How Ira Smelaya, a vlogger from St. Petersburg, became Russia’s main Tatar and why she should be sent to Eurovision.
Right now, Ira Smelaya lives in St. Petersburg, originally hailing from Naberezhnye Chelny. She is half Tatar but her Youtube blog bears the name “Tatar Days” (Татарские будни) – there, she describes her life consisting of beauty, shopping, food, her husband, and recently, the process of filming her videos. The channel has almost half a million subscribers.
Her husband, Ilya Prusikin, is the vocalist and mastermind of the band Little Big, who have made a claim on rethinking Russian stereotypes a la Die Antwoord and have performed thousands of concerts all over Europe. In fact, Ira Smelaya’s videos can be considered a branch of this project – they are all made by the same team. Tatarka will be opening for Little Big during his March shows in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The lyrics for Tatarka’s first song, “Altyn” (Алтын) were written by a Kazan rap duo, Ittifaq and co-founder of the label Yummy Music, Ilyas Gafarov. In 2007, Ittifaq released his first record with the help of Oscar Records. Since then, the pair have been planning a second album, reigning as the main act in Tatar rap. So when producer Eldar Dzharahov began looking for a lyricist on Twitter, some came out and suggested Gafarov. The music was written by a St. Petersburg beatmaker, Victor Sibrinin, who works for the Royal Vibes studio.
Tatarka — “Altyn” “Алтын” (Golden)
Ilyas Gafarov put together a clever text, with a collection of words like hype, vibe, like, Instagram, where they instersect with a rapid spitfire in Tatar:
What are girls made of? Maybe made of stars,
Maybe made of moonlight? (Who knows?)
Our friends are diamonds (that’s right),
Our friend, Instagram (that’s right)
But it’s worth it to look into my eyes – I’ll eat you whole.
Of course, it’s easy to memorize the first refrain in the chorus: “Безнең кызлар ут” (Our girls are fire.) The second, “Мин алтын матур чәчәк” (I’m a beautiful golden flower), was created in St. Petersburg.
The video, filmed like a cell phone commercial, has over 15 million views, with today’s often referenced gop-style, boyish cars, puffy coats, sporty shades, gold chains, and promenades through the St. Petersburg metro.
The video’s viewers are divided into two camps: those who understand Tatar and those who don’t. Many of those from the second camp have expressed that they want to learn Tatar, to understand for themselves what Tatarka is saying. Those that do understand the Tatar lyrics have split off further into two separate groups. One side has perceived the video as viral: a beautiful woman, in stylish clothes, reflects on the topic of youth music in a language which has not seen anything of the like. In fact, any girl from Tatarstan who has seen Katya Clapp and Pharaoh’s video could relate to Tatarka and find it conceptually native.
Their language – pidgin English, their image – four stripes of a knock-off Adidas tracksuit. Those from older generations have begun discussing the degree of Tatarka’s accent and how much this video can help promote the Tatar culture. How many people will take up learning Tatar after having seen “Altyn?” In the Tatar press, the song and its performer were discussed meticulously. Here is a telling quote, “I have a question for the author of the lyrics from this video – What’s the point? Has this song contributed to the growth of Tatar culture? Of course not, and the author clearly understands this. This video was made to be viewed on a mass scale, for likes. It’s filled with whatever today’s youth is watching. I didn’t see a point in the video. There is no Tatarness in the video – first of all, one shouldn’t expect nationalism from a half naked woman, and second of all, it seems like she doesn’t know Tatar and she doesn’t look like one. Probably, she picked the Tatar language because she has Tatar friends. It’s possible that she sings in Tatar to bring attention to herself, as in, I’ll be there first one to sing in Tatar and I’ll be popular.” The reasons for such detailed attention to the video-meme, which isn’t pretending to be serious, are clear. The Tatar language’s minority status for the moment renders it less of a communication tool and more of a self-identification agent: many Tatars do not speak the language but clearly connect themselves with the nationality through relatives, cuisine, clothes, and music, and therefore, treat strangers who exploit their symbols zealously.
Besides this, it’s unlikely that someone will get upset by the portrayal of Russians as clinical scumbags who only drink, shoot Kalashnikovs, dance Hopak, and let a drunk tear fall, as they watch the church domes Little Big’s grotesque videos:
Or take pride in the fact that Little Big’s Tel Aviv brothers, repatriates from Moscow, Orgonite, propagandize boiled buckwheat with Tahini, and shisha, put together from nesting dolls.
It’s clear that these are not cultured manifestations, and the videos are made specifically by specialists for viral videos. Members of Little Big’s musical family are connected not through a national language or folk songs. Their language – pidgin English, their image – four stripes of a knock-off Adidas tracksuit that they had to wear as kids. Their medium, a cell phone, now used as a video camera and a television. Their cultural code is western pop music. The “Altyn” video has done more for attracting attention to Tatar culture in Russia than the long-term program for developing the language with methodicians, books, and national holidays, after which no one really managed to learn it. The irony is that the joke worked in exactly the way it wasn’t supposed to.
That which wasn’t expected is proven by Tatarka’s second video, “U Can Take”, which premiered last week and has already accumulated over three million views. In it, Ira Smelaya quips in Tatar, “I’m brighter than a star, harder than a rock, my tongue is my flag. Who’s richer than me? I’m on the street, I’m a beautiful golden flower.” But the chorus is then performed by Ilya Prusikin in English, and yes, the video calls for attention with an aggressive beat, and neon footage, shot in Thailand. Understanding the words isn’t imperative, and visual nationalistic clues aren’t present – so you can relax.
Regardless of the fact that Ira Smelaya’s assets consist of only two videos, Tatarka deserves to be sent to Eurovision, and maybe there she will achieve success much like Buranovskiye Babushki.
A chic sound – subtle in sound and image for foreigners, works with the viral nature of the song. Maybe European hipsters will remember the word Altyn and that Russia isn’t just “matryoshka, vodka, Putin,” but a multinational country.
Russian version: Radif Kashapov
Original article: http://www.colta.ru/articles/music_modern/14068