Flying Balalaika Brothers
Gig Seeker Pro

Flying Balalaika Brothers

Austin, Texas, United States | SELF

Austin, Texas, United States | SELF
Band World Acoustic




"Russian revolution"

Russian revolution
A transplanted musician mixes sounds from home with good old Americana
By Joel Weickgenant
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

'I always wanted to do music with kind of no borders, like (mixing) music from Ukraine and Russia with American music,' former Red Elvises guitarist Zhenya Kolykhanov says.

He had been banging pots and pans in his parents' kitchen to some musical effect since he was 10. The time had come to make a move up the musical ladder, but the axes at music stores in his native Vologda, a city some 250 miles north of Moscow, were out of his financial reach.

He would have to build one.

"I went to an electronics store, and I bought a pickup," he says. "I glued the neck from an acoustic guitar to a body I made myself." He added four strings — which, amazingly, stayed in tune — and started plugging himself into stereos and turntables. By age 17, he had joined forces with a bassist to play at high schools and dances throughout the Vologda region.

So began a career in musical innovation.

Bring in zee noise

Zhenya "Rock" Kolykhanov is best known as former guitarist for the Los Angeles-based Red Elvises, a Russian surf rock outfit that started as a street act in Santa Monica in the mid-'90s. Leader of the bands Zeegrass and the Flying Balalaika Brothers, Kolykhanov is at the forefront of a group of musicians with Russian roots who aim to add a new layer to the Austin music scene.

"I always wanted to do music with kind of no borders, like (mixing) music from Ukraine with hippie music," Kolykhanov says. Part of his reason for moving to Texas was the reaction he received from crowds in Austin and Kerrville when touring with the Red Elvises and other groups. A successful gig in Los Angeles was exciting enough, but nothing like playing in Central Texas, he says. "This is different. You can get a really good vibe going here."

Kolykhanov also saw the Austin scene as a laboratory for musical experimentation. Always profoundly influenced by American bluegrass, Kolykhanov noticed Austin audiences responded when he fused the genre with traditional Russian forms — in particular when he played the balalaika, a triangular, three-stringed instrument with a history that reaches back centuries.

When Kolykhanov arrived in Austin last year, he didn't have a band or a lot of connections. He toured under the name Zeerok with different musicians after leaving the Red Elvises and spent some time in Las Vegas before coming to Austin to test the waters. He picked up some solo gigs and began to assemble his Zeegrass lineup.

Zeegrass is an experiment in cross-cultural modern music, a "Russian jam band" that regularly features guest musicians on banjo, vocals, or whatever else they might bring. Kolykhanov and bass balalaikaist Alex Kouznetsov are the core members.

The Flying Balalaika Brothers, a trio that includes Kouznetsov and conservatory-trained balalaika player Sergey Vashchenko, play traditional Russian folk music and cross over to bluegrass.

"We are adding that Gypsy flavor, which is based on the harmonic minor scale," Kolykhanov says. "This music is very ancient. And it has a festival feel."

Zeegrass and the Flying Balalaika Brothers were showcased at the first Russian Night on Threadgill's South Austin stage in April, an idea born when David Whitney, Threadgill's director of operations, saw Kolykhanov perform and approached him about doing a show.

"I kind of wanted to see how big the Russian culture was in town," Whitney says. "I knew there were a few, but (the show) exceeded my expectations." The crowd filled the Threadgill's beer garden, and the show was good enough that Whitney and Kolykhanov expect to repeat it — maybe as soon as August.

Kolykhanov recruited a variety of Russian acts for the show, including singer-songwriters Elena Hill and Ana Dubina, and the group Repa, who entertained the crowd with a robust set of high-energy Russian rock and blues.

