Letter from Warsaw: Silenced at home, Belarusan bands cross border

February 3, 2011

IN WARSAW On the run from Gravitation, Igor Znyk dashes into the coffee shop next door, orders a Coke, never touches it, bounces up to take a phone call, wonders about tonight's two bands, and tomorrow's, and the next day's, smiles a disheveled smile, and explains.

This, he knows, is his moment - and his moments don't come around very often.

Gravitation is a bar, at 6 Brewery St., down by the banks of the Vistula River. (Okay, in Polish the bar is called Grawitacja, and it's on Ulica Browarna.) Tonight a Belarusan rock band called Dali is playing there, thanks to Znyk. This rumpled 40-year-old Pole is, more or less by default, seen by some as the angel of Belarusan indie music - a niche market if there ever was one, but a market that's harshly frowned on just across the border in its home country.

For six years, he's been scouting Belarusan bands for opportunities like this one: playing in a cramped club, in a foreign city, where there's no cover charge and thus no gate for the musicians. Znyk has scrounged up donations from various nonprofit groups, prominent among them the Free Belarus Initiative, to provide a little money for Dali's four members.

They almost didn't make it. Can that possibly be a surprise? But while Belarusan police continue to crack down harshly on dissent, it wasn't politics that delayed the band this time. Dali's car broke down. Or that was the story. Maybe somebody forgot to show up.

It's 300 miles from Minsk to Warsaw, and when they finally got going, there was about no time to spare. Znyk knew there could be problems at the border - not with Belarusan officials, but on the Polish side. He called a friend who lives near the border crossing and knows the guards; the friend called the guards and said, "Let these guys through." So they zoomed through the diplomatic lane and somehow were ready to play on Brewery Street at 8 p.m. A Polish band follows.

Whenever Dali plays, it's a political statement. Not because the band plays protest songs; far from it. Dali plays loud and hard and not too decipherably. It's because the songs are in Belarusan, and sometimes in English, and the band doesn't play pop, exactly - and the strongman president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, likes nothing better, and nothing other, than Russian pop. Exactly.

Five years ago, Dali's singer was a woman named Irina Dorofeeva. Then she told her bandmates that she would support Lukashenko in the 2006 elections, and, Znyk says, they told her she'd have to leave. Today she is one of Belarus's biggest pop stars and has been linked romantically to Lukashenko himself.

"And the boys," says Znyk, "are still playing in a garage."

Belarus is a country where it can be dangerous to appear to be too Belarusan. Lukashenko's government, which restored the republic's old Soviet flag, minus the communist hammer and sickle, in 1995, takes expressions of national feeling in any form as implicit criticism.

"And culture is political," Znyk says, because it makes people think and "they don't want people to think."

The problem is that a lot of people are content not to think. Poles, for example, mostly aren't that interested in thinking about neighboring Belarus - its culture or its politics. But every once in a while there's some galvanizing event. Five years ago the Belarusan KGB destroyed a Polish cultural center in Belarus, and suddenly Znyk had his hands full for a while booking bands. Now, with the big crackdown going on across the border, this is another one of those moments.

"This is my five or six months," Znyk says. "That's why I have three concerts in three days. I know by next week, maybe nobody will be interested."

Already, he says, the newspapers in Warsaw are starting to lose interest in Belarus because the news from there is the same every day: more arrests, more raids, more threats. And when it's the same every day, it stops being news.

One of his favorite bands is Troitsa. The group plays unusual traditional instruments - which are always a problem to get past the Polish border guards - but otherwise the music sounds as if it came from some unexplored corner of the Mississippi Delta. Recha, which means Echo, was his first discovery, and it's here in Warsaw, too.

This is a frenetic time. He makes no money at it, which is why he keeps his day job as a marketer for a company that does street and park maintenance.

Why does he do it? "Because I'm an idiot," he explains. "But trying to preserve culture is a moral good."

Inside Gravitation, the crowd is hooting and shouting. A lot of beer gets spilled. But people are sporting little lapel ribbons in red and white, the colors of the traditional Belarusan flag.

"In Belarus, culture - everything - is connected to politics," says Franak Viacorka, a blogger who was recently released from jail in Minsk, where he spent 10 days for having taken part in a demonstration, and has stopped by Gravitation to enjoy a $3 Polish beer and hear a band that's dangerous to listen to back home.

"It's taking care of Belarusan groups," Znyk says, "that turns me into a member of the opposition."

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