The Flying Balalaika Brothers
Gig Seeker Pro

The Flying Balalaika Brothers

Band World Bluegrass


This band has not uploaded any videos
This band has not uploaded any videos



"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

"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 on guitars, layering harmonic-minor scale guitar runs atop beat-box riffs with a loop pedal, you half expect his creation to take physical form, jump off a table with a bolt through its neck and start dancing. Zeegrass fuses Klezmer with a near-overdose of psychedelia; Gypsy rock with hip-hop; bluegrass with the sunrise-over-a-wheat-field brightness of the balalaika. The group crushes and remolds genres with virtuosity — even if Kolykhanov forgets to don his babushka.

"When I listen to musicians here — and maybe I don't listen enough — ... somebody sings, someone plays a guitar solo, then somebody sings again," balalaika player Vashchenko says. "(Kolykhanov) composes jazz, blues. You never know what will come out next. I basically never heard such great improvisation, the way he phrases it."

In the audience, it is not just the Americans who are surprised by Zeegrass' blend of sounds. "No one could imagine that you could play rock 'n' roll with a balalaika," says Olga Vagner, a writer for Our Texas, a Russian-language newspaper based in Houston. Once the instrument is thrown into the mix, there is a world of musical possibilities. Russian melodies, Vagner says, borrow heavily from Celtic, Indian and Oriental music.

A melting pot of cultures — about what you would expect from a country that spans two continents.

"The Russian people are a very eclectic group, just like America," Kolykhanov says. "We have Greeks, we have Gypsies and Slovaks, Mongols. If you take a Russian person, you're going to find a lot of blood, just like here.

"But it's deeper and older and weirder blood."

Musical Moscow

In Vologda, he grew up listening to American rock 'n' roll groups such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and Russian counterparts such as Aquarium and Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine).

Kolykhanov came of age as a musician in 1986 in Moscow.

Then 20 years old, he began touring with the Harlequin Theatre, a 35-member experimental theater group, joining the troupe as a guitarist and performance music writer. "There was a rock band on the left side of the stage, and a (classical) quartet on the right," he says. The actors — the troupe would perform a rotation of five plays, some of them three hours long — moved between the groups of musicians, who scored the plays with original pieces and injected musical flourishes into the dialogue.

"That was the first time I played the classical guitar. I played a piece on the cello," Kolykhanov says. He began to explore the balalaika as a viable means of assembling world-class music. He was often called on to learn parts quickly, "so, there was a balalaika player in town, and I took a lesson from him, I said, 'Man, show me how to play this thing.' So he played a few Russian folk pieces. And I looked at him and I said, 'Well, I've got three days to figure this out.' "

His experience in Moscow convinced Kolykhanov to pursue a career in the arts. He stayed with the Harlequin until 1989, developing his craft as a writer as well as a stage performer.

"Anyone who started in theater will stay weird," he says. "Theater opens you up to any kind of image. You can be an old man. You can be a young man. You can be a crazy man."

Welcome to America

Kolykhanov mixed old and new sounds as a budding performer. He started as a "true serious rocker," and his experience at the Harlequin Theatre expanded his musical vernacular. In 1989, he joined a group called Tiki Chas.

"We had this tight rock 'n' roll set. That was my craft," Kolykhanov says. "We used to do these crazy guitar pieces. In Russia, we did nothing but practice. We had no distractions."

Kolykhanov was an aficionado of American bluegrass, his musical method influenced by performers such as Roy Clark and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. When he came to America for the first time, he was beginning to explore "electrified bluegrass."

He eventually moved to the United States in 1992, enrolling at the University of Delaware to study critical reading, writing and fine arts. "That was just to polish my English, basically," he says. "I took a serious program."

Kolykhanov moved from Delaware to Texas after Oleg Bernov, bass balalaika player for the U.S.-based Russian folk group Limpopo, recommended him to a group of musicians in Houston. He later moved to Dallas to work with mandolin virtuoso Dave Peters. The two collaborated on a musical project — a "tight acoustic trio" that performed complicated pieces, modeling itself after the renowned threesome Paco De Lucia, Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin. Just as they were set to begin performing, Peters moved to Switzerland.

Kolykhanov soon accepted an invitation from Bernov to move to Los Angeles. In 1995, the Red Elvises formed, Limpopo veterans Bernov and Igor Yuzov at the core, buttressed by Kolykhanov and drummer Avi Sills.

While most bands ply their trade in nightclubs and at festivals, the Elvises settled on a rather different venue: Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade.

"We started playing in the streets. We played in the streets for 31/2 years before the Santa Monica police kicked us out," Kolykhanov says. "We were starting to become obnoxious. Our audience was blocking walkways, and we were given tickets for it."

From 1995 until Kolykhanov left the group at the beginning of 2003, the Elvises released 10 albums, including their 1998 breakthrough "I Wanna See You Bellydance." The Elvises' blend of Eastern Bloc-tinged rockabilly and surf rock, along with their intense flair for the dramatic, helped put Russian "rokenrol" on the map in the United States. The band achieved prominence in both countries, even appearing in episodes of a number of popular television shows, including "Beverly Hills 90210."

The group has undergone some lineup changes since Kolykhanov left, but its cult-hero status is undiminished; they played at the Continental Club and Jovita's in May as part of an ongoing tour.

