Southern hospitality wows Russian visitors

Published 4:53 pm Thursday, December 11, 2008

Whether one asks the professor, the student, the driver, the musicians or the film crew from Russia about their time in southwest Georgia the answer remains the same—the most memorable feature is the hospitality.

They received hospitality in a variety of forms, such as specially arranged visits to other cities, punctuality, well-planned activities and the politeness the public showed trying not to interfere with the camera crew’s work.

As part of its increased emphasis on international education and study abroad opportunities, this fall Bainbridge College (BC) hosted its first Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence, an art professor from St. Petersburg, Russia, and coordinated the return visit by Balalaika, the high-energy Russian folk music group BC brought to Georgia about 10 years ago.

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Musical activities included non-stop 90-minute public performances by the group of professionally trained musicians from Syktyvkar, Russia, where BC has a cooperative agreement with Syktyvkar State University. The group’s film crew came to record the visit. During an interview before they left for a boat ride at Florida’s Wakulla Springs, the men spoke about how much they appreciated the people here.

Serving as translators during the trip were Dr. Stan Webb, Dr. Marina Von Hirsch and Dr. Maria Chumovitskaya, all of the BC Arts and Sciences Division.

Dr. Chumovitskaya’s daughter, Nadia, who attends Bainbridge High School and who echoed the others’ sentiments about the experience here, served as interpreter for their concert at BC’s Early County Site. There they performed to a packed house in the atrium lobby. The musicians were delighted to find other Russians here to help them. Although some of them understand English, they are not comfortable speaking.

For most of the performances and for the interview, Dr. Chumovitskaya translated. Also at the interview was her husband, Misha who does speak English. A professional driver for the vice president of a large building company in St. Petersburg, he came for a short visit with his wife and daughter, who arrived in August and return Dec. 15. He was surprised by two things—the lack of public transportation and the quiet and comfort he found in south Georgia’s rhythm of life. He was puzzled by the former and appreciated the latter.

Members of the band

Although Balalaika is a four-man group, only three musicians made the October trip—group leader Vladimir Shevchuk, who now wants to change the foreign language his daughter studies in second grade from German to English; Vladimir Politov, who does not speak English but sings “Cotton Eyed Joe” by having memorized the sounds of the words and now realizes the importance of being able to understand and to speak another language, and Maxim Fisun, who appreciated the positive attitudes shown to them and who was impressed by how carefully Americans follow laws such not littering.

Shevchuk, who not only played the balalaika but also made music with a saw during their performances, said he was pleasantly surprised to find the “same kindly people” as on his previous visit and how the city has remained the same “great place as before”—clean with a comfortable climate.

“It looks like home,” he said through the interpreter.

The musicians praised the work of Dr. Webb who organized the tour, and BC Instructor Amy Wells and her husband, Kevin, who opened their home to them for their entire stay. Traveling to several countries each year, the musicians and cameramen are accustomed to staying in hotels and piling into one room when necessary. Having home-cooked meals, rooms to themselves and access to the Internet and laundry facilities was a big, pleasant surprise.

“It was much more than hospitality,” Politov said, with nods of agreement from the others. “It felt like home—like our own home.”

In their performances, Politov used the saw that Shevchuk played to give a different percussive sound as he literally sawed a tree branch in rhythm with the two playing their stringed balalaikas. The three performers donned Western hats for one number and had volunteers from the audience play other instruments with them, enhancing their high-energy shows.

At each performance they played and improvised music from several eras, genres and styles, ranging from traditional music for the ancient balalaika and classical songs to bluegrass, country and ragtime.

Balalaika kicked off events for the 10th Annual Georgia Literary Festival here with a non-stop 90-minute show Oct. 24. That performance and the festival were hosted at BC as part of the college’s week of festivities to celebrate the opening of the Charles H. Kirbo Regional Center.

Among the activities was a packed-house lunchtime Balalaika performance for BC students in the Kirbo Center 300-seat dining area. As the energetic musicians packed up their instruments after the performance, they quickly unpacked them and took to the stage again, playing an additional set for a group of students who had misunderstood the performance time.

“We can’t be tired because we receive energy from the public,” Fisun said. “We want to play more and more.”

“The activity of the artists depends on the activity of the audience,” Shevchuk said. “If they are active and interested the players adapt to it—like a sponge absorbs water.”

In addition to performances in the BC service area, including one at Bainbridge High School, Balalaika performed at East Georgia College in Swainsboro and Valdosta State University, where Dr. Chumovitskaya spoke to art classes and to the sixth-graders at the Early College Academy in the School of Education.

The Russian musicians also enjoyed treks to Florida for sailing in the Gulf of Mexico at Panama City, arranged by John McBroom of Bainbridge, and horseback riding and a cook out at a farm in Cairo, arranged by Don Huskey of the BC faculty.