Give Them a Break

While some would argue that there are many jackasses in contemporary music, there's only one elephant butt -- or so I believed for more than three years. In 1994 at the now-defunct Stephen Talkhouse in Miami Beach, completely by accident I saw and heard a quartet of Russian musicians with the curious name of Limpopo.

They sang a slew of Russian folksongs. They danced raucously and acrobatically, kicking up their heels like (former) Soviet Rockettes. They dressed like Cossacks: baggy pants tucked into knee-high boots, elaborately embroidered puffy shirts belted at the hips. One of them even played the giant three-stringed triangular instrument known as the balalaika. As I watched Limpopo -- Yuri Fedorko on accordion, Igor Khramov on trombone and tuba, Oleg Bernov on bass, and Igor Yuzov on guitar -- perform their hyperkinetic shtick, it all somehow seemed familiar. Maybe it was the half-Ukrainian in me.

When they ended their show with a familiar tune, at last I realized where I knew them from. No, it wasn't "Volga Boatmen," which they had performed. And no, it wasn't the Beatles' "Back in the USSR," which they'd also done. It was the theme from the Kit Kat candy bar commercial. Limpopo was that bunch of zany musicians I had seen several times on TV singing, "Gimme a break/Gimme a break/ Break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar."

Real TV stars -- from Russia, no less! After the show I felt compelled to speak with them. No matter how poor their English or how awful my Russian (which I studied briefly in college), I was sure we would understand each other. So I chatted up Oleg, the bassist. Drenched in sweat, which had rendered his puffy shirt see-through and which still trickled down his forehead, he was nonetheless smiling -- lively, not exhausted. Figuring the name Limpopo meant something exotic in Russian, I quizzed him slowly yet insistently about its definition. His answer, delivered in heavily accented English: "Elephant butt."

He had to be kidding. Russian or not, Limpopo couldn't possibly mean anything so decidedly unglamorous, so exceedingly earthy. I asked him to repeat himself, hoping he had somehow mangled the words in his attempts to translate. "Elephant butt," he said again with a straight face. Then I polled the other band members. They all agreed. Limpopo was Russian for elephant butt.

A few weeks ago I found out I'd been had. In actuality Limpopo is the name of a river in southeast Africa, although most Russian kids know it from Doktor Aybolit, a folktale similar to our Doctor Dolittle. Typical Limpopo move. Not that the band is made up of a bunch of con artists. Just a bunch of men who like to have fun, even if it's at the expense of a fan forever associating them with a pachyderm's posterior.

"Yes, for a while we did tell people that Limpopo meant elephant butt, as a joke," chuckles Khramov, speaking by phone from the band's headquarters in Los Angeles. "We chose that name because we liked the sound of the syllables. It was catchy. It reminded us of childhood. It just makes you smile."

Limpopo started as a duo -- Fedorko and Yuzov -- in Russia in 1986. The pair began performing in small theaters and then graduated to 1000-seat venues. Original "happy avant-garde" songs made up the bulk of their repertoire, according to Khramov, with a few traditional folktunes thrown in. Soon they were embarking on tours of communist-bloc states. In Poland in 1987 the group met fellow Russian Khramov, who was on the road playing with a big band. One year later he joined them. In 1989 Limpopo, still on the avant-garde kick, briefly visited the United States, performing dates in California, Colorado, and Utah. The minitour was arranged by an American friend whom they had met when they all participated in a peace march in Kiev.

The band liked America so much they decided to return -- permanently. In 1990 Fedorko emigrated to the United States, and the Russian incarnation of Limpopo was no more. One year later Khramov and Yurov followed. By 1992 Limpopo had re-formed, adding bassist Bernov and settling in the Los Angeles area. Their main gig at that time was playing on the Venice Beach boardwalk for handouts.

"I used to play on the street with my eyes closed," recalls Khramov. "I was so embarrassed. Back in Russia I had been a successful working musician, playing jazz, going on tours. But I got used to it and eventually opened my eyes. It was a good thing for us. We had a face-to-face connection with people. We got their attention. And when we saw that they were giving us money, we went out and recorded a cassette, which we began to sell for ten dollars."

The cassettes flew off the sidewalk. "When people see you live, that's when they buy," notes Khramov matter-of-factly. Soon Limpopo had a second street gig, this one at Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. People swiftly embraced the band and its self-described blend of folk and roll. A Secret Service agent saw them playing outdoors and arranged a prestigious job: a private reception welcoming Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev, who were paying a social visit to Ronald and Nancy Reagan at their ranch in Santa Barbara.

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