On the horizon

With the success of the first Russian Night at Threadgill's, and more such events on the horizon, Kolykhanov is working to expand the reach of Russian music in Austin. He is backing the creation of what he calls the Russian American Peace Festival.

"I'd like to invite a couple of headliners from Russia. People who you know who they are," and pair them with local performers from the Russian community, he says. The idea is to draw members of the Russian community to "share their energy" through music. "The more variety we have, the better. I don't want to just do one band," he says.

It is difficult to say yet whether the idea for the festival will find the kind of backing needed, Kolykhanov says, to turn it into the event he envisions. The stage at Threadgill's South, for instance, won't be enough. But if he is able to pull the festival together, he would like to see it spread to other cities, such as Houston and Dallas.

On firmer ground is work on Zeegrass' debut album. Kolykhanov says he is still sifting through for ideas for the record, which he may release later this year.

Last month, Kolykhanov hosted Cleveland-based balalaika player Oleg Kruglyakov. The two hit the studio to record a couple tracks and discussed how they might collaborate in the future.

"Austin is not multicultural like Cleveland," Kruglyakov says. "(In Cleveland) there's a lot of different groups represented, like Polish, Slovak," whose influence is pervasive on the local music scene.

But Austin is fertile ground for musical experimentation, Kruglyakov says. A classically trained musician, he hopes to team with Kolykhanov to create a hybrid between traditional Russian and contemporary styles.

Kolykhanov's goal is to create that "what's this?" reaction — to get folks stepping in rhythm to a sound they can't quite identify, even when the roots of the music draw from a wellspring of timeless folk traditions.

"Nowadays, everybody's trying to repeat somebody. Everybody just takes the same major chords," Kolykhanov says.

"Our music is so old, this Russian music. Every time I play, people say, 'What is this music?' And I say, 'This is so old it's unbelievable.'

"I'm just passing it through the generations."

Russian rock of ages

Russian rock 'n' roll grew up in hard times, evolving in intimate rebellion against the Soviet authorities in the decades before perestroika. Bands such as Aquarium and Zvuki Mu were at the heart of an ideological struggle; their music was true underground, in the essential outlaw sense.

'For a long time, you were prosecuted for playing rock,' Repa singer Alex Kouznetsov says. 'They checked out your lyrics, and if you didn't sing something approved' you could find the authorities breathing down your neck.

Legal pressures on freedom of expression relented as the 1980s progressed, but the atmosphere in which it developed had a lasting effect in shaping the message and the sound of Russian contemporary music.

'There is always a deeper message in it. Sort of the human against the system,' Kouznetsov says. Not a word is wasted. None of the throwaway lyrics pervasive in American popular music are present.

'Russian rock, it's like poetry,' Austin-based musician Zhenya Kolykhanov says. 'To the point where the music is stripped down.'

If Soviet-era rock stripped the music down to essentials in order to place message and melody front and center, Russian groups in the United States have brought the genre full circle. The same festival feel, the ancient nomadic quality of the harmonic minor scale that Kolykhanov brings to American folk and bluegrass and the Red Elvises introduce to rockabilly, is heard in the dense, high-paced Gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello, a New York-based group led by Ukrainian émigré Eugene Hutz that simply defies any attempt at categorization.

About the balalaika

The story behind the balalaika is that it traveled to Russia on the backs of Greek pilgrims.

'That is just a myth. Nobody really knows where it came from,' says Oleg Kruglyakov, a classically trained Russian balalaika player. 'Why this triangle?' is the primary question for musical historians who research the instrument, he says.

The balalaika's influence reached upward from peasant traditions to Russia's conservatories. Vasily Andreyev, a Russian nobleman, was the first to introduce the instrument to refined audiences at the end of the 19th century, leading to a standardization of the instrument, which had varying numbers of strings – there are now three – and a different shape.

Much like other stringed instruments, the balalaika has different classes, from a contrabass to the prima. Most of the playing on the prima balalaika is done above the fifth fret. It is a fast-playing, bright-sounding instrument. The standard tuning is E-E-A; but when the Flying Balalaika Brothers play, Zhenya Kolykhanov sets his instrument to E-A-C, to differentiate his sound from that of Sergey Vashchenko, a conservatory trained player.

Kolykhanov says you have to call around if you want to find a dealer who sells a balalaika in the United States. Kruglyakov says the instruments can cost up to $10,000.
* The Flying Balalaika Brothers play at 6 p.m. July 12 at the Westgate Central Market, 4477 S Lamar Blvd. Free.
* The Flying Balalaika Brothers play at 6 p.m. July 13 at the Bullock Museum, 1800 Congress Ave., as part of the Music Under the Stars concert series. Free.

* Zhenya 'Rock' Kolykhanov's personal site
* Zeegrass
* Flying Balalaika Brothers
* Kalinka
* Aquarium
* Mashina Vremeni
* Aria
* Zvuki Mu
* Gogol Bordello
* The Red Elvises
- Austin 360, American Statesman - Cover Story

"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


Zhenya's Balalaika
Flying Balalaika Brothers Live 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 small festivals (Gilroy Festival, Sawdust Festival, Valencia Street Market, Pecan Street Festival, Music Under the Stars, Kerrville Folk Festival as members of Limpopo) , 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 three languages 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. Now based in Austin, Flying Balalaika Brothers have been featured on KUT (Austin) radio and are working on gaining national and international notoriety.