From Russia with love… and bluegrass
It was the banjo that did it for Ilya Toshinsky. After hearing the five strings of unfettered glee, the Russian music student knew he wanted to play it. And so, with other friends at the school, he delved into the world of bluegrass music. More than a decade later, that same group of friends is hitting it big as Bering Strait, a Russian pop-country-bluegrass group. They play for the Hot Summer Nights grand finale concert today. The free performance gets rolling at 6:30 p.m., and includes an opening spot by Vail Idol Gabby Etrog (see story page B2).
“We became a band in 1988, but we’ve come a long way from there,” said Toshinsky. “We started out as total bluegrass band, and then copied other people like Alan Jackson, Shania Twain, Reba McEntire. That really helped us out with our understanding of country music.”
They were “discovered” in a Mexican restaurant in Russia by an American art dealer. After hearing them, he flew the musicians to America. They soon signed a record deal, and then spent four years bouncing from label to label.
They’ve just released their first album, self titled, on Universal South, and finally their music career is beginning. Though the four years of waiting was excruciating, in retrospect it was time well spent.
“Not until a few years ago did we start searching out what Bering Strait is,” said Toshinsky. “When we first moved here, we didn’t have the creative ability on our own. But we’ve learned so much, we’re now figuring that out.”
Their musical schooling represents opposite ends of the spectrum. Classically trained, they have theory and technique in spades. Yet their interest in bluegrass meant they had to learn a bit of improvisation, too, as no bluegrass musician worth his salt sits behind a musical score and plays a song the same way. Though now they’re more country-pop than anything, they still have that festival spirit of letting the song lead them where it may.
“Right now I think (our playing is) a lot more improvisational,” he said. “Our technical abilities – we’re well equipped because as kids we really mastered our instruments. We can just concentrate on the creative aspect of our music.”
They’re three songs into the writing process for their second album, and intend it to be comprised entirely of original material. Every musician is part of every song – which is saying something, considering there are six members of the band.
“We’re trying to come up with music that the six of us are proud of,” he said. “We’re shaping it.”
And album sales are shaping their future. They were just featured on “60 Minutes,” National Public Radio has taken a real shine to the group, and they made Grammy history when they were nominated earlier this year – a first for a non-classical Russian group.
“It has been incredible,” agreed Toshinsky. “Our biggest year ever.”
The band now resides full-time in the U.S., though they visit Russia twice annually. Even if they were to return to Russia permanently, there will always be a bit of America in them, as evidenced in their choice of band name.
“It symbolizes the connection between Russia and America, but in a cool way,” he said. “It’s not aggressive. It kind of says what we’re trying to say with our music, with how we play.”
Toshinsky promises an eventful concert, rain or shine.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “We’re going to do a lot of our original music, and Russian folk songs in our original arrangements, a little bluegrass, and some cool instrumental music. And maybe we’ll even put out a couple of good old cover rock songs, in our own way.”
Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 949-0555, ext. 618.