Iowa City festival evolves during Russia, Ukraine war

An event in Iowa City that has celebrated Russian music is rethinking its mission since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Published: Sep. 11, 2023 at 10:53 PM CDT
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - An event in Iowa City that has celebrated Russian music is recalibrating during the war between Russia and Ukraine.

The organizer of the annual International Seven-String Guitar Festival, Oleg Timofeyev, said the seven-string guitar has a special relationship to Russia, its culture, and its history.

“In Russia, in the 19th century, starting from about 1800, two guitars simultaneously existed, side by side. The normal—'normal’—Western guitar tuned the usual way and the guitar that was unique to Russia and unique to the Russian Empire,” said Timofeyev. He added it was more than the number of strings that made the guitar special.

“The special thing was the tuning that was very different. And the tradition was different, repertoire was different. So in Russia, when they published music, they wrote on the cover ‘for seven-string guitar’ or ‘for six-string guitar,’” he added.

He said the October Revolution of 1917 meant no more guitar. “Guitar was pretty much outlawed. It was bad taste to play guitar,” he said.

Music eventually came back, but the instrument so uniquely Russian did not.

“The seven-string guitar was abandoned,” said Timofeyev.

Enter an Iowa City festival.

“The revival of this instrument started here in Iowa,” said Timofeyev. “I mean, without false modesty, I do claim that it was this festival that led to the worldwide revival of the seven string guitar.”

The International Seven-String Guitar Festival has been an annual event since 2006. The question now facing Timofeyev is how to celebrate something uniquely Russian without celebrating Russia itself and its current actions against Ukraine.

“The propaganda machine in Russia achieved such heights that we couldn’t even dream of it back in the Soviet Union. You know, in the Soviet Union, we all heard the official party line, but nobody believed it,” he said. “Well, right now, people, pretty much, they open their mouths and what they hear on TV will come’s scary.”

He added, “It breaks my heart to see [the war]”.

The US is on the verge of sending Ukraine more weapons to help them in the war that escalated when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

When it comes to how to celebrate culture, Timofeyev is pivoting, highlighting music with ties to Ukraine.

“I feel responsible to find a way, indeed, to repackage it and to make it more international, to make it—to disclose how certain things that were presented as great Russian culture, in fact, may be something else.”

As for the instrument he loves, in the end he said where it comes from isn’t important at all.

The seven-string guitar “can be Russian, can be Ukrainian, can be Swedish, can be anything you want. It doesn’t have to have a nationality. It has to have beautiful sound and beautiful music,” he said.

The festival takes place Sept. 21-24. More information can be found here.