Category: Russia

Nikolay Dontzoff – Kozlik

Comic songs were the bread-and-butter repertoire for so many early entertainers, whether they were well-known popular American songsters like Billy Murray, or obscure, often forgotten immigrant performers in the United States. Thousands were recorded, without question. A few have caught my ear over the years, such as those by Finnish fiddle player Erik Kivi. Recently I was delighted by the rustic voice of Russian-Ukrainian accordionist Nikolay Dontzoff.

Nikolay, or “Nicholas” as he was often credited, was born in 1881 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. He immigrated to the United States in 1922, getting onboard in Constantinople on the ocean liner Braga, which ran a route from Beirut to New York. With him was his wife, Lucy Dontzoff, who was twenty years his junior. They lived mostly in what is now West Harlem in Manhattan, and both worked the vaudeville circuit.

So far as we know, Dontzoff’s career on record was brief, and separated by extensive lags. He first stepped into a recording studio in New York in late 1922, almost as soon as he was settled, accompanying baritone Mikel Wavitch on a session for Victor. Those recordings, however, were never issued. Five years later, in October 1927, he was back – this time for Columbia, where he would record two records under his own name, including this one featured today.

Dontzoff accompanied his wife Lucy on four discs in 1929, and one disc accompanying Lucy and then-famed Russian “gypsy” singer Vera Smirnova. Then things go dark. He and Lucy were divorced by 1935. Nikolay moved downtown to the Eastern European neighborhood in the East Village. He was still performing both as a solo act, and with Russian music and dance troupes, often touring the country. He performed in the Russian revue Chauve Souris on Broadway, which ran for twelve performances in 1943.

At some point, probably in the late 1940s, Dontzoff issued a 78 on his own imprint, “Nicholas Dontzoff” – but there seems to have only been one issue. It was likely an offshoot of the Argee label, which was a small, Russian-language label based out of a music shop on Lexington Avenue and owned by a Latvian immigrant named Jack Raymond. That record, and the two discs he made in 1927, appear to be Dontzoff’s only moments on record as a solo performer. By 1953, he was working at the Tompkins Square Tavern on 7th Street. He died that year.

“Serenkiy Kozlik,” or “The Little Grey Goat,” is a well-known Russian children’s song about a goat that is loved so much by a grandma that she naturally ends up cooking the dear goat in her homemade soup. The earliest recording of the song I could locate was one made in Saint Petersburg in 1908 by the Gramophone Company, and performed by G.L. Lebedev’s accordion troupe. In September 1910, another version was recorded in Vilnius, Lithuania, also for the Gramophone Company, and performed by a group listed as “Detskiy Khor Vilenskago Pervago Nachalnago Uchilisha.” Another was recorded one year later by Maria Emskaya for the Syrena label of Poland. I suspect there are many other versions, both earlier and later.

This version, however, is not standard – Dontzoff’s version of this song is a parody of the original. Here, he makes it an ironic song for adults.

Nikolay Dontzoff – Kozlik

(translated and transliterated by Diana Tarnavska)

Once upon a time there was an old lonely babushka
And she was very bored, alone
That’s right, that’s right, she was alone

Babushka went along the bazaar
She looked but there were no products
That’s right, that’s right, the product was hunger

But it was her lucky day
‘Cause she met a shaggy cute goat
That’s right, that’s right, a shaggy cute goat

She noticed the goat
And brought it right home
That’s right, that’s right, she brought it home

The goat was dirty, besides, and unshaven
And apparently had not washed at least for ten years
That’s right, that’s right, at least for ten years

Babushka took the goat to the bath
Babushka washed it with soda
That’s right, that’s right, she washed it with soda

Goat was for sure all native Russian
But he was flirting in Franco-Russian
That’s right, that’s right, in Franco-Russian

Babushka didn’t like the beard at all
She shaved off the beard at the hairdresser
That’s right, that’s right, she shaved the beard

Babushka called the goat “Dusya”
They were living together, the goat and
That’s right, that’s right, goat and

As soon as the morning brightens up
Our goat hits the bottle with loaf of bread
That’s right, that’s right, with loaf of bread