Kolykhanov thinks a Russian music scene has already coalesced in Austin and is bound to grow. Vashchenko has been based here for three years. He performs across Texas with bayan player Vladimir Kaliazine as the duo Kalinka, showcasing traditional Russian music. Repa offers straight-up rock with aggressive, spartan arrangements and Russian lyrics. The group formed in Houston with no aspirations for commercial success. Kouznetsov, who sings and plays bass for Repa, says the band performs about once a month, often at events hosted by groups such as the Russian Speakers Society of Austin.

"It's mostly a bunch of Russians coming out and partying," Kouznetsov says.

"What (the Americans) seem to enjoy most is our crowd," adds Repa drummer Kostya Reverdatto. "When we hit our stride, the Russian girls start dancing and it turns into a party scene."

A long, strange journey

On stage, Kolykhanov is a musical Dr. Frankenstein. As he hovers between banjos and balalaikas, picking - Austin 360, American Statesman- cover story

"A Five-Day Musical Marathon"

Music Editor Chris Gray and I then drove to Under the Volcano for the Russian Spring Festival. I don't know what I was expecting, but what we walked into was the Flying Balalaika Brothers, a monster band in full wail. We were of course inebriated by this point, so all of our spy novel reading was kicking in overtime.

I immediately began to look for the KGB agents in the crowd - I know they aren't called KGB anymore, that's not politically correct, but you deal with this hangover if you want to call them something else. The drummer played with military precision and had the requisite dark sunglasses.

And he was a bulldog, a stocky guy who looked like he could break your neck in a dark alley. Whatever his moonlighting job was, he was crashing and banging like a jackhammer, and the rest of the band was laying down some electrified and electrifying Russian folk music that was the equivalent of the best of the Grand Ole Opry. It was literally jaw-dropping do-you-believe-this good.

Before I had time to think of something clever from John Le Carre, the band broke into a rocker that had Eastern tinges around the edges. I was magnetized: this was what makes music critics go see music on Sunday afternoon; yes, this was devil music.

Every girl in the place had found a dance partner and as the band kept accelerating the rhythm, the dancers were working themselves into a frenzy that, knowing Russians, was either going to end in caviar and vodka or a game of Russian roulette.

Gray leaned over and whispered, "I love dancing when people actually know how to dance."

We gave each other that deep, meaningful look guys give each other when Russian women dance. We also finally decided to quit trying to figure out who the KGB guys were; hell, if the KGB can play this good, they can't be all bad.

At this point, the weekend's alcohol consumption finally caught up with your fact-scrounger and I don't have much memory beyond meeting the music editor of the local Russian-language paper. She was a nice young lady who chose to move to Houston. Now that's what I call a testimonial.

Anyway, if the Flying Balalaika Brothers play anywhere within 100 miles of you, be there. And if you hear of some Russians having a party, I'd make that too. To have such a reputation as a people that dwell on sadness and existentialism, they sure know how to have fun. - Houston Press- Rocks Off

"Music Under the Star"

The Flying Balalaika Brothers will add a little borscht to your bluegrass! This trio represents traditional Russian folk, crossover to bluegrass, and many other international acoustic styles. - The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum


1. Kuma - Live CD
2. Op, Op, Romale - CD



The Flying Balalaika Brothers, originally from Russia, made their debut in the United States in 1995. These virtuoso musicians combined their classical training with folk traditions, creating a sensational interest in their unique blend of musical styles. Presenting their music to local and regional festivals (Gilroy Festival, Sawdust Festival, Valencia Street Market, Pecan Street Festival, Music Under the Stars, Kerrville Folk Festival), they were soon invited to perform in concert halls around the nation. The Flying Balalaika Brothers have toured internationally, sharing their unique blend of Russian folk and classical music influenced by American bluegrass and innovative acoustic music. Between touring and performing, they began successfully presenting educational programs in several languages (English, Spanish, Russian, Ukranian, Portugese) to students of both public and private schools in Texas, celebrating the arts in all its diversity by providing a unique approach to studying both the profound similarities and distinctive differences of people throughout history and around the world.

Band Members