As a teenager, Bulat Khalilov had a strong dislike for the culture he grew up in. Now, his record label Ored Recordings is one the standard bearers of traditional folk music from the Caucasus. In recent years he's visited ethnic groups across the region to make field recordings of their deep-rooted musical traditions. What started out as naive curiosity about "cool" folk music, has become an impassioned mission to breathe new life into the traditional music of the Caucasus.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photo: Alisa Lyudinshina
Abkhazians, Pontic Greeks, Dargins, Chechens, Laks and Kalmyks. You’re forgiven for not having heard of all the ethnic groups living in the Russian part of the Caucasus alone. It’s a region the size of a stamp within the largest country on Earth, but within it, there exists a huge number of different languages and cultures. Bulat Khalilov - who is of Circassian descent and lives in Nalchik, the capital of the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria - knows all too well how unfamiliar these different groups are, even to each other. "People in Chechnya know nothing about Kabardino-Balkaria, while those in Dagestan know nothing about what's going on in Chechnya. Our cultures are closely related, but at the same time we live our lives separated from one another."
Growing up, Khalilov barely knew about his own culture, let alone those of the neighbouring republics. "As a teenager I loved music - rock music at first and then goth and black metal. I consciously sought out weird stuff, stuff that sounded unusual. The only 'traditional' Circassian music I knew was pop music: cheap turbofolk. And for a black metal fan that was terrible. I looked at Norway, which has a proper black metal scene, and at Berlin, with its fantastic electronic music scene, and I thought: is this what our culture is? I hated it.
But turbofolk is just the tip of the Circassian musical iceberg - something Khalilov had to learn from friends in Moscow. "They asked if I was Circassian, and I said 'yeah, why?'. Then they sent me some links with real Circassian music. It blew my mind!" This opened up a whole new world for Khalilov and his childhood friend Timor Kodzokov, co-founder of Ored Recordings. "This was real underground music - and it was our music."
“People always talk about ‘the past’. But which past? Traditional music didn’t all come about in one morning, before being preserved until today. It changes!”
The journey of discovery that followed had only just begun when Khalilov and Kodzokov managed to get in touch with Vincent Moon, the French filmmaker and sound artist who had created concert films for Mogwai, Arcade Fire and R.E.M., and directed the Take Away Shows for La Blogotheque. Moon had already been travelling the world for several years capturing local music traditions on film for his Collection Petites Planètes project, when in 2012 he decided to come to Russia. "We were huge fans," says Khalilov. "This man had worked with Sigur Rós, and now he was going to be documenting traditional music in Russia?" The pair dearly wanted to get more exposure for Circassian music and other music from the Caucasus, "but we thought we would have to pay him millions of dollars to work with our music." Still, Khalilov decided to email Moon to ask if he'd like to come to the Caucasus. Of course I'll come, came the reply, and all of a sudden Khalilov was Moon's guide and co-producer. Just like that.
"That was the first time we really went out there to find music. It was a strange period - very intense. By working with Vincent we got to know our own culture much better." In part thanks to the subsequent documentary series, the project gained Khalilov and Kodzokov some name recognition - more so in Moscow than in their own region. They'd really gotten a taste for it now. "We wanted to dig deeper. With Vincent, we’d recorded five musicians, but there were many more interesting musicians we wanted to record. Should we wait for Vincent to come back, we wondered." They decided not to, and together they founded Ored Recordings, named after the Circassian word for "song". The label consists almost entirely of field recordings: musicians playing traditional songs in whatever they deem an authentic setting. Nothing more, nothing less.
Their curiosity led Khalilov and Kodzokov into relatively unknown territory for their first expeditions. "When we went to Dagestan to record the music of the Laks and the Dargins, our approach was very non-academic. We weren't doing research. We just wanted to record music we thought was cool." It taught Khalilov a valuable lesson. "Thanks to our guide, a local, we made some great recordings, but I kept asking dumb questions, because I just wasn't prepared. I'd ask, "Can you play some, uhm, older songs." And that was a silly question, because sometimes the songs aren't that old. Fortunately, there were these old ladies there who loved the fact we enjoyed their music. I was a bit of an idiot about it, but I was open-minded and so it all worked out. Afterwards, I realised we needed to strike a balance between a purely emotional approach and a scientific one. To get the right answers you need to ask the right questions."
These are recordings from one of Ored Recordings’ first expeditions – to Dagestan. “We’re not sure if we recorded entire folk songs or merely fragments. The Dargin people don’t attach any value to the complete. Creativity and performance is a natural and spontanoues process for them.”
Recordings of the Balkhar Ensemble during Ored Recordings’ first expedition to Dagestan.
So before every expedition, Khalilov now dives into all the relevant background reading. "But we're not an ethnographic institute," he notes. "For academic ethnographers a recording might illustrate a piece of research; for us the research illustrates the pieces of music. On our Bandcamp page,, we try to provide additional information about each piece so listeners can understand what they’re listening to. But it's okay if you don't care about that, if you just want to listen to some cool music without thinking about it too much. But we want to give listeners the freedom to look further; they didn't have that freedom when we didn't do any research ourselves."