Our goat was horrifically comic
He registered her house in his name
That’s right, that’s right, registered in his name

He took almost everything from her
He left his babushka with horns and legs
That’s right, that’s right, just horns and legs

Dear babushkas, don’t lose yourself
Falling in love with some young goats
That’s right, that’s right, with some young goats

They will disappear at the first occasion
And you will sit lordly in a galosh
That’s right, that’s right, sit in a galosh

Original Russian

Как-то старушка одна проживала
И в одиночестве очень скучала
Вот так ведь так очень скучала

Отправилась бабушка вдоль по базару
Глянет там нет никакого товару
Вот так ведь так голод товару

Значит счастливый денек ей задался
Встретил лохматый козлик попался
Вот так ведь так козлик попался

Бабушка козлика вмиг залучила
И на квартиру к себе притащила
Вот так ведь так к себе притащила

Козлик был грязный к тому же не бритый
И уж лет десять как видно не мытый
Вот так ведь так видно не мытый

Бабушка козлика в баню сводила
Бабушка козлика содой помыла
Вот так ведь так содой помыла

Козлик конечно был наш и всерусский
Но щеголял он по русско-французски
Вот так ведь так просто французской

Бабушка бороду страх не взлюбила
У парикмахера бороду сбрила
Вот так ведь так бороду сбрила

Бабушка козлика звала всё “Дуся”
Зажили в мире козел и бабуся
Вот так ведь так козел и бабуся

Утро едва только зорко взоймётся
Козлик наш в копыт уж с булкой напьётся
Вот так ведь так булкой напьётся

Козлик наш был проужаснейший комик
Взял перевёл на себя бабкин домик
Вот так ведь так бабкин уж домик

Взял у бабуси почти все до крошки
Оставил он бабушке рожки да ножки
Вот так ведь так рожки да ножки

Милые бабушки не увлекайтесь
И в молодых козелков не влюбляйтесь
Вот так ведь так вы не влюбляйтесь

Козлик исчезнет по первой пороше 
Вы же усядитесь важно в калоше
Вот так ведь так важно в калоше

Label: Columbia
Issue Number: 20119-F
Matrix Number: 108381 (A-1)


Fred Gaisberg in Kazan, 1901

In June of 1901, recording engineer Fred Gaisberg was in Russia for the Gramophone Company. This was his third visit to Saint Petersburg. He’d already been to the grand city in 1900, and for a second trip in 1901 that was smack in the middle of a frozen Russian winter, which he was eager to experience. This time, however, it was during Saint Petersburg’s famed white nights, the crepuscular glow that lasts all night and when true darkness doesn’t exist. He marveled at the night life, the stylish women and fashion, the carriages on the city streets. After a quick trip to Moscow, a thought occurred to him: we have some free time, why don’t we move farther east…to Tatarstan?

Born in 1873 in Washington DC, Gaisberg was without question one of the first trailblazers that made the industry a global one. He began working for the Columbia Phonograph Company which was producing cylinder recordings, and he accompanied artists on piano (as “Professor Gaisberg”) as early as 1889. Soon after, he began learning the technical side of the business and was working for Emile Berliner’s lab, also in DC. Berliner was in the process of revolutionizing sound recording in two important ways: he developed recording on a flat disc, and he developed disc recording where the cutting stylus vibrated laterally in the groove (and not vertically, cutting depth-wise into the groove, which could be inherently uneven). With Berliner, Gaisberg hunted for talent, played as an accompanist, continually made recording experiments with his employer and mentor, and even cleaned the chemical equipment.

Among fits and starts, financial troubles and successes, Gaisberg had by the late 1890s opened two recording studios for Berliner, in New York and Philadelphia, and the business was growing. With Pathé expanding in France, and Columbia making noise about establishing business overseas, Berliner began making moves to create a European office. An agent was hired in London, investors were gathered – one of whom, Trevor Williams, had the prescience to demand that local recording artists had to be part of the agreement, as, presumably, no one would buy American imports of whistling records forever. In 1898, Gaisberg, one of the few existing recording and repertoire experts, a champion of the capabilities of the phonograph at the time, was sent to London to fundamentally establish what would become the Gramophone Company.

