The WOMEX 12 Professional Excellence Award

Speech for award presentation to Pussy Riot associate, Sasha Cheparukhin

A 14 minute read

In full flow at WOMEX, Thessaloniki. Pic by Antonia Kavas

Here is a transcript of the speech I gave at WOMEX 12, in Thessaloniki, Greece, to introduce the winner of the Award for Professional Excellence, Alexander ‘Sasha’ Cheparukhin.

I’m here today, as I expect many of us are, because music has changed me. Music forged me, music made me who I am. But when you work in your passion, surrounded by all these awful terms that we inherit from our accountants, it can be easy to forget why we are here.

Womex is a lung. It is a place that we gather in to breathe, to replenish ourselves to go back refreshed. It is about music, but it is about a lot more than that. It is a shared community of ideas, values and ideals, and every year, the Womex Award For Professional Excellence is given to someone who embodies these qualities, who can connect us again with why we do what we do. It is called the Womex Award For Professional Excellence, but it could just as easily be called the Womex Award For Intellectual Curiosity, the Womex Award For Single Minded Belief, or the Womex Award For Sticking With Your Ideals No Matter What.

For these members of our community, music is not what they do, it is how they do. Their goal is much greater than music. Music is not the end, it is the means.

It has been a humbling experience for me to sit with the award winner at WOMEX. He has been an environmentalist, a political journalist, a music promoter, a social activist, but he started out as an ecologist because it was the least political thing he could think of. As he says: “The subject of ecology is coexistence.” This understanding of ecology informs everything he does.

WOMEX Award winner Sasha Cheparukhin

He was born into a miitary family in the Soviet Union, and had the chance to travel and indulge his curiosity. He received a pHd in Environemental Sciences, and as an environmental activist and researcher, he was President of the Association for the Support of Ecological Initiatives in the Soviet Union.

It was in this context that he put on his first concerts, but in 1994 American ethnomusicologist Ted Levin gave him a tape of the Tuvan group Huun Huur Tu that changed his music life forever. In the 18 years since then, his Greenwave Label went on to become the main hub for Russian roots music, and since then he has been artistic director of many national and international festivals, particularly in Siberia, where, I suspect he would have stayed quite happily were it not for certain recent events that brought him back to Moscow.

When the three girls from Pussy Riot staged an impromptu concert in the Church of Christ the Saviour, and were subsequently arrested and charged with extremism, he was one who led a concerted campaign to bring it to international attention, getting support from Paul McCartney, Sting, Madonna and Peter Gabriel amongst many others.

This best known case is just the tip of the iceberg. He is supporting dozens of other cases around the country, artists, journalists, ordinary Russians away from the spotlight, who believe in the same values, ideas and ideals that he does, and that all of us here share. “This is not about oppositional politics or new leaders – it is about supporting Russians who want to live in an honest, transparent and free society.”

Sasha delivering his acceptance speech

He is a pioneer promoter, a festival founder and an activist believer in the free flow of music and ideas across all borders.

Please welcome the WOMEX Award Winner for Professional Excellence 2012, наш дорогой, уважаемый друг, Alexander “Sasha” Cheparukhin.

Below is an accompanying article that was published in the WOMEX Guide, 2012.

What is the WOMEX Award? A small way in which we can give praise to someone who deserves recognition at the highest level for a lifelong contribution to our community. But it is more than that. It is an opportunity for us at WOMEX to think about the values that we try to uphold. World music is not just another sector in the music industry: for one, we don’t attract money men looking for a fast buck (or at least they tend not to stick around too long) – and for that we should be grateful.

So who does stick around? People who have a specific set of values and ideas about the way the world should be. These common values are what makes WOMEX and our music community, and what keeps us coming back time and time again to what is unashamedly one of the most colourful, diverse and friendly group of international music lovers on the planet.

The WOMEX Award is also about how our community responds to events outside. This past year has seen a great deal of political upheaval and tension – uniquely in our collective history, hardly a single member country has been unaffected by rising economic and social tensions. There is no better moment for all of us at WOMEX to step back and think about what we can contribute at a time when music can seem like a luxury.

And so,in honour of this unsettling time, the WOMEX 12 Professional Excellence Award is for someone who underlines those values that we at WOMEX seek to uphold in good times and bad – a deep awareness and respect for our environment, an open-mindedness and constant desire to expand boundaries, and an unfailing dedication to freedom of expression on every level.

