Linda edges out the Cilla Blacks of Communism

Helen Womack on a new wave of Russian rock, with a Tibetan touch
RUSSIANS, who have been bombarded with Western pop music since the fall of the Iron Curtain, are raving about a new singer in high boots and a silver mini-dress who reaches them in their own language with teasing songs like "Play with me, tenderly as you want".

Linda is a little like Madonna, although far less crude. A better comparison might be with the Icelandic star, Bjork, but that is not exact either. She is original.

"At last we have an alternative to Alla Pugacheva," said Vitaly Matveyev, a classical pianist who also takes an interest in popular music. Ms Pugacheva, the red-haired star of "Estrada", a peculiarly Russian form of pop-singing that echoes the style of Tom Jones and Cilla Black in the 1960s, has dominated the domestic pop scene for the past 20 years. Mikhail Gorbachev's final act as president of the Soviet Union was to award her a medal. While undoubtedly talented, some feel she has been in the limelight too long and exercises too much influence over the careers of young singers.

Apart from Ms Pugacheva, in her white stretch limo, and a few other highly paid stars of Estrada, which was officially promoted under Communism and still gets large amounts of air-time, Russia also has a range of rock bands aping Western styles, from heavy metal to punk.

But Linda fits into neither category: she is a new post-Communist phenomenon. She sings in Russian with the voice of a child, but that is just a strand in a whole tapestry of sound woven by musicians from Russia, Japan, Bolivia and India. When she performs live, she is joined by dancers from Cuba and Guinea Bissau, former students of Moscow's Patrice Lumumba University.

The man behind it all is producer Maxim Fadeyev, who draws his inspiration from the world's ethnic traditions, especially those of the vast Russian Federation.

"Soviet leaders paid lip service to national culture, while in reality doing all they could to wipe it out," said Mr Fadeyev in an interview together with Linda in their private studio near the Moscow Hippodrome. The accidents of Soviet history were responsible for some of the musical influences they experienced, combined with others which are a product of Russia's new freedoms - although neither has ever travelled outside the borders of the old Soviet Union.

The two CDs which have made Linda and her group famous are called the Songs and Dances of the Tibetan Lama. Both use eastern rhythms and melodies. Now they are working on a new double album to be called Mother Wolf, which will incorporate Russian folk choirs.

Mr Fadeyev comes from the city of Kurgan, on the Siberian side of the Urals, where he was strongly influenced by his mother, a gypsy musician. His brand of ethnic rock attracted no interest in the music business until he met "Linda" (her real name is a secret). Now they receive sponsorship from New Russian businessmen who prefer to remain anonymous, although Linda, still only 20, claims her lifestyle is that of "an average Muscovite".

Linda is from Kentau, near the Chinese border, a home-town even more far-flung than Mr Fadeyev's. Her grandparents were exiled to the bleak steppes of Kazakhstan by Stalin, and her parents continued to be confined there, working in the local factory. A Jew, Linda grew up in barracks with people of many nationalities, including Greeks. "The barracks were full of their music when there were birthdays or weddings," she remembers.

The Songs and Dances of the Tibetan Lama are quite hypnotic - though neither Linda nor Mr Fadeyev has been to Tibet. "The Lama is a symbol, an embodiment of the spiritual," says Mr Fadeyev, who wrote the music and the meditative, subtly erotic words. "Do it so there will be no pain," goes one song. "Too little flame, I want a bit more," goes another. Mother Wolf, to be released in the autumn, will be about ecology and violence. "The wolf is the embodiment of motherhood," says Mr Fadeyev. I hear a track called "Kitaboi" (Whale Hunt). The music is much heavier than the playful Tibetan collection. Says Mr Fadeyev: "I want you to hear the struggle of this great creature of the deep and the little earth devil."