While Gaisberg rehearsed, recorded, and located British artists of all stripes, Berliner’s brother built a record pressing plant in their home city of Hanover, Germany as a way of avoiding England’s unions. By May of 1899, Gaisberg was embarking on his first continental recording trip, with boxes of “portable” equipment weighing 118 kgs / 260 lbs each. His stops were Leipzig, Budapest, Vienna, Milan, Paris, and Madrid. Of course, Gaisberg had his sights on recording the best operatic and classical talent – however, funds for this fledgling industry were still small by comparison, and there was a tentative distrust of this new technology by many performers. He couldn’t yet afford or persuade the big timers just yet. This six-city trip, however, remains important in that it set the Gramophone Company in an outward, rather than inward direction. The solution for the company was global talent, and as the company expanded these multi-stop recording trips became longer and longer, with more local contacts being brought onboard, and more matrices being recorded with each visit. All of their major competitors, namely Pathé, the Lindstrom companies, and the British Columbia company, copied this method.

Gaisberg was first sent to Saint Petersburg in 1900. His tastes, after Milan, had grown to the point where anyone other than the most exalted classical performers were described in terms like: “a poor, conceited lot” in the case of the Irish, or “very poor artists” in the case of the Scotch (where early bagpipe performers were recorded). In a rigid sense, this attitude helped him eventually secure world class stars such as Caruso and Chaliapin. In the meantime, his local agents didn’t escape this invective, either. “The businessmen of Petersburg are mostly Jews, and a hard lot to deal with – shrewd, crafty, and unreliable,” he wrote in his diary during his first visit. “Always fingering for bribes – everything bribery.” Gaisberg had all the intolerant prejudices and imperious trappings of a erudite white man of his day, and they often come through in his diary, especially as he travels further east into what was no doubt a wildly different world for him. Still, he continued to expand the business into areas that today seem almost surprising, eventually cutting discs in Beirut, Burma, Japan, Turkey, Cairo, just to name a few. He began to introduce local folk music in the Gramophone Company’s repertoire – evidence enough that despite his outward intolerance he was likely far more progressive than most, during his time.

Which brings us back to Moscow in June of 1901. Gaisberg contacted a man named Theodore Birnbaum in Berlin to request a recording trip to Kazan, about 700 km to the east. Birnbaum, an Englishman, was the managing director of Deutsche Grammophon AG, and was in charge of the Gramophone Company’s engineers as soon as they disembarked in mainland Europe, coordinating their journeys and also finding artists to record. Birnbaum gave the go-ahead, and Gaisberg and one of his Saint Petersburg agents, a man known only as Lebel (or “Labelle”), left Moscow for Kazan, via Nizhny Novgorod.

Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, which is comprised predominantly of ethnic Tatars, who are Sunni Muslim. These two days spent recording in Kazan, which yielded a mere 38 seven-inch, single-sided discs, were probably the first recordings of a Muslim minority (perhaps even any ethnic minority) in Russia. However, from the moment they hopped off their steamer at 8 AM on the 24th, it was clear that Gaisberg was not prepared to deal with so drastically different a culture. Pekka Gronow has pointed to this visit to Kazan as among several in early recorded sound history where European recording engineers were bewildered and unqualified, proving that they needed more than just upper-crust European middlemen to develop a market, they needed locals who were familiar with the music, language, and culture.

After getting settled in their hotel, Gaisberg and Lebel met with another local agent whom Gaisberg refers to as “Old Malacapff” who left them to try to scare up local performers. Malacapff returned with a man named Izmail Abdrashitov, whom Gaisberg pitilessly described as “a petrified, yellow-skinned accordeon player with a musty smell to him. We asked him would he stop if we paid him 5 R. [rubles] and bring in someone who could sing. He agreed.” Abdrashitov would be one of the few artists credited on this quick trip, with 18 discs to his name.

