Sierra Nevada Balalaika Society
Sometimes a balalaika is just a balalaika. Yet, to many, the stringed instrument represents a progression of Russian history best left unspoken—it’s better to hear the music than the stories, which tell of a divide in the historical identity of Russians.
Rich Bremenour plays accordion for the Reno-based Sierra Nevada Balalaika Society, a 23-year-old collective of musicians who play traditional Slavic music. He admits that the times the group has been controversial, the complaints have come from somewhere unexpected. It might seem that older Americans who grew up during the Cold War might object to hearing something they perceive as the music of the enemy, the voice of communism. However, Bremenour has received a different type of criticism.
“We’ve gotten in trouble for a song we play called ’Tsar’s Anthem,’” said Bremenour. “Some Russian folks said that we shouldn’t play it.”
These complaints are emblematic of the balalaika’s ironic turns as a cultural symbol. According to the Sierra Nevada Balalaika Society, the instrument is of Asiatic origin, brought to Russia through the Mongol campaigns. The body of the instrument was later developed into the iconic triangular shape, with seven different sizes ranging from the large deep contrabass to the handheld piccolo.
From its origins as a symbol of conquest, the instrument became an icon of Russian identity, as the last few decades of the Tsardom were accompanied by official balalaika orchestras. This is the era recalled by “Tsar’s Anthem,” which has since become a center of controversy. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the instrument’s symbolism shifted yet again. It came to represent the voice of the proletariat, a village instrument played by workers and farmers, and thus, a symbol of Soviet ideals.
Somehow, the political symbolism of the balalaika doesn’t feel relevant when listening to the music of the Sierra Nevada Balalaika Society. Far from inciting a riot, Bremenour says the group’s performances do what music does best, bring people together, and allows them to relax and enjoy themselves.
“It’s very lively,” said Bremenour. “A happy kind of music.”
Beyond the music’s innate power to encourage fellowship, Society members are vocal in their inclusion of anyone, regardless of their background, to become involved and to come to performances. They are a multi-ethnic, non-political organization. The only requirement of its members is a passion and interest in the music of the balalaika.
The Sierra Nevada Balalaika Society is part of a larger affiliation, called the Balalaika and Domra Association of America. As a result, cross-pollination from across the nation has breathed fresh air into the group. At one time, the SNBS intersected with renowned Moldovan accordionist Nikolai Prisacar, who recently performed to sold-out crowds at Les Claypool’s winery. Bremenour recalls the man as a unique talent, if a bit totalitarian.
“He would say, ’Practice at 6:30. That means 6:30 we play our first notes,’” recalled Bremenour.
During Prisacar’s reign, Bremenour said the group gained a lot of insight into the way the music should be performed.
“It’s is filled with great dynamic shifts, and dynamic pauses,” said new accordion recruit Ed Lifur. “Much of it is very fast.”
The music of the balalaika is characterized by shifts—in tempo, key and through numerous political associations over the years. It is an icon, representing the transformation of a culture. It has the potential to change the rhythm of its listener’s thoughts.
“Accomplished musicians will respond to the tempo and key changes,” said Bremenour. “Nikolai would say ’I don’t care what notes you play, as long as you play them on time.’”