“Fantastic”, Armin Siebert bursts out when asked about Markscheider Kunst. “They are the best musicians in all of Russia,” said the knowledgeable owner of the Berlin-based record label Eastblok Music. His company, which specializes in music from Eastern Europe, released the Saint Petersburg group’s 10th album last year.
But when you think about it, the sound of Markscheider Kunst has about as much to do with Eastern European music as herrings do with bananas. The nine Russians are not polka musicians; instead they focus on African, Latin American and black music.
“From the get go, Markscheider Kunst has been on the list of bands with whom we really wanted to work,” said Sieber. “And after many concerts over the years, they’ve built up a loyal following in Germany that we can rely on.”
Markscheider Kunst has been touring Germany regularly for the past 15 years. When they first started out, Russian friends living in Germany organized their performances. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Berlin in particular has seen the growth of a substantial Russian community. The city lies at the crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, from politics and science to business and culture.
Is that reason enough for a band playing black music from Saint Petersburg to record for a small Berlin label? “We did some albums for EMI,” said Sergey “Efr” Efremenko, guitarist and singer of Markscheider Kunst. “But for a big company, you are a number. A small label must be interested in you as they do not have many bands. Besides, a German label is interesting to us as we play a lot in Germany.”
How did Efr, a Russian, become an aficionado of African music? “At the end of the sixties, my father fell in love with Beat music,” Efremenko said. “When I was a child, I fell asleep to Pink Floyd and woke up hearing Deep Purple.” When he was 10 years old, he took up the guitar and joined the school band. While he was no fan of the music played there, it gave him access to cables, amplifiers and microphones, equipment needed for rock music that was hard to come by in the Soviet Union.
Efremenko played what people wanted to hear and when he was on his own, he practiced the rockabilly of Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent. At some point, he started to ask himself about the origins of that music and he bought books and recordings. That’s when he figured out he could play blues music – but singing the music was out of the question. So he thought, “That’s black music. I should ask a black guy.”
Back then – in 1990 – the 18-year-old Efremenko had just begun studying at university. He wanted to become a Markscheider, a mining engineer familiar with the different layers of earth – Mark in old German means ‘border’ – and who decides where tunnels should be dug. When he was in university, Efremenko met a Congolese student, Seraphin Kentokevich Makagila, called “Selenge.”
Efremenko played him a few of his blues songs. The man listened attentively for a while before saying, “That’s good music, but I’m not from the United States. I’m from Africa where we have a very different style of blues.” Then he put on a tape of soukous, which included kwassa kwassa and other African music style. Three songs later, Efremenko realized that blues only made up a very small part of a huge variety of music styles.
The Russian soon understood how African rhythms and sounds found their way around the world. “White guys abducted black people from Africa to America to work as slaves,” Efremenko said. “They got in with the locals living there and developed new styles such as cumbia, salsa, merengue, ska and reggae.”
Efremenko was sure that he “wanted to play as many of these African music styles possible but with a Russian spirit. And people would love it – everywhere,” he said. He was proven right. These days, he and his group play in the former Soviet Union, in German speaking countries, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Egypt and the United States. Internationally renowned world music greats such as Manu Chao and ska legends, the Skatalites, have invited Markscheider Kunst to play at their concerts.
The road has been a long one, however. In the early 1990s, the first incarnation of Markscheider Kunst with Selenge as their singer did not even have a practice room. Bands that played their own – maybe even “Western” – music were few and far between in communist Russia. “We rarely had opportunities for concerts since there were hardly any clubs to begin with,” said Efremenko. “That is, until the TamTam opened its doors.”
Most bands in the Soviet Union’s first rock club played punk music and had names Russians had a hard time pronouncing, like “Messer für Frau Müller” (Knife for Mrs. Miller). The names were supposed to prove they really belonged to the Russian underground. “That’s how we came up with the name Markscheider Kunst,” Efremenko said. “We knew that with this name, we would never be of any interest to MTV, McDonalds and Coca Cola.”
Markscheider became the house band at TamTam. Only when the club shut down in 1996 did they start playing at other venues – Saint Petersburg by then had a few other clubs and concert venues. With a sound moving more and more in direction of latino, Selenge left and formed his own band, Simba Vibration. Markscheider Kunst continued performing. After one gig, two Finnish fans told them several of their friends back home would love to see them live. And that led to their first gig abroad later that year.
Until then, Efremenko had never been outside Russia. “Traveling abroad was unusual during the communist era,” he said. “I was a good student but I never learned English. When the teacher asked me why not, I responded ‘why should I?’ I’ll never need to speak it.” Efremenko now needs English all the time. “Russian is the lingua franca in the former Soviet Union – everywhere else we go, everything takes place in English.”
That of course also applies to Berlin. And yet Efremenko enjoys a different relationship with the German capital than with London, Madrid, Paris or Prague. “Our international career began in Berlin,” he said. “Nowhere else have we played as often, nowhere outside of Russia do we have so many friends, and so many fans. That’s why I feel almost at home in Berlin.”