He continued: “Next came two vile-smelling creatures with little squeezed up eyes, broad fat faces. Their love for hair made them tack on their heads a variety of greasy mildewed strands of false hair until it reached their knees. Their singing would bring tears to your eyes. The song would be a rhythm of about 8 bars, repeated over and over again, to the accompaniment of 5th in the bass (accordeon) organ-point fashion. We asked the accordeon player if that was the best he could do, and he said it was. He said Tartars have no artists or places of amusements, and he had to recruit these people from disreputable resorts. After they left, a priest came in and recited verses from the Coran (or better yet, sang).”

The “vile-smelling creatures” were left uncredited on their single issued disc, and it is still unclear whom the priest may have been (though it looks like he was accompanied on some discs by Abdrashitov on accordion).

Gaisberg loved to gallivant around Europe, going to the theater, dining with performers, playing cards, and entertaining a host of ladies (so many pass through his diaries, it’s difficult to keep track), but Kazan likely gave him something he’d never experienced: culture shock.

“The Russian part especially contains handsome buildings and churches. Streets are orderly, and there are plenty of parks. But the Tartar section is beyond doubt the dirtiest, filthiest, vile-smelling place I have ever come across. All the Tartars have that peculiar Oriental smell about them that seems to asphyxiate you. I always felt faint when near them. They are quite Oriental in appearance. Small eyes; expressionless immobile features. The women of the better clans are never seen. Strict seclusion is enforced, and should they go out it is always closely veiled. The custom is a laudable one if all women were as ugly as the commoner class we saw. […] We did however make the acquaintance of some beautiful Russian girls. One was a pure type of Russian blonde, and the other of gypsy-type, dark. It cost me about $25 for their society.”

On the morning of June 25th, the group were still hunting for talent. “Our first people were some Tatar students with their master. They sang us some songs. Then two more women. Later another man. The different songs these people sang sounded every one like the other.”

None of these performers were credited, except for “another man,” who was accordionist and singer named Yarulla Valiulin. It seems they made one more attempt to find talent that evening. After dinner, Abdrashitov took the group to a Tatar bar, which Gaisberg described this way:

“Before charging the Russians with being dirty, one must get his standard of filth fixed by visiting this joint. They crowd about 8 men and 8 women in an unventilated box of a room – in the centre a table with a kerosene lamp. The harmonica would start up one of the merry monotone dirges, then the crowd would join in and continue for half an hour with the most solemn expressions on their stony faces. Well we saw all we could and got out as quick as possible. I wanted to take a photo of two girls but they refused saying, “God would be displeased”. A rouble induced them to forget Allah. These girls instinctively cover their faces when a man looks at them. We tried to get them to take off the mantle in singing in the machine, but without it they were as embarrassed as young school girls.”

They left the next morning.

This uncredited disc is likely one of the few in existence from the Kazan sessions. If Gaisberg’s diary can be compared with the original ledgers, this anonymous, unaccompanied trio are probably the “Tatar students with their master.” The title is “Taravikh.” The word literally means “gather,” but I believe this is an excerpt of what is known as the “taravikh-namaz,” a prayer for Tatar Muslims meant to be performed collectively, along with the night prayer, during Ramadan. I find it unlikely that anyone other than the performers had any inclination of the spiritual nature of what was being sung. Still, it’s far better we have it, than not.

Trio – Taravikh

Label: “Berliner’s Gramophone”
Issue Number: 24023
Matrix Number: 2951 (2951a in ledgers)

Much gleaned from Hugh Strotbaum’s Recording Pioneers, and Pekka Gronow’s work.

Pavel Toydemar – Oy, Payramen; Ikten Koktyt; Oy, Luy Modesh

Mari El is a Republic of Russia located about 400 km east of Moscow, just north of the city of Kazan and Russian Tatarstan. The northern bank of the Volga cuts through Mari El’s southwest, then runs along its southern border. About half of the Republic is Russian, but the other half is made up of Mari people, an ethnic minority that has been present in the region for possibly as far back as the 5th century. The Mari are considered a “Finno-Ugric” culture…meaning, essentially, that they speak a language that is from the same family as Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and about 35 other languages.

