Jazz Rises Above Politics in Crimea

Before the events that led to the reunification of Crimea with Russia in the spring of 2014, the Crimean penninsula hosted a number of festivals such as Kazantip, Koktebel Jazz festival, and the Yalta Theater Festival, among others. Prior to 2014, I visited Crimea almost every year and had the opportunity to attend these festivals. This year I visited Crimea again, my first visit since it reunited with the Russian Federation. I was really looking forward to attending the Koktebel Jazz festival and to see what has changed in Crimea since my last visit two years ago.

The “Koktebel Jazz Party” is an annual international jazz festival that has been taking place for the past thirteen years in Koktebel, Crimea. Running from August 28th to August 30th, the theme of this year’s festival was “Jazz from the 5 continents,” and indeed it was!  Jazz musicians from Russia, Cuba, USA, Israel, India, Georgia, and several other countries took part in this year’s festival.

At the opening of the festival the Emcee, Dmitry Kiselev, the well-known face of Russian TV, said several American jazz musicians, including Pat Appleton, the lead vocalist of the De-Phuzz group, chose not to attend the festival because of strong travel warnings by the U.S. State Department. Mr. Kiselev pointed out that the infamous saying of the Sovet period, which can be translated as “Today you listen to jazz and tomorrow you will betray your Motherland,” is more applicable to the American reality where politics spreads to all spheres of life including music, and jazz in particular.

The travel warning on Crimea for American citizens, and thus to the Koktebel Jazz party, was discussed during Igor Butman’s press conference, a well-known Russian jazz musician who holds dual citizenship (U.S. and Russia). He was specifically advised by U.S. officials not to attend the festival, but they could not stop him from going. However, since music is above politics, he decided to come to Crimea nonetheless and even wrote a letter to President Obama stressing the importance of music as a bridge between nations and the non-political nature of his visit. His position on this issue was confirmed even further when a journalist from Ukraine asked Mr. Butman whether he would consider playing in Ukraine. Butman replied that he would certainly do so if he were invited.

However, another American musician, jazz vocalist Ada Dyer, avoided all talk of politics, not discussing sanctions, travel warnings, or other possible implications of attending the festival. Unlike Igor Butman’s elaborate and honest opinions, Ms. Dyer simply replied “no comment” to questions about such issues.

The author nearly the Swallow's Nest, a a decorative castle located at Gaspra, one of Crimea's basic attractions.
The author nearly the Swallow’s Nest, a decorative castle located at Gaspra, one of Crimea’s basic attractions.

During the festival I had the chance to explore Koktebel, talk to people, and ask their opinions about the changes that have taken place since my last visit to Crimea two years ago. For example, in Koktebel there is a Ukrainian restaurant called “Shinok” and no anti-Ukrainian sentiments were observed, In fact, there were no anti-anything observed! Koktebel’s atmosphere was positive and friendly. Among the many people I met was an elderly woman from Slavjansk, Ukraine, and her middle-aged daughter, who came from the Donetsk People’s Republic. The mother said they have been coming to Koktebel for at least ten years and did not want to stop that tradition. I asked about their life in Ukraine. The elderly woman said her pension is 1200 Ukrainian hrivna while she has to pay for 400 “cubes”  of natural gas at 9 hrivna per cube per month. Obviously, her pension is not sufficient for living expenses so it’s not an easy life!

Many entrepreneurs I talked to expressed their euphoria over being in Russian Crimea in spite of the temporary difficulties such as higher prices, inadequate roads inherited from Ukrainian Crimea’s past and the weak transportation connections with the Russian mainland. Taxi drivers, store salespeople, vacationers, retired people and others with whom I spoke unanimously expressed their satisfaction over the unification of Crimea with Russia and the referendum results.

The festival was a great success even though there were fewer people than in previous years, in spite of a world class sound system as good as any in the world. The political situation and the tensions that exist in today’s global politics were not felt at all during the festival and beyond. In Crimea, people are going to the beach, taking excursions, relaxing at restaurants, taking walks, etc. Life is very normal.

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