Either way, Ored Recordings is distinct from other ethnographic researchers in the region. "The problem in the Caucasus is that a lot of the ethnographic research is highly patriotic. Circassian researchers will only work on Circassian music, and don't know anything about Azeri or Dargin music. They also don't really care about the context music is made in - or the music industry. But because we're a pair of hipsters from the indie scene, we know that traditional music can tie into a more modern context. We're not interested in telling everyone how great our cultural heritage is, how great our past is, and how great our ancestors were. We don't care how great something was. We care about people's day-to-day lives and the traditional music of today."
"This isn't about the music of the past. People always talk about ‘the past’. But which past? Traditional music didn't all come about in one morning, before being preserved until today. It changes! And if you freeze it in time, you destroy it. It becomes a museum; like a corpse of a culture." No tradition is completely pure. Pursuing that kind of purity is tantamount to fascism, says Khalilov. "Sometimes you might think: this is real, authentic Circassian music, but then you look into it and discover it was influenced by some nomadic tribe or something. Even in the past nothing was pure."
“Traditional music is alive and well in the Caucasus. It’s open minded and it’s avant garde.”
This approach does create a complicated dilemma for Khalilov and Kodzokov: if nothing is ever pure, and being susceptible to change from outside is "proof that a culture is in a good state of health," then why not allow full cross-pollination between traditional and modern music? It's an impossible question to answer. "Traditional music is always changing. Something is always lost, and something is always gained. But as other more powerful and influential forms of art receive government support and funding, that could mean the end of some traditional music. On the one hand we don't want to be a bunch of blockhead fascists who only care about purity, but on the other hand we do want to preserve traditional styles of music. Not because they are authentic, but because the destruction of traditions means a loss of diversity - and because they sound cool."
The idea that many of the traditions collected by Ored Recordings were more alive in the past than they are today is a sad one. "When you look in the archives you realise that traditional music has become a subculture, because once it was part of everyone's day-to-day life. It can make you sad, but eventually what we're doing is not about that sadness." After all, these are traditions rooted in hundreds of years of history. Over that period Kabardino-Balkaria alone has been governed by Turkic peoples, Mongols, Georgians, the Ottoman and Persian empires, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Russian tsars, and the Soviets. Cossacks arrived, and the Balkars fell victim to mass deportations under Stalin (only to return decades later). Many of the traditions that exist today have survived all this, and that is a testament to their resilience, and to the fact that the threat of extinction is nothing new. "I recently read a book by a 19th-century ethnographer who worked in the Caucasus. [Adil-Girey Keshev's Notes of the Circassian, 1860 - ed.] He writes that traditions are 'no longer alive' and 'something from the past', and that what he was reporting on was just the 'tip of the iceberg' of a culture that had been lost. People always dream of a lost golden age and a glory-filled past."
Ored Recordings, and the way Khalilov works, have changed significantly in the past few years. He admits that at first he felt he was on a quest to "find some sort of treasure full of ancient and authentic music," untouched by 'modern' things such as the Soviet Union or religion. "As young metalheads we were convinced that real folk music was something pre-Christian and pre-Islamic. We thought that any influence exerted by Soviet institutions was inherently bad. Then we discovered that the Soviet Ministry of Culture and the music schools also brought about some really cool music, which built on local traditions. A lot of things have also changed because we gained experience: we realised that older doesn’t necessarily mean better; that different traditions can exist in parallel to one another; and that we can do something with all of those traditions. It's all about diversity to us.”
Recordings from an expedition to Abkhazia. This is an example of folk music created in Soviet institutions. The Gunda ensemble is part of the Abkhazia State Philharmonic but performs music of Circassian, Georgian, Russian, and Ukrainian origin.
Ored Recordings is not about the past, but about the present and the future. That’s clear. And the most important goal for the future is to create new contexts to showcase traditional music from the Caucasus. “Certain Circassian songs were written for the military, for marching into battle. That context has now disappeared – we no longer go to war – but it would be ridiculous to mourn that loss. The most important context for listening to traditional music is the artistic context. This music needs to be played, listened to and enjoyed." In this respect, festivals are the future, says Khalilov. In the summer of 2020 Ored Recordings will be showcasing a special music programme at the Welcome to the Village and Valkhof festivals in the Netherlands, provided the corona crisis doesn't get in the way. Performances at showcase festivals in Moscow have already taken place. "I'm glad we're performing at festivals with contemporary music, rather than folk festivals," says Khalilov. "We're not being invited because we're doing something odd, to be gaped at like monkeys in the zoo, but because this music and this culture is really cool, and there's a future for it."
Recordings of a war song about the 18th- and 19th-century Caucasians Wars.
And Ored Recordings is doing more than this. Expeditions to visit Circassian musicians in Georgia and to the Russian republic of Adygea are being planned. Kodzokov (himself a musician) is working with the Circassian group Jrpjej on a more experimental interpretation of regional musical traditions. In the future they hope to be able to take an even more professional approach: producing their own documentaries, conducting more research, and supporting musicians. "Traditional music is alive and well in the Caucasus," says Khalilov. "It is open minded and avant garde. We hope that by promoting this music we'll spur people on to try something new, to create something new. People want to hear this. You can make money from it - maybe even earn a living. So please keep creating this music, and create new music about life today."
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.
UPDATE: Due to government restrictions in light of the Corona crisis, both Valkhof and Welcome to the Village festival have been cancelled.