Artistic director, activist, musician and tour producer Alexander “Sasha” Cheparukhin was born in Sevastopol, USSR (now Ukraine) in 1958. Growing up in a military family, he had the opportunity to travel across the vast country as a child, igniting an interest in cultures and languages that has stayed with him. Holder of a doctorate in Environmental Economics, for much of the 1980s he was an activist and researcher – President of the Association for the Support of Ecological Initiatives (ASEI); a presenter at the Moscow session of the World Commission of Environment and Development (WCED); coordinator of “Children of Chernobyl” activities that brought crucial medical training and equipment to Belarus from Germany and Switzerland and sent local children abroad for treatment; and reporting for the German and Austrian press, where he gained exclusive access to leading opposition figures like Boris Yeltsin and Vytautas Lansbergis (then leader of Lithuanian independence movement and later President of Lithuania).

Denied the ability to travel abroad until the perestroika years, the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 led to Sasha registering one of the first Russian international tour operators, GreenWave, taking tour groups to the Caribbean and the USA, including as an official tour agent for the 1994 World Cup. It was this American connection – and an invitation from renowned ethno-musicologist Ted Levin – that led him to switch full time to music management and booking.

Huun Huur Tu in Tuva

“He sent me a tape of an unknown Tuvan group,” remembers Sasha. “I was completely possessed and amazed – I could never imagine that this kind of music could exist in Russia. Ted asked me whether I can find somebody to help organising the first US tour and to serve as a tour manager, driver and a kind of “narrator” (replacing Ted Levin in concerts, telling stories about Tuva, meanings of Tuvan songs etc). I told him that I want to try it myself. So, in January 1994, I rented a Ford Club Wagon van and started a long US tour of Huun Huur Tu (booked via International Music Network). That’s how my ‘music career’ really started.”

From then on, GreenWave became a hub for the Russian roots music scene. He had already produced concerts and collaborations with international artists for the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, the country’s leading traditional ensemble, as early as 1985.

Russian folk pioneer Sergei Starostin

By the mid-90s, GreenWave Records was releasing albums by artists such as Huun Huur Tu, Sergey Starostin, Moscow Art Trio, Farlanders, Vershki Da Koreshki, with Sasha looking after record production, management and international touring.

In the years that followed he became artistic director for a great many festivals at home and abroad, including most recently the biggest festival in Russia, the Creation of Peace Festival, and he has been at the forefront of the cultural transformation of the university city of Perm in Siberia into the “Cultural Capital of Russia”, with a series of large music and theatre festivals including a number of major international commissions. And as artistic director of another festival in Siberia – the Mir Sibiri festival (formerly Sayan Ring) – he could have spent all of his time in a self-imposed exile, if not for recent political events which brought him back to the capital.

Dark humour and media savvy are two hallmarks of Russian political protest under Vladimir Putin

That Russia is a tough place to be politically engaged goes without saying. But the unprecedented protests around the country – in themselves a testament to the great Russian sense of creative humour, involving miniature toys with placards and blue buckets worn on protesters’ heads – have triggered a wave of political optimism.

“I was a political journalist in the ‘80s and ‘90s, leading demonstrations to block nuclear power stations and manning the barricades at the White House. Now I see an awakening of civil society again after all these years of cynicism, gangster mentality and extreme capitalism. Now is the time for self-organisation.”

One facet of his spirit of self-organisation means taking musicians on “concert actions” around the country to support isolated democrats in the provinces.

“Musicians should be engaged. Music is the most emotional way to express yourself, and musicians are very strong mediums for communication. This is also why so many musicians want to stay away from politics – they think it is too powerful and they don’t know where it will lead.”

One possible destination is arrest, beatings and jail – all of which he has seen at first-hand. Despite this, he is upbeat:

“These protests have lots of creativity. It was so beautiful – young and old all together saying we don’t want to live in this society. People don’t want to pretend any more. This is not about oppositional politics or new leaders – it is about supporting Russians who want to live in an honest, transparent, free society.”

Honest, transparent and free: three words on which we would all do well to focus on as we go around the trade fair this year. Three simple attributes that our world music community wants to see the world over. We in the WOMEX community know that we love what we do, and that we are very lucky to be able to do it. This year’s WOMEX Award goes to someone who helps us to remember why.

© Lemez Lovas

For more information on Sasha’s work:

Join us on Sunday for a final Networking Breakfast and the WOMEX 12 Award presentation. The laudation will be offered by Lemez Lovas. Värttinä (Finland) will be performing.

Network/WOMEX Jury: Lovas Conference/Session 22 Conference/Bios A – Z: Cheparukhin

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