New East Digital Archive

Sounds of Siberia: how Novosibirsk’s Shalash record label created a beautiful audio world

Evgeny Gavrilov reports on the brief but magical history of Shalash: a record label devoted to ambient, naïve electronica and field recordings that sprung up in the quiet Siberian town of Berdsk and forged a community of musicians in the wilderness

3 August 2017

Berdsk is a small town to the south of Novosibirsk, located on the shore of a reservoir known to locals as the “Ob Sea”. Berdsk is famous as the home of Vega — one of the USSR’s largest manufacturers of radio electronics, cassette players and recorders. This heritage was reinvented recently by Shalash — a record label that drew inspiration from the ambient sounds and natural innocence of the world outside its creators’ windows.

The history of Shalash began in Berdsk before extending far beyond its confines. Living in these parts, you get used to being surrounded by sylvan greenery and open expanses — in winter, the reservoir freezer over and metamorphoses into a vast snowy field. The pace of life here is far from blistering; peace and tranquillity, bred by a silence so profound you can make out the merest rustle, are just a stone’s throw away — you just need to head in the direction of the “Ob”, with the natural world almost imploring you not to hurry. The music released on Shalash over its 11-month lifespan engendered the same sensations.

The walls of history teacher Yegor Klochikhin’s flat are lined with shelves bearing a vast collection of music from all over the world. A few years ago, he found an album by a musician from Japan that really took his fancy. Klochikhin’s felicitous find can be considered the point of departure for this story, for the musician in question was Bela: his future Shalash collaborator.

Living in these parts, you get used to being surrounded by sylvan greenery and open expanses –– in winter, the reservoir freezer over into a vast snowy field

Bela, who lives in Bonn and studies in Cologne, was living in Japan when Yegor discovered her work. The naïve style of Bela’s illustrations is perfectly in keeping with her music — and with all Shalash music in general. Echoes of her style are instantly discernible in the majority of the label’s releases.

As they exchanged messages across continents, Yegor and Bela realised they’d grown up within spitting distance of each other and had many mutual friends. Bela, who was born and bred in Novosibirsk’s Akademgorodok suburb, went to the very school where Yegor is currently teaching. The next time Bela was in Novosibirsk, they met in person to tried recording something together. The collaboration bore unusual fruit: a single 25-minute track. The two had just taken the first step towards their own music label.

By day, Yegor is a history teacher. Some of his students and colleagues are none the wiser to the fact that he’s played gigs in Moscow, Petersburg and Minsk over the last month, and that his new albums have been receiving constant attention from online and print magazines for several years now. “I always feel that I’m at home among strangers and a stranger among friends,” he says. “I’m Mr. Geek among the musos and Mr. Rocker at school.”

Yegor wanted to bring greater exposure to work by people he admired — such as his friend Kirill Mazhai — and there wasn’t any suitable platform on which to release his collaboration with Bela. So everything came together in that moment.

The name “Shalash” — a Russian word meaning “rudimentary shelter” — doesn’t imply anything solid or built for the ages. You don’t build a shalash out of bricks and other construction materials, you build it out of brushwood and whatever else you might have at hand. “You’re not going live out your entire life in a shalash,” says Yegor. “I’m generally a fan of all things recycling-related, of processes that won’t pollute the planet,” says Bela. “So I was in absolutely no doubt that this was a good idea [for a label].”

Release number three was an album by Sterlitamak-based Renat Tuktarov, an old friend of Yegor’s. Hot on the heels of Tuktarov’s offering came an album by yet another of Yegor’s pals, Sasha Mishkin, who’d recast himself as a singer-songwriter having spent years making ambient music under the moniker of Sashash Ulz.

“This is music about repetition and difference, about the fact that there are no two identical snowflakes, grains of sand, raindrops”

Other releases include a collaboration between Yegor and Vladimir Luchansky, aka Bisamråtta. That record — in Yegor’s words, “music about repetition and difference, about the fact that there are no two identical snowflakes, grains of sand, raindrops” — is based several hours of improvisation which Yegor then carefully cut up into loops and reassembled into a full-fledged ambient album.

Among the label’s notable offerings was release number eight, an album by English musician Nick Palmer, also known as Directorsound. That Nick hails from England is a big plus — a wider geographical range of releases can only be a good thing; nor does it hurt that he’s one of the more famous artists to feature on the label. So there was ample cause for celebration when Nick quickly took up Yegor’s offer to bring out a record on Shalash — and even proposed that local field recordings serve as the basis for the new album.

The apotheosis of the Shalash project arrived after 11 months. With the help of their friends, Yegor and Bela created a two-tape, thirty-track conceptual musical canvas. Symbolically speaking, this tenth and final release struck home. The cross-shaped letter X — the Roman numeral for ten and the name of the album — symbolises death: “a ‘crossing out’ of Shalash,” says Yegor. But “the most sacred idea”, he says, is that the end isn’t simply the end. As the cover art makes clear, “X” is also a schematic drawing of a sky-jutting shalash and its reflection.

Shalash signed off with a bang: this final release sold out almost instantly. Bela and Yegor, who started off with a limited understanding of how these things work, had managed to generate interest, attract collectors and ambient music fans alike and assemble a first-rate collective of musicians — probably their most important achievement of all. As Yegor himself maintains, this is a story that’s very personal and intimate in character. A story that exists beyond any cassette-tape-revival narrative. A story, most importantly, of great sincerity.

“I don’t need much — I have my room, and what I’ve built for myself here might be a museum, it might be a lab, or it might even be a crypt,” he muses. “Maybe it’s an old-fogey kind of existence, but I just don’t feel the need to rush out somewhere to do stuff.”

Bela’s concluding thoughts also speak to this notion of homeliness and contentment, and to the quiet openness of the Siberian landscape where she and Yegor find inspiration. “It’s actually difficult for me to call myself a musician. Generally speaking, I make music exclusively for myself, and it’s something that exceeds ordinary limits and carries me off into space. If I start making music, everything else recedes into background — I can just stay at home and fill my time with nothing but music. Music represents freedom for me.”

This article was produced as part of The Calvert Journal’s New Writers Programme.

Text: Evgeny Gavrilov
Image: Alisa Aiv, Evgeny Gavrilov, Bela