VADIM KOLPAKOV: TAKING ROMANI MUSIC FROM THE VOLGA ACROSS THE ATLANTIC
Born and raised on the banks of the river Volga in Russia, world renowned 7-string guitarist Vadim Kolpakov is one of the most prominent Romani musicians of his generation.
Starting from an early age and inspired by a musical family, his musical journey would take him out of his home town and eventually his home country. Now living in North Carolina, Kolpakov has toured all over the world with many ensembles including the famous “Kolpakov Trio.”
Arguably the pinnacle of his career so far came in 2008 when he toured with Madonna on her “Sticky and Sweet” tour of 2008-09.
The mercurial musician had the generosity to share some of his time to discuss all things Vadim Kolpakov, starting with where it all began.
Vadim recalled “My hometown of Saratov is in central Russia on the river Volga. My family is still there but I have not been back since 2009.
“Growing up in a Roma community in the city was OK in general. Just like in Eastern Europe, we suffered from some minor discrimination, things like name calling, but generally it was OK.”
Kolpakov continued, and explained that musical inspiration was never far away in his childhood.
“I was raised in a family who liked to perform. My father would lay the guitar and sing at parties while my mother would dance. Naturally, I started to follow their lead and play the guitar, sing and dance as well. At the time, break dancing was very popular and I was pretty good at it. Rap and hip-hop were also gaining some popularity.”
This was only the very beginning, as his talent and curiosity to learn more would take him to the Russian capital.
“However, it was my uncle Alexander who was the example to follow if I really wanted to be an artist. At the age of 14 I went to go and live with him in Moscow where I would learn the guitar. For six years I practiced every day with him. It was like my university. I studied at the Romani Performing Arts School Gilori and I performed at the Romen Theater.”
“Eventually, I moved to America and it was my intention to introduce Romani music in the US as widely as possible.”
It wasn’t long before his ambition was becoming a reality as he played a number of concerts across North America with other bands from across the globe.
In 2003, he was invited by the Russian-American ensemble Talisman to record an album of Russian Roma music from the 1820s. The album “A Tribute to Stesha” was released on the NAXOS label in 2005.
When asked about the Roma in the United States, Kolpakov described the curious relationship among Roma in the country.
“The American Roma community is interesting. Many speak Romanes and many have lived here for a long time. But there are different castes and sub-groups which do not always mix together. Perhaps the unity is not quite there.”
Aside from performing on stage, Kolpakov has also been spreading knowledge of Romani music in lecture theatres of some of the most prestigious Universities in the World such as Harvard and Oberlin.
“Through Via Romen, Petra Gelbart and I have been showing the Americans a new music and a new culture.”
“On May 5th we will be performing at the 16th Annual California Herdeljezi Roma Festival in the San Francisco Bay Area.”
Kolpakov was invited to perform with his uncle’s group for Madonna at her home for her birthday in 2007.
A year later, he was touring with the superstar and not surprisingly, this is a time of his life which Kolpakov remembers with great fondness.
“It was the biggest project of my life. We toured for about nine months and we had a 15-20 minute session in every show so it was a great honor and a big part of her performance.
“We performed alongside her a Romani style song composed by my uncle Sasha as well as “Spanish Lesson” and “La Isla Bonita.”
Now a source of inspiration for many Roma youngsters, Kolpakov had this message for future generations.
“Study hard, if you can, and don’t get too upset if you are discriminated against. Do all that you can. If Roma can get an education then they will be on an equal level, where they deserve to be. They will be able to integrate and present the Roma in a positive way.”
Finally, he stressed the importance of staying true to your roots and, much like he has done through music, keeping traditional values alive.
“Don’t forget your culture and your language. In such an international society, these can be easily forgotten but people must remember and celebrate where they came from.”