Give Them a Break

Later in 1992 an advertising executive, captivated by the kooky musicians, urged them to audition for the Kit Kat television commercial. They did and got the job. Then a talent scout who had seen them suggested the band try out for the popular TV show Ed McMahon's International Star Search.

"I had no idea what Star Search was," Khramov explains. "The closest thing we had in Russia was a show called Hello, We Are Looking for Talent. But we tried out anyway." They competed and won first prize, copping $5000, which they promptly spent on a Dodge Ram 350 van. The vehicle, which toted equipment and a mattress, logged hundreds of thousands of miles on trips all over North America as the band began doing shows at festivals and colleges.

By 1994 Limpopo had made its way to Miami, thanks to the local band I Don't Know (reborn -- sans accordionist -- in the summer of 1997 as the more serious and rockier Humbert), whose members discovered Limpopo in 1993 at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin. "We loved what they were doing and were dying to play with them," explains Ferny Coipel, guitarist for I Don't Know/Humbert. "A year later they came to Miami to play at FIU and we arranged a gig with them at the Talkhouse. Everyone was amazed by their instruments, their style, their vocals, and of course their energy."

"Their show is nuts," adds Humbert bassist Tony Landa, another I Don't Know alumnus. "They use jingle bells and accordions, and the kind of dancing they do is indescribable. You just have to see it. On top of all that, they're great musicians -- they can play any kind of music."

Still performing at festivals and in small clubs, Limpopo returned to Miami a year later for another show with I Don't Know, this time at Churchill's Hideaway in Little Haiti. According to that club's owner, Dave Daniels, "This was probably the best show we ever had here. Limpopo was funny, fresh, and different. The crowd wasn't dancing as much as jumping up and down. They loved it."

The van finally gave out a few years ago, but Limpopo continues on. Since 1994 they've recorded three CDs -- Crazy Russian Folk 'n' Roll, Give Us a Break, and Traffic Jam in Moscow -- on their own Folk 'n' Roll label. Distributed at Tower Records and available at shows or directly from the band's Website (www.limpopo.com, which also offers videos, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and memberships to the group's Klub Komrade fan club), the records feature upbeat original songs, many of them written by Khramov and sung in Russian. Last year's Traffic Jam contains a couple of Khramov-written bonus tracks sung in English. Traditional Western instruments (trombone, guitar, keyboards) mix with unconventional ones such as various balalaikas and a wood-slat rattle known as a tresheotki.

The band's lineup changed significantly in 1996 when Bernov and Yuzov split to form the rock-and-rollier Red Elvises. They were replaced by keyboardist Boris Bolshakov, percussionist Andrei Baranov, and bassist Dimitri Mamokhin, plus dancer Sasha Kalinin from the Moiseyev Dance Company. (Shades of the Happy Mondays!) Last year Kalinin and Mamokhin departed to pursue independent projects, so Limpopo is once again a quartet, back where it was in 1992.

Well, not quite. They're not exactly playing for handouts any more, although they occasionally pick up their instruments and perform at the Third Street Promenade just for kicks. "Good things still happen to us because of playing on the street," Khramov explains. "Recently we got a lot of great bookings from doing it -- one was at the Beverly Hills Country Club."

They've also expanded their audience, taking their spirited shows into Los Angeles public schools. "Kids are another interesting market for us," Khramov points out. "They really enjoy our show. They just laugh all the time." The band has contributed songs to a pair of movie soundtracks -- the low-budget The Russian Godfather, and Somewhere in the City, a racy Sandra Bernhard film released only in Europe -- and they're shopping their tunes to a major world-music label. Finally, they're working to enhance the Limpopo experience. Their current road show consists of the quartet playing its bouncy Russian folktunes and the occasional rock or jazz standard, with accordionist Fedorko providing his signature eye-popping acrobatics. But eventually the band hopes to mount a more elaborate stage show that incorporates several dancers and musicians.

"It's a new step for us, a new energy," Khramov says. "We are trying to do something more crazy, more creative -- to connect dancers and musicians not just with Russian music but with modern American music. We want to create wonder for people, to excite them with something they've never ever seen before."

Limpopo performs with Humbert Friday, February 27, at 10:00 p.m. at Churchill's Hideaway, 5501 NE 2nd Ave; 757-1807. Admission is $7.

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