Interview with Vadim Kolpakov, Romani musician from Russia, on integration
Vadim Kolpakov currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. He comes from the great tradition of Romani performers from Russia, a tradition that has given us the film star Yul Brynner, the Romen theater company, and the singers Valentina Ponomaryova and Alyona Buzylyova. It was already clear before I interviewed him what one of our main topics of conversation would be: Guitar playing, singing, dancing, acting...he can do them all. It's in his blood.
I already knew Vadim Kolpakov is a brilliant musician, but he is more than just that. He is someone who is not afraid to take action, who supports Romani culture and heritage, who breaks down barriers between us Roma and the majority population. He takes a deep interest in who the Roma are and what will become of us. In short, he is a great model for our nation. We discussed discrimination against the Romani people and avenues of escape from a difficult situation. I am glad I can share this interview with you.
Q: Musician, dancer, composer, singer - that's a broad range of accomplishments you have. What do you consider yourself to be?
A: Well, I'm mainly a guitar player.
Q: Who taught you to play the seven-stringed guitar?
A: That's an interesting story, but I'll keep it short and sweet: I didn't start to take a serious interest in the guitar until I was 14. Before then I played a bit, studied, danced and sang, but I started to be serious about the guitar at 14. Then I moved to Moscow to live with my uncle, Alexander Kolpakov, who was the musical director of the Romen theater at the age of 30. He was my teacher of Russian seven-stringed guitar for the next six years.
This is the so-called Russian-Romani guitar, also called the "Gypsy guitar", it was invented at the end of the 18th century and Romani musicians adopted it as their own at the time and used it to compose Romani music. That's why we also sometimes call it Romani guitar. The same happened when Django Reinhardt and other Romani musicians started to play Gypsy Jazz - people called it a "Gypsy guitar". So yes, the main thing for me is definitely...guitar-playing.
Q: Your career began in Moscow at the Romen theater company, a Romani company. Could you share some of your experiences from that time with us?
A: I could talk forever about that. Before I started working at the Romen, I studied at the Romani arts school in Moscow, the Gilori. I was so young I couldn't even have my own passport yet. I wasn't yet 16, and in Russia you can't get your own passport until then. My uncle taught me a repertoire he designed for me - so after he had taught me for about a year, and after my studies at Gilori, I was ready to work at the Romen theater.
From the start it was very easy for me because of the people I worked with there - Romani artists who were just out of this world. They helped me become part of the theater, of the performances. It was a brilliant experience. I was just a student, you know, a young guy who didn't know anything (laughs), onstage I wasn't yet sure of myself, but they were very helpful.
Q: Let's cross the Atlantic now. When did you come to the United States?
A: I remained for good in the United States in 2004. Before then I had worked about eight years at the Romen theater, from 1996 to 2004. However, when I was 17, it was in 1999, we did a tour of the United States. It was a big project called Gypsy Caravan, and it was organized by the World Music Institute in New York. We performed in about 25 cities throughout the entire US. It was an amazing experience, my first tour with three of my uncles and various bands. There were groups there like the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble, Taraf De Haidouks, Kaly Jak from Hungary, the Musafir group from India. There was a total of six bands and we performed Russian Romani music. That was my first visit.
I then came to the US when I was about 23, in 2003, with the Russian music ensemble Talisman. Together we created several projects on Romani topics, to the signature tunes of Stesha Soldátová - that was a famous Romani singer whose heyday was around 1820, a girlfriend of Pushkin – it was very interesting. We toured the USA also. I settled here the year after.
Q: Let's talk about the Kolpakov Trio and the groups you are working with. You are a member of two groups, the Kolpakov Trio and Via Romen. What is the difference between them and why are you in two?
A: The difference is that the Kolpakov Trio was formed by my uncle at the start of 1990 and it's basically his project. Via Romen is my baby, I created it in the States with the aim of supporting Romani music in North America.
Q: What are you working on now and what are your plans for the future?
A: Via Romen has recorded some things, we have several CDs. The next step is to record our next CD and do a tour of North America. Our show isn't just music, we also want to raise awareness about the problems of Romani people in Europe. We can lecture and give presentations also. Our band includes a Romani academic, Petra Gelbart, who recently earned her PhD at Harvard. We have very good people working with us on these projects, as you can see.
In May we were at a Romani festival in California. We go there every year. It's one of the main Romani events in North America. It's called the Herdeljezi Festival in the town of Sebastopol, California, and it's organized by the Voice of Roma organization. We definitely want to continue playing there annually.
Q: Carnegie Hall, Wembley Stadium, Maracana Stadium in Rio De Janeiro... You have performed on some of the greatest stages in the world. Which performances have been the most memorable?
A: The most memorable? I don't know. Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro is the biggest stage in the world. We had an audience of about 120 000, but it wasn't so memorable because we had played at many stadiums before then, when we were touring with Madonna. I remember the first place we played during that tour. It was in Great Britain, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff City. That was also an enormous venue, where about 100 000 people could fit. That was my first experience with such a large place, it's hard to forget seeing so many people in front of you for the first time on a stage like that.
Q: How did your collaboration with Madonna begin?
A: We were at her birthday party in 2007. Our friend Eugene Hutz, who is now the leader of the famous band Gogol Bordello, collaborated with her on her show and her film. Because he is a big fan of my uncle's music, he introduced us to Madonna. She fell in love with the CD "Rodava Tut". That was the first-ever CD the Kolpakov Trio recorded, very traditional, really pure Romani music from Russia. Just two guitars and my uncle singing with the other members. I wasn't part of the band yet, because I was too young. Madonna liked it and invited us to her birthday party with our band, we performed there. Then she said: Look, let's try doing something together and seeing what comes of it. Then she invited us to play with her on tour.
Q: I want to ask you about the concert in Romania where Madonna made her statement about discrimination against Romani people in Eastern Europe. That statement received a lot of media coverage. Were you surprised she said that?
A: No, I was not surprised. We had already talked about it beforehand, so she knew about the situation of Romani people in Eastern Europe. She's an activist against anyone who hates homosexuals, Jews, Roma, etc. She's a real warrior about such causes. She thinks about people, and that's why she wanted to say what she did. It was a big deal. Then the media started to falsely claim that there is no discrimination there, which was unpleasant.
Q: What's the best way to fight against Romaphobia in your view?
A: I personally believe the best way is for the young generation to get the best possible education they can, so I would like to give this message to the young Romani generation: Study. Study as much as you can. I know our nation is a bit lazy where study is concerned (laughs), and sometimes it's hard, as I mentioned before, to attend school, but don't give up. I want you to be the brilliant leaders of our nation. I know it's hard because in some places like the Czech Republic, Hungary, or Romania you really can't attend mainstream schools and integrate into society. If we succeed in producing more educated people who acquire positions, I believe it will be possible to stop Romaphobia. Then it will be possible to move forward.
Good things are also happening today. For example, there is the international Khetanes Artists' Initiative, where I am a member. This has the potential to do something good for everyone. Once again, it depends on how many people, how many great representatives we will have.
Q: You've been to the Czech Republic more than once. Did you like it?
A: It's a delightful country, good people and all. The only thing I don't like is the high level of discrimination against Romani people there, I have mixed feelings about that. We hope that will change. Otherwise it is really a beautiful country, with beautiful architecture and a beautiful culture.
Special thanks go to Tereza Bottman and Petra Gelbart for their voluntary assistance with this interview.