. In Moscow, Ponomareva was the first and last year of “Pechora”, a jazz club located in the trendy New Arbat district. She sang again three-four numbers at the local jam-session. However, everyone present can still recall an electric circuit she did while she was performing “Watermelon man”. She looked darker because she was wearing a white snow-white dress, and her dark hair was Gypsy. The question immediately posed was, “Is this mysterious young lady of black origin?” One Soviet scholar of African culture, who was also of African descent, even offered a type of scientific theory. It stated that some nomadic gypsies who were heading to Europe had found their way to Africa. Jazz was hard times, Ponomareva, an idealistic jazz musician, received no serious offers and finally found herself at Romen Theatre – Europe’s only Gypsy enterprise. Ponomareva and two men were allowed to perform their own routine at the theatre – a Russian Gypsy “lied” and a song that was slightly modified in the folk style of “Peter, Paul and Mary”. Ponomareva had to imitate Joan Baez or Mary Travers this time, without any respect for Janis Joplin. The Romen trio records rose to the top of the Soviet pop charts. No TV program had more success than the Romen three over the past ten years. The Trio received many offers from foreign “entrepreneurs” to perform in every country in Europe as well as in New York’s Metropolitan-opera. Ponomareva, who was disguised as a Russian folk singer, went solo and succeeded quite well. She was invited to sing on the soundtrack of “The Cruel Romance”, a Soviet blockbuster – the Best National Motion Picture of the Year (1984). Melodia records company sold more than two million records with her singing on this soundtrack. Soon she was number one in the Russian traditional genre of ‘romance’. When her concert is announced, the Russians always fill every capacity. This is only one of her stories. The other begins at the start of the 1980s. Jazz was not a term used at that time. Only commercially purified jazz became part of Soviet culture establishment. The Official Cultural Monopolists sent a jazz-rock or piano-bar trio to avant-garde festivals who requested the Russian avant-gardists. This is the Ganelin trio featuring Vladimir Chekasin on the saxophones. Efim Barban, a Leningrad critic (he and this writer were instrumental in turning the singer into 20th-century new music), put Ponomareva in contact with Chekasin, who was performing the late pianist and conceptual artist Sergey Kuryokhin. In May 1980, they were the first to perform at the Abakan festival deep in the Urals. The audience was unable to react when they finished their performance. There was almost no applause. Valentina recalls that this was her first pain. “I realized I am stepping into an abyss. Nobody knows the end. But I have been falling into it …”.,” she said. You can also find postmodernist theatrics heavily featured by Kuryokhin and Chekasin. Theatrics were her strong suit not only due to the Romance theatre affiliation, but also because Ponomareva was a graduate of a drama college in the early 1960s. The Yaroslavl jazz festival (1981), Ponomareva’s voice is a hallmark of Soviet avant-garde music. She also performs with Ganelin trio, AACM-style based but syphonically constructed long pieces and Anatoly Vapirov on the saxophone. Ponomareva used her own abilities to imitate whatever one wants, which was a huge advantage for the Soviet music scene at that time. She was a bridge between prerecorded and live music, pure and instrumental theatre, musical tones, and noises. She meets Boris Grebenshchikov, a Leningrad underground musician and his “Aquarium”, through Chekasin. They share all the difficulties of being “underground” within the world of Orwell’s “1984”. Valentina was at the center of two famous projects of Sergey Kuryokhin in 1984, appropriately named Popular Mechanics. Pop mechanics was the pinnacle Soviet postmodernism’s semi-underground stage. They provided the legalized Gorbachev’s perestroika artistic scenes with the ideas for the next 10 years. The Russian post-modern music scene is still far behind the West-European range of styles and genres, despite the dissolution of the Ganelin three in 1986 and Kuryokhin’s death ten years later. We would not have the opportunity to see the future without Ponomareva, the voice of the 80s. This was most likely impossible. The first Russian avant-garde jazz album, appropriately named “The Fortune Teller”, was already released by British company Leo Records. Ponomareva was one of the most promising newcomers to the free music scene in 1985. Ponomareva has been mentioned in the free music scene since the mid-80s, alongside Jay Clayton, Shelly Hersch and last but certainly not least Diamanda Galas. People who don’t care enough do not realize that Valentina started her career when the others mentioned were not born. Valentina, a Russian Gypsy singer, had to search for information, records, and sheet music that her Western counterparts took as a given. Ponomareva did not have direct teachers nor indirect ancestors. Luciano Berio’s and Cathy Berberian’s “schizophrenic Visage’ were among the few truly original music works that the Russian singer was able to hear at the right time. Ponomareva met Denosiv, Schnittke and Gubaidulina while working on movie soundtracks. Communists allowed way-out music to be used in movies, since it was the main item of the Soviet income budget. Avant-gardists were also permitted, especially when it came to soundtracks for animated films by Andrei Chrzanowski. Cinema work was not only a steady source of decent wages but also a chance to learn from the best musicians. As harrowing as they may seem to ideologists, Chrzanowski’s cartoons as well as Gubaidulina’s music were for Ponomareva both the Sound and Fury of contemporary art as well as the legal way for them to experiment with (and with!) music as an art form. The American Renaissance of film music was coming. No Russian artist had any idea at that time. John Zorn, a young avant-garde jazz player, was looking into Walt Disnery soundtracks. It’s no accident that the 1989 Russian crew meeting (Ponomareva Kuryokhin Chekasin and Tarasov), featured John Zorn and Bill Laswell. They also worked with a Japanese musician. On the Leo Records in London CD “Live in Japan”, she sings with Zorn. Let’s take a look back to 1987. Everyone was shocked when Vapirov’s album, “The Spirit of Ogdnu”, (a legendary Siberian healer), appeared. A gypsy singer received the spirit as if it were from Siberia. Only a few people realized that Ponomareva is from Khabarovsk, a deep middle of Asia. The 80s ended with a fruitful record: “Intrusion” was the second album by Ponomareva as a leader, recorded live in Khabarovsk Jazz Festival. “Pop mechanics #17”, “Pilgrims” were recorded with the Arkhangelsk folk-avant-garde. Even the Soviet “Melodia” Company, which was almost bankrupt, rushed to make two Ponomareva solo albums: “Temptation” (with Sergey Kuryokhin) and “Terra Incognita” (with the Arkhangelsk earthy Russian folk-avant-garde). Melodia was already lacking the spirit to promote them both. The best Ponomareva recordings can be found on Leo Records Collections Document New Music From Russia and Conspiracy. This is the sound record of the Soviet avantgarde jazz festival in Zurich (Switzerland), 1989. British radical improvisers Tim Hodgkinson, Ken Hyder shamanism researchers and Valentina began in London their new project, The GOOSE. They work in the field free improvised music and have continued to study the authentic shaman practice. They performed at many European Jazz Festivals as well as in Russia. It may seem strange or natural, but Sainkho Namchylak, Russia’s only direct descendant of Ponomareva, is not of the European part. He is from the Tuva, south Siberia. Both singers used the same name for their collaborations in the West: Tunguska – guska by Sainkho, a play by an international feminist troupe, and the Goose (Guska, Russian for She-Goose or Duck), by Ponomareva (plus Tim Hodgkinson, Ken Hyder and Ken Hyder). This coincidence is not to be ignored. It could be a sign of conformity to an unwritten law of (creative?) nature. Namchylak doesn’t need Jazz traditional improvisational skills and the classical training. She also does not have to fight the demons of Soviet society. Sainkho, who was star-status at the time, preferred to remain in the West and is now a resident of Vienna. Ponomareva’s destiny is still drawn homewards. This is the original, longest, and only line. from

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