“Buranovskie Babushki” from Udmurtia Finish in Second Place at the Eurovision Song Contest

Oct 8, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in May 2012]


Pop music is usually the domain of young—sometimes even teenage—stars, but Russia’s latest pop music sensation is a band of nine women whose ages range from 44 to 86. Five of the band’s members are in their 70s. The group’s name “Buranovskie Babushki” translates as “Buranovo Grannies”, and eight of the nine members are indeed grandmothers. Perhaps even more surprising than their age is the fact that they come from the village of Buranovo in Russia’s internal republic of Udmurtia. The village, whose population is estimated at 658 residents, is located 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the republic’s capital of Izhevsk, a city famous for its weapon-producing factories.* The Republic, however, is also known for its centuries-old traditions, which represent a mixture of mythology, ancient religions, and ethnic rituals. In this region, as in the neighboring Mari-El, Christianity for centuries co-existed with shamanism and paganism. The Udmurt people are good at preserving their heritage, whether in religion, folk costumes, music, or language.

Buranovo Grannies perform in folk costumes, complete with birch bark shoes (in Russian, lapti) and traditional coin necklaces. They are reported to use these costumes in everyday life as well. The Grannies’ repertoire consists of Russian and Udmurtian folk songs and Udmurt-language renditions of songs by such famous Russian rock musicians as Boris Grebenschikov and Viktor Tsoi. They also give a new sound to Western rock and pop hit songs, ranging from the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Let it be” to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, and from “Besame Mucho” to “Hotel California”. Most of their singing is done in the Udmurt language, which has the status of a co-official language in the republic, alongside Russian. However, due to the influx of Russian industrial workers who were moved to the Urals region with their weapons factories during World War II, the population of Udmurtia is now 58% Russian. The number of Udmurt speakers is even smaller, as less than 30% of the republic’s population speaks the national language. Many younger people, especially in cities, do not speak Udmurt since their parents think that fluency in Russian will improve their children’s educational and economic opportunities. This causes worries about the future survival of the language. Yet, in rural areas, Udmurt is spoken by a much higher proportion of ethnic Udmurts; it is also used as a language of instruction, at least in primary schools in rural areas. In addition, Udmurt has a niche in the media as well: every morning one can listen to the news and weather in Udmurt, and in the evenings watch Udmurt programs on TV. Folk songs too are a medium for transmitting the language from generation to generation: there seems to be a song for every occasion—be it a wedding, baptism, birth, or seeing a young man off to the army.

The Udmurt language is a member of the Finno-Ugric language family, which also includes Finnish, Estonian, and Saami. Like other Finno-Ugric languages, Udmurt has agglutinative morphology, lacks gender distinction even in personal pronouns—that is, there is no difference between ‘he’ and ‘she’—and has 15 distinct cases, seven of which are the so-called locative cases, with meanings of the English prepositions ‘in’, ‘from’, ‘to’, etc. However, unlike other Finno-Ugric languages, Udmurt does not distinguish short and long vowels and does not have vowel harmony; moreover, it is characterized by stress falling on the last syllable of a word. Other un-Finno-Ugric features of Udmurt include a large number of loanwords from the neighboring Tatar language and Russian. Tatar has also influenced Udmurt sound system and grammar.

Buranovo Grannies won the national Eurovision selection contest and represented Russia in the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 in Baku, Azerbaijan, where they won second place with their hit “Party for Everyone”. The group said that their goal is to raise money to build a church in Buranovo. Their dream will now come true as the head of the republic Aleksandr Volkov now promised to give a million roubles for the church, in addition to the funds that the band has raised. The foundation of the new church has been laid in preparation for the triumphal return of the Grannies from Baku.

The Grannies are not the first musical sensation to hail from Udmurtia as Russia’s great composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born there in 1840.

Udmurtia is also noted for having a high proportion of red-haired inhabitants, perhaps the highest in the world. As a result, the republic holds an annual Redheads’ Festival every September in which both people and animals with red hair are celebrated. Red hair is honored at the festival in part because redheads are sometimes disparaged in Russia, a form of prejudice that some sources associate with anti-Semitism. In Britain, a more pervasive if less focused form of bigotry against redheads—“gingerism”—is viewed by some as variety of racism. “Ginger,” the British slang term for redheads, is often now viewed as unacceptably pejorative. As Australian singer-comedian Tim Michin puts it, “Only a ginger can call another ginger ‘Ginger.’”


*It was in Izhevsk in 1947 that a Russian engineer Mikhail Kalashnikov invented AK-47, the sub‑machine gun named after him.



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