Sides and strings in threes

Sierra Nevada Balalaika Society

Zeny Ocean plays a pretty rad contrabass, an oversized bass version of the balalaika.<br>

Zeny Ocean plays a pretty rad contrabass, an oversized bass version of the balalaika.

Photo by David Robert

When musicians shuffled their awkward instruments out the door at Walden’s Coffeehouse, there were plenty of confounded looks on the faces of teenagers who were just arriving. Were they in the right place? Who were these guys?

While most were there to see Whiskey Trip, those who had arrived early to get better seats had been treated to an opening performance by the Sierra Nevada Balalaika Society, a local collective that performs and supports Russian folk music.

Zeny Ocean, who founded the group 11 years ago, was nearly outside when a pair of exuberant kids stopped him. “That was rad!” one started as the other chimed in, “Yeah, you guys were hella good.” Ocean, a tall man with white hair and a warm smile, excitedly thanked them for coming and then answered a few questions about the enormous triangular guitar under his arm.

The balalaika is a traditional Russian folk instrument, much like a mandolin but with a triangular shape to its body and only three strings. Ocean plays an oversized bass version called a contrabass.

Sitting at a table at Walden’s in exactly the same spot he performed nights before, Ocean describes the differences in sound, construction and shape between the many instruments that make up the ensemble. The balalaika, he says, “is an easy instrument to pick up—or, what shall I say—an easy instrument to play badly.”

Ocean collects a variety of the instruments. Proficient at all of them, from the domra to the prima balalaika, Ocean has found an affinity for a music that is at once joyful and melancholy. Many of the songs the ensemble performs begin with dragging, haunting melodies and then stumble their way forward, faster and faster, into jangling, frenzied stomps.

Pausing for a moment, Ocean humbly considers the group’s accomplishments. “You would never think that in 100 years you’d find a balalaika ensemble here in Reno, but when musicians come, they know where Reno, Nevada is.”

Born to a Russian, Polish and Ukrainian family here in the United States, Ocean listened to the music as a child.

“My first trip to Russia was quite an eye opener—to see people playing these instruments I had only heard on recordings before,” he says. Ocean found his visit to be as infectious as the music he plays, and he has returned every other year since.

Whether he’s performing or searching for new instruments, Ocean remains loyal to the niche he recognized and filled years ago. He’s always on the lookout for new recruits. He likes to mix amateurs and professionals, so audiences can understand what real Russian folk music should sound like.

That night at Walden’s, as he fielded questions from kids young enough to be his own, Ocean apparently had already considered inviting them to the group’s next practice. Leaving the coffeehouse, he joked about what it was like for children growing up in the Soviet Union.

“There would be some rock group playing at a small venue, so all the kids would show up early to get the best seats, but inevitably there would be some old folk group opening for an hour before, with some old lady singing Ukrainian folk songs at the top of her lungs, and you could just see the kids’ expressions, waiting for the rock band—bored, checking their watches.”

At Walden’s though, a few youngsters seemed to catch on.