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.

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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