Sunday 28 February 2021

Keep My Words Forever: a tribute album for Osip Mandelstam


In January, it was 130 years since the birth of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam is widely translated and read in the English-speaking world, but unsurprisingly, his influence is greater in Russian-speaking countries. A victim of state persecution and of the efforts of other literary figures who opposed his subversive views, Mandelstam is as readable and relevant as ever today.

This year, a group of popular musicians have released a tribute album which sets Mandelstam's words to music. The album is called Сохрани мою речь навсегда (in English, Keep My Words Forever) and can be found on streaming platforms including Spotify, Apple Music and others. 

Some of the artists (who will be better known to Russian speakers) include Ilya Lagutenko (lead singer of the popular band Mumiy Troll), Leonid Agutin, Noize MC and Sansara. Alina Orlova, from Vilnius, performs in Lithuanian, and Mgzavrebi perform in Georgian. The artist who I think may be known to some non-Russian speakers is Oxxxymiron, a prominent Russian rapper who has lived in Slough and the East End of London, and who studied English literature at Oxford University. He performs a rap version of 'Lines for an unknown soldier'. The songs are all musical settings of Mandelstam poems, and they appear on the album in the order that the poems were published.

The project was initiated and produced by Roma Liberov, who I crossed paths with a few years ago. He had already directed the documentary film Keep My Words Forever (2015) about Mandelstam, and in 2017 I went to a screening of the film at London's Pushkin House, where Liberov spoke about Mandelstam's importance and about his work on the documentary. You can read my writeup of the event here: 

I have listened to the album and was very moved by it. My own grasp of Russian is still nascent and as a result, I'm obviously missing some of the impact of the words. The musical styles featured include jazz, 80s-style pop, rap and more, and the poems include works such as 'I despise the light', 'This night is irredeemable' and 'I returned to my city, familiar to tears'. Personally, I definitely liked some tracks better than others. But above all, this project reveals the extreme vitality of Mandelstam's work in our time, and a desire to bring him closer to new audiences, many of which I am sure will embrace his poems if they haven't already. I love to see that Mandelstam is still loved so much.

I recommend checking out the project's official website, . (You can use the Translate function on your browser to see it in English, if you don't speak Russian.) Here you can see the album's wonderful artwork and find links to videos of the songs on Youtube. 

Image: Osip Mandelstam (far right) with Chulkov, Petrovykh and Anna Akhmatova. 1930s.

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