Jazz singer conquers Russia's racial bigotry

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The Independent Online
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, give or take a week or two, Tim Strong had a chance meeting with Aretha Franklin. He was an awkward and unknown 18-year-old, one of nine children from a blue-collar family in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. She was... well, the Queen of Soul.

An aspiring musician, with an unusually powerful voice, he was sitting at the piano at a rehearsal studio in New York when Franklin wandered up and asked him to sing. Suddenly overwhelmed by nervousness, he declined. "I made a lot of mistakes back then, and that was one of them," he recalls.

Since then, both his nerves and his career have taken a turn for the better. They have done so in the unlikely setting of the former Soviet Union, where jazz was once banned as subversive, and black artists were - and still are - few and far between.

After moving to Moscow three years ago, where his wife was posted as a diplomat with the New Zealand embassy,Strong, 45, has become an acclaimed performer who pulls crowds in clubs and concert halls across 11 time zones.

Acclaimed is no exaggeration. Not long ago, 10,000 people turned out to see him in Akademgorodok. The Moscow Tribune newspaper has hailed Strong as "arguably the greatest jazz singer in Russia today". Art Troitsky, a Russian commentator and music critic, says he is the greatest blues performer in the land. "Not since Paul Robeson in the late 1940s has an African-American singer created such a sensation in what was once the Soviet Union," declared Newsweek.

This is no small achievement in a society where attitudes to race range from ignorance and low-level xenophobia to the rabid views of the small, but growing far right. Abuse and attacks against black foreign students are depressingly commonplace; a few months ago, a US marine was badly beaten by young racist Russians in a Moscow park.

Tim Strong could scarcely have failed to be aware of such problems but he says he has never experienced any threatening instance of racism directed specifically at him. There have, however, been moments of outright crassness: for example, seeing his dreadlocks, Russians tend to ask if he is Whoopi Goldberg's brother.

"People in Russia are just not sensitive to race," he said, sitting in his spacious apartment in central Moscow. "I remember I was in a mafia- type joint and this guy asked me to `sing those nigger songs. You know the ones,' he said. Songs like `Summertime'.

"But, you know, I have been walking on this tight rope all my life. I have seen everything from the ignorant but well- meaning to the downright insensitive on both sides, both black and white. It is just garbage that comes out of cluttered minds."

Nurtured for years in the jazz, blues and theatre scene of New York, Strong is a protege of the drummer-vocalist jazzman, Grady Tate. But he has also become something of a pioneer in his own right within a society starved of his kind of work.

For years jazz was banned by Soviet leaders, who regarded it as subversive and a threat to the empire's high art. Music fans were forced to make illicit and primitive recordings using old X-rays stolen from medical clinics. And even relatively late on in the USSR's history, when the Party was relaxing its controls, jazz and rock still had a reputation for being shady, a symptom of Western decadence.

As late as 1974, plans to open a new jazz cafe in Gorky Park foundered because the Communist top brass disapproved, ensuring that Moscow remained without any public place offering live jazz or rock. Even when the cafes began to vibrate to the rhythms of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, the Russians - ever fearful that individualism would corrode the principles of Communist collectivity - remained cautious.

Hedrick Smith, in his 1975 book The Russians, describes attending a jazz lecture that was illustrated by musical extracts. About 1,000 young people filled the hall. "Not once did a single head bop in rhythm. Not one pair of fingers was snapping or clicking to the music. No feet were tapping. No spontaneous applause broke out. People were studious, immobile, unexpressive."

Some of this retentive approach is still to be found even in today's liberated Moscow. "There is a handful of Russian jazz musicians who can truly swing," says Strong. "But for the most part there is still a very austere approach, to put it politely. It is just a rhythmic thing. Black people have taught the world how to swing, but the Russians were so far removed here for so long, that they have come along the slowest."

However, they are making progress. At a recent performance by Tim Strong in Moscow, the crowds, young and old, seemed to be swinging along just fine.