The Soviet recording monolith is fascinating because it’s so complicated, musically and politically. Prior to World War I and the Russian Revolution, all the major European conglomerates like The Gramophone Company, Pathé, and the German labels like Homocord and Favorite, were quite active in Russia. So were many smaller, independent labels like Syrena and Apollo based in Warsaw, Extraphone based in Kiev, and RAOG, the Russian Stockholders Company of Grammophone. During this period, while popular and classical music were the norm, thousands of recordings from the Caucasus and Central Asia were made, as well as ethnic minority music of Russia found closer to Europe. Train travel made cities accessible to recording engineers during these early years, as well as for recording artists not based within those cities. Recordings were made as far east as Tashkent in Uzbekistan.

After both the War and the Revolution, commercial recording ground to a near complete halt. The industry as a whole was socialized and became a state-run monopoly. Some discs from the pre-Revolutionary years were re-pressed during the early 1920s but not many, it seems. By the mid-20s, two imprints, MuzPred and then MuzTrust, were pressing discs once again, but it was nothing compared to the vibrant scene in, say, 1912. In the early 30s, however, Stalin began promoting “national music cultures” within the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (never mind that the borders of some “ethnic” ASSRs were created artificially). In 1934, he suggested to composers and musicians that overt nationalism was, in fact, bourgeois. Over time, all kinds of music was being recorded in dozens of local languages. Some was operatic propaganda, some was classical music in local languages by composers from unions, but some recordings captured as part of this grand plan were excellent examples of local folk music.

The Soviet recording industry had multiple factories, and each plant had its own label for most of its existence: Aprelevski Zavod (for the Aprelevka plant, near Moscow), Noginski Zavod (in Noginsk – in operation until WWII), Tashkentski Zavod (in Uzbekistan, created from salvaged technology from the Noginsk plant during WWII), the Riga plant, and the Leningrad Plant. Eventually it all became known as Melodiya in 1964. By 1960, when they were still pressing 78s, annual sales were approximately 95 million, and they had discs in over 40 languages, from Yakut to Uyghur, from Avar (Dagestan) to Bashkir (Bashkortostan), to Abazin in the Caucasus, from Komi to Chechen to Udmurt.

In 1959, there were at least 69 78rpm discs in the Mari language available. This was one of them, recorded in 1938. It’s amazing their paucity, today.

Pavel Stepanovich Toydemar was born in 1899 in the rural village of Verkhniy Kozhlayer. Considered the first “professional” modern-day Mari musician, Toydemar studied music and Mari theater in Moscow, later becoming an employee at Moscow’s Museum of Ethnology. While studying, he met Mari composer Ivan Klyuchnikov-Palantai, who urged him to become an expert in Mari folk instruments and to document Mari traditional music. Toydemar played the svirel (flute) and the shuvyr (bagpipe), but his primary instrument became the kusle (also karsh). The kusle is a zither that is played on the lap, and has a similar structure and sound to that of the Finnish kantele – delicate, soft, and artful.

Toydemar plays three tunes here in a medley, the last being a classic Mari song that translates to “The Marten Playing.” A vocal version was performed in Road to Life (1931), the Soviet Union’s first sound film. Toydemar died in 1958, while touring.

Pavel Toydemar – Oy, Payramen; Ikten Koktyt; Oy, Luy Modesh

Label: Aprelevsky Zavod
Issue Number: 6980
Matrix Number: 6980/4 1-0673

(Pavel Toydemar – image from

Saveli Walevitch – Bayoushky Bayou

Sometimes a song that’s deeply instilled in a culture can be just as effective to a listener as a piece that’s entirely new – although, effective in perhaps different ways. This classic Russian lullaby is usually titled and transliterated to “Kazach’ya Kolybel’naya,” or “The Cossack Lullaby.” While there appear to be several iterations of this ubiquitous tune, the version sung on this record is an abbreviated version of the one written by the famed Russian romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov, written in 1840.

