Introducing the Twin Cities’ Russian Karaoke Scene

Stubble: What is the Minnesota Russian Karaoke group and how did it start?
Lev: Our group started back in 2013, and really grew out of karaoke parties that my wife and I would host in our basement in New Hope. Initially, we would just invite a couple of our friends, they would bring wine and we’d sing deep into the night. It was a lot fun, but after a while the clean-up in the morning and the sound level got too much for us and our kids, so we started exploring ways to move this out of our house. St. Petersburg Restaurant and Vodka Bar has been a staple in Russian-speaking community for over 10 years and we knew the owner pretty well. I approached her with an idea of hosting a sample party at the restaurant on a night when she didn’t have anything going on. This is how we settled on Friday night and the rest is really history. Our “season” usually starts in October and goes until April, and we typically average about 5-6 events per season.

Stubble: Is karaoke popular in Russia?
Lev: Karaoke has been gaining popularity in Russia since the collapse of USSR, and now most cities have pretty swanky karaoke clubs. I’d say that karaoke in former Soviet Union countries has been regarded as a slightly higher form of entertainment and night life than it has in the United States. For example, it is not uncommon to find Karaoke clubs in the center of the city and it would be expensive and difficult to get in on weekend. Here, it is regarded more as a fun past time on a weeknight.

Stubble: Is Russian karaoke different than your typical American karaoke setup at the VFW?
Lev: Our karaoke nights are a good breed between these two approaches. Our parties are always on Friday, but what differentiates from the versions that they are very democratic in that anyone can come and participate. We have a pretty good audio setup – performers have a separate monitor that allows them to hear themselves better, and their own screen with lyrics. We also have a projector that displays lyrics on a large screen which gives a chance to everyone else sitting at their tables to follow along and sing. Another unique part of our events is that most of the people that come out are there to listen, and not sing on the stage. This struck me as odd at first, but then I realized that karaoke is just as much of a spectator’s sport as line dancing (heard that joke somewhere). We have a set of “regulars” that don’t miss a single event and are terrific singers. We always have someone who is a newbie, and typically we make an extra effort to make them feel welcome and part of the community.

Stubble: Who usually comes out to your karaoke nights? What kind of significances do they have for the Russian community in the Twin Cities?
Lev: Most of the people coming to our events are Russian speaking immigrants, some have been here for over 20 years – some are just fresh off the boat. What unites them is the love of Russian songs and music, which are our main specialty. Most of the songs you’ll hear are well known Russian pop songs, although we also have a wide variety of newer hits. We also have some songs in English, and whenever Russian-speaking guests drag their English-speaking friends with them – we can always find something that they can sing. One of the “regulars” that we always look forward to seeing is “Mr. Bill” – a 93 year old Robbinsdale local, who often hangs out at the VFW next door. Every time we have one of our events, Mr. Bill nonchalantly shows up, waves hellos and gets on stage to do his rendition of Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra.

Over the last 4 years we had a number of traditions that ended up being created – for example we usually end with the same song, and we invite everyone who is still left in the room to join us on stage in singing it on stage. Sometimes we have a bunch of musicians show up, and then we have a live music jam – where some of our guests may get a chance to sing a song with live accompaniment.

All in all it’s a fun event and has become somewhat of a staple for our community.

Lev’s popular Russian songs to practice before going to your next Russian karaoke party:

Белый лебедь на пруду (White Swan on a Lake)
This song became popular in late 80’s / early 90’s and has been insanely popular in Russian restaurants. It is sung by a guy who dreams about buying a house for his special-someone.

Земляне (ВИА) – “Трава У Дома” (Grass Near the House)
Another hit from the 70’s that has been re-done multiple times. This is the song that we usually end our nights with. It’s about cosmonauts seeing Earth from space, and thinking about green grass near their homes. The next karaoke event is actually going to have a “cosmonaut’ theme, because it takes place next to April 12 – which has been known as a “Day of Cosmonautics” in the former USSR. This is the day Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly to space.

Lev Frayman is an organizer of the Russian Karaoke MN group.

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