Sunday 30 November 2014

A voice from the past

I am not sure what I had expected.

But I know I had been apprehensive ever since Staffan told me about it, a couple of months ago. I had been pretending it wasn't happening. I was afraid to be disappointed.

Many, many years ago in a far away galaxy my father told me to go and see a documentary. Documentaries are typically not on teenagers' priority lists, but he insisted because it was a documentary about music, called Seven tones in a silence. It was seven short documentary snippets about various musical phenomena. One of them was a young man of Asian origin who sang pirate songs on board of a fishing boat off Kamchatka. This man was the reason my father wanted me to watch the film.

It was our first encounter with Yuli Kim. At that time, we all loved Bulat Okudzjava, and some of us loved other underground bards, and Kim soon became famous. He had returned from Kamchatka where he served his mandatory three years of teaching after his teacher certificate, and he taught in a school just around the corner from my school. He wrote songs for movies, and that's how my father got to know him.

The time was bad, and he got caught in a dissident movement. He lost his job, but continued writing for films under pseudonym. Then, in 1968, he and my father collaborated on a musical version of As You Like It. I was sixteen and a political idealist. I hated the regime. The performance of As You Like It alluded to the regime. Kim's songs emphasised the satire. My father brought news from rehearsals every day. Yesterday this song was cut. Today, this authentic Shakespeare monologue was considered by the censors too subversive. I went to the dress researsal. Half of Kim's songs had been forbidden. Partly because they were potentially subversive, partly because he was a non-person, pseudonym or not. But we had them all recorded on our antedeluvial tape recorder. I knew them all by heart. I still know them all by heart. The play opened and was quickly closed down. For me, it will always remain a symbol of Art against Tyranny.

My father and Kim did some more musicals together. He would come and sing, and my father would record, then orchestrate. There were more banned songs. They were wonderful songs, witty, clever, beautifully crafted, filled to the brim with literary and musical allusions. I shared them with friends. A new song by Kim was an event. You could be sentenced to five years in a labour camp for singing, listening, sharing or just keeping a tape.

I moved to Sweden, but when I went back to visit there would be theatre performances with Kim's songs. And he would come and sing at my parents'. Once, I remember, he met my daughter, two years old. He asked her what her name was. She said, in Russian, “Yulya”. He laughted: “My name is also Yulya” (that's Russian gender-neutral endearments for you). In the tape recorded that everning, you can hear Julia's eager two-year-old voice in pauses: “Sing more!”

One of the last times I was in Moscow, Kim knew I was in the audience at his concert – by that time, he was a famous performer, finally acknowledged by the authorities. He dedicated the performance of a song to me, a song called “Poor Masha” (actually a political song about Andrei Sakharov).

Because I know so many of Kim's songs by heart I often sing them to myself. I always sing them when I am rowing at the gym – very powerful.

Anyway, here I am, in Cambridge, twice removed from my home town and a million years away from my sixteen-year-old self. I am in a church in Victoria Street. I am shaking. I see him alone in a corner. I approach him and say: “Hello, Yulya, I am Masha”. He looks at me. We embrace. I don't want to disturb him before the performance, but he comes and sits by me and Staffan, and we talk theatre, music, politics and grandchildren.

Then he sings all those songs, and there is no church in Victoria Street, no Cambridge, no forty-five years in between. Has someone from my past miraculoulsy reached me in my present? Have I miralulously moved back to my past?

I don't know how to describe it. It is not just hearing your teenage idol, forty-five years later, live. It is someone who used to come to dinner. And after the concert, and before he is attacked by people asking for autographs, he comes to me to say goodbye.

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