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US, Russia: The Flying Balalaika Brothers Bridge Cultural Gaps in Texas

Like many of their compatriots, musicians Zhenya Kolykhanov and Sergey Vaschenko emigrated from Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. They have since established themselves in Texas, USA, and through the formation of a band called the Flying Balalaika Brothers and a non-profit called Musical Connections, they work to bridge cultural gaps by exposing Texans to international art.

Along with providing readers with a daily calendar of performances, music videos, and sound bites, the group's official website elaborates on how the Flying Balalaika Brothers got established in Austin, Texas:

The Original Flying Balalaika Brothers were formed in Los Angeles in 1995 by Zhenya Kolykhanov (a.k.a. Z Rock), the former lead guitarist of the Russian surf/rockabilly group Red Elvises. The group started as a street band and later transformed into the group Red Elvises; which had a large history of performing for clubs, motion pictures, and tv shows in California.

After Zhenya set up shop in Austin TX, he reestablished The Flying Balalaika Brothers. The band represents a blend of traditional world music and original musical pieces. The group has found a home in the musically rich culture in Austin TX.

NowPlayingAustin Blog, an affiliate of a 35-year-old non-profit devoted to promoting the arts in Central Texas, assessed the Flying Balalaika Brothers’ style in an announcement of an upcoming performance:

Russian, Roma Gypsy, Ukrainian and foot stomping original songs get hands clapping and feet dancing in a crazy blend of rock, bluegrass and traditional folk music from around the world. Now front man for the Flying Balalaika Brothers, Zhenya Rock was a founding member of the Red Elvises and penned some of their biggest hits including “Red Lips Red Eyes Red Stockings,” the full soundtrack for Six String Samarai and the full album “Bedroom Boogie.” William Michael Smith recently wrote in the Houston Press, “Austin's Flying Balalaika Brothers are to Russian folk music what Béla Fleck is to bluegrass: Outside-the-box, no-boundaries, take-no-prisoners innovators. The FBBs combine jaw-dropping virtuosity with a masterful sense of mixing up genres ranging from rock to Russian folk to bluegrass; if that sounds weird, it's also cool as hell.”

In May 2011, The Flying Balalaika Brothers appeared on 90.5 FM KUT, an Austin-based radio station. The Daily Grackle Blog posted a video of their live performance:

Coastal Bend College Blog discussed Mr. Kolykhanov's and Mr. Vaschenko's educational and professional backgrounds, including Mr. Vaschenko's eligibility for Grammy Awards in 2003 and 2008:

Kolykhanov graduated from Tchaikovsky Music College in Vologda, Russia, in 1984. He later came to the United States to study critical thinking, reading and fine arts at the University of Delaware. In addition to the balalaika, Kolykhanov plays guitar, composes songs for television, and creates art for commercials.

Sergey Vaschenko earned a bachelor’s degree in conducting and balalaika from Lysenko State Music College in Poltava, Ukraine, in 1980 and a master’s in orchestral conducting, teaching and balalaika performance from the Mussorgsky Ural State Conservatory in Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1985. Vaschenko’s experience includes: Dean of the Faculty of Arts for Perm State Institute of Culture in Perm, Russia; guest soloist for the Latvian Chamber Orchestra in 1989; music educator in Russia, Latvia, Spain, Dallas and Austin; and guest conductor for the Houston Balalaika Society. He won an international award at the music festival in Segovia, Spain, and was a contender for a 2003 and 2008 Grammy award in the world music category.

The post went on to elaborate on the group's outreach efforts in area schools:

In addition to touring and performing, they began successfully presenting educational programs in three languages (English, Spanish and Russian) to students of Texas public and private schools, celebrating the arts in all its diversity by providing a unique approach to studying both the profound similarities and distinctive differences of people throughout history and around the world.

Mr. Kolykhanov and Mr. Vaschenko have formed a non-profit organisation called Musical Connections in order to fund and facilitate educational opportunities for young people. Musical Connections and The Flying Balalaika Brothers have a symbiotic relationship in that the non-profit provides an administrative foundation for the band's artistic objectives, while the band personifies the non-profit. The non-profit's official website articulates its mission:

Musical Connections is a Texas domestic nonprofit corporation, organized to promote a greater understanding of the music of the world through performances, cultural exchanges, musical history and heritage, and by educating the public about the multitude of music produced by cultures around the world. The founders believe that many people in this country fail to appreciate the great variety of music produced in the world today principally because they have not been educated about that music, or have not had chance to hear it performed.

Russian pianist Valeri Grohovski performed in Austin on January 20, as part of a Musical Connections concert series, playing jazz interpretations of works by Bach and Mozart.

Russian pianist Valery Grohovski played jazz interpretations of Bach and Mozart in Austin, Texas, on January 20, 2012. Photo by Donna Welles.

Russian pianist Valery Grohovski played jazz interpretations of Bach and Mozart in Austin, Texas, on January 20, 2012. Photo by Donna Welles.

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