Underground Music: Moscow’s Unknown Gem
When I travel or live some place new, one of my favorite ways to experience and immerse myself in the culture is to find and go see local music. However, when I first moved to Moscow in 2015, this was a bit of a problem. Although I was already aware that Moscow (and Russia in general) is not well known for having a great music scene, it seemed nearly impossible to find decent venues that had something other than electronic music or generic pop. Throughout the weekdays, I would scour the internet, looking for something interesting and unique, but every place recommended, particularly the expat bars, was more generic than the last.
However, once I started making local friends and getting the inside word, things started to change. Drastically. I still remember one day complaining about this to one of my Russian friends, Masha, saying that the whole city seemed to be void of good music. I must have come across as if I were in a state of despair because she quickly responded, “You just haven’t been here long enough. Come with me this weekend and I’ll show you what Moscow’s music is really like.” Semi-hopeful, I agreed.
The band we were to see was named after its lead singer, Karl Hlamkin, and the location was called Сады Вавилона (Gardens of Babylon), a small bar tucked away in an alcove near Тверская улица (Tverskaya Street). As we approached, the walkway was dark and fairly deserted to the point where I began to wonder if we had the directions right. But then I began to hear something. It sounded like some type of brass horn, maybe a trumpet, and it grew louder and louder. Then came a booming raspy voice, full of energetic intensity. Excited, I pushed open the door, not quite sure what would be on the other side. I stepped in.
Suddenly, my entire surroundings came to life. In front of me stood a room full of people, drinks in hand and dancing their hearts out. But the people weren’t the center of attention. That glory belonged to the band on stage. They had a certain style and form of showmanship that would never be found in one of the ex-pat bars, and were equipped with powerful brass horns to back it all up. Two bearded skinny guys, one with a trumpet and the other with a saxophone, stood on the edges of the stage while a drummer, a bassist, and a girl with short, dark hair, holding maracas, performed with a joyous, edgy intensity. Then, of course, there was the lead singer: Карл Хламкин/Karl Hlamkin. He was by far the oldest in the group, singing with a deep voice, wearing a winter cap, gray stubble, cigarette in mouth and a shirt with a face that resembled Jack Skeleton from Nightmare Before Christmas. He was giving the energy and performance everyone came to see. There was nothing to prove, the room was already his. He knew it, and he delivered.From this point, my perception on Moscow music did a complete 180. I started hearing about punk bands at Китайский Летчик (Kitaisky Letchik), ska bands at Сады Вавилона (Gardens of Babylon), grunge bands at Smena Bar and recently just saw a Balkan-style brass band called Dobranotch at a Serbian bar. Moscow is crawling with good music, you just need to take the initiative to ask around find it. Maybe it will in back alleys or quite literally underground in some discreet bar. The styles and performances can be different, but everything I saw from then on shared this energy and apparent passion for the music they were making and performance they were giving. Each one of these bands seemed so creative and seemingly spontaneous to the point where I felt as if they were getting a read from the crowd and playing accordingly. It is hard to pinpoint the specific reason. Maybe it’s because the main stream music scene is that bad, the counterculture backlash so genuine and exciting. Whatever the reason, however, Moscow’s underground music is absolutely one of the secret gems of the city.