It is sung by a mother to a son. As a lullaby, it certainly has a preoccupation with war, and includes a malicious swipe at the Chechens (a translation is below). Humanity loves to throw each other under the proverbial bus, doesn’t it. This was not the only poem where Lermontov uses the phrase “vicious” or “evil Chechen,” which I’ve seen whitewashed in some translations as “sly brigand.” Though I claim no prowess in this area, the historic reason for this is likely because Lermontov at the time had become the commander of a Cossack regimen of the Russian army, and fought the Chechens precisely in 1840. Lermontov was, and is still unquestionably considered to be a brilliant, even Byronesque writer, but no doubt a complicated man. He was an aristocrat, excessive, and often described as scornful and, like Lord Byron, “obnoxious.”

Yet, this performance by the relatively unknown Saveli Walevitch, with his guitar that threatens to go out of tune and the occasional random studio noises (10 and 15 seconds in), is perfectly earnest in its execution. Although he had a career spanning several decades, touring across the United States and Europe singing all manner of Russian folk songs, Walevitch’s output consists of just four songs on two records – all recorded in Camden, New Jersey for the Victor company, on May 24, 1928.

As a performer, Walevitch appears as early as 1921, in a folk song collection titled “Folk Songs of Many Peoples.” By the mid-1920s, he was regularly playing places like Steinway Hall in New York, Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the University of North Carolina, Stanford University, the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as for local groups like the Women’s City Club of Detroit, the Society of Arts in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Scarsdale Golf Club. His records were favorably mentioned in phonograph newsletters. A portrait of him was exhibited at Barnard College that same year. His wife, Anne Whelpley Walevitch (1893-1975), from Chicago, was his touring companion, accompanist, and wrote his program notes. He died in 1963.

Below is a transliteration of Walevitch’s version of the Cossack Lullaby, followed by a translation (any corrections needed, please advise).

Kazach’ya Kolybel’naya (as sung by Walevitch)

Spi, mladenets moy prekrasnyy,
Bayushki bayu;
Tikho smotrit mesyats yasnyy
V kolybel’ tvoyu. (x2)

Po kamnyam struitsya terik,
Pleshchit mutnyy val;
Zloi chechen polzyot na bereg,
Tochit svoi knizhal (x2)

No otets tvoi staryy voin
‎Zakalyon v boyu;
‎Spi, malyutka, bud’ spakoyin,
Bayushki bayu (x2)

Sam uznayesh, budit vremya,
Brannoye zhit’yo;
Smyelo vdyenish nogu v stremya
I voz’mosh’ ruzh’yo (x2)

Bogatyr’ ty budesh’ s vidu
‎I kazak dushoi;
Provozhat’ tebya ya vyydu —
‎Ty makhnosh’ rukoy (x2)

Da, gotovyas’ v boy opasnyy,
‎Pomni mat’ svoyu;
Spi, mladenets moy prekrasnyy,
‎Bayushki bayu (x2)

Translation by David Mark Bennett:

Sleep, my dear, beloved baby,
‎Bayushki bayu;
Silently the crystal moon shines
‎On your cradle blue (x2)

Muddy Terek River splashes
Boulders in the shade;
Evil Chechen creeps ashore while
‎Sharpening his blade (x2)

But your father is a warrior,
‎Battle-hardened, too:
Sleep, my son, and don’t you worry,
‎Bayushki-bayu (x2)

Soon enough there’ll be a time to
‎Learn the soldier’s way;
Bravely step into the stirrup,
Shoot while in the fray (x2)

You’ll look like a hero and be
‎Cossack through and through.
I’ll go out to see you off—
‎And you’ll just wave, it’s true (x2)

Think, when bracing for fierce battle,
‎Of your mother true;
Sleep, my dear, beloved baby,
‎Bayushki-bayu (x2)

Saveli Walevitch – Bayoushky Bayou

Label: Victor
Issue Number: 81263
Matrix Number: BVE-45063

Image courtesy of Amazon. Additional information from Lermontov’s “A Hero Of Our Time: A Critical Companion, edited by Lewis Bagby. For another excellent Walevitch track, see the Secret Museum Vol 1 (where else?)…