The eastern punk Svieta Songako

Article published on July 24, 2007
From the magazine
Article published on July 24, 2007
Art is politics. The fourth and last chapter of our portraits of artists who are attempting to resist the ‘cultural Chernobyl’ in a Belarus that is in Alexander Lukashenko’s stranglehold

Aged 21, with calmly penetrating eyes and a white-red-white bracelet, the colours of Belarus's independence flag, - that is Svieta Songako for you, the singer of the punk-rock group Tarpach. In old Belarusian, the word means ‘gnarled roots’, but it’s also the name of a wooden weapon used in the countryside.

In summer 2005, Svieta’s band won the first prize at the Polish festival Basovistcha, dedicated to Belarusian alternative rock music and banned by the government since its creation in 1990. This prize in hand, the group was able to record its first album last year, but still in Poland. Whether in the case of this Polish festival or other public concerts, the problems remain the same: close surveillance by the establishment, cancellation of dates, censureship of lyrics. Another issue is that buying a licence to organise a concert costs between 500 and 1000 Euro, a substantial sum if you bear in mind that its payment still doesn't guarantee the performance… A simple gunshot from the authorities can put an end to a concert for no apparent reason.

This kind of pressure has lead to disaffection both of the organisers and of the public. As a result, Tarpach's concerts in Belarus are becoming rarer. Moreover, many people don’t consider this kind of art as work. Similar to the fate suffered by other kinds of artists, especially since the advent of the communist regime, musicians have a lot of trouble earning a living. 'When we’re invited, it costs $25 alone for transport of the whole group what with all the equipment and high petrol prices,' explains Svieta. 'As for the records, it’s difficult to find good sound engineers. When the CD finally sees the light, we can only sell them during the concerts or on the sly…'

Her main sources of inspiration are women: Nochniye Sniperi, Zemfira. But her main concern is with quality. So, yes, all the better if she and others can continue to evolve, because 'that can change certain macho clichés.' She admits, for example, to liking the band NRM and wonders what they do to carry on. 'They have done a lot to emancipate music - freeing young groups of inhibitions -, just as they have for Belarus with their politically engaged lyrics.' So now it's Svieta's turn to combine energy and political lyrics to awaken new feelings in the public.

Before the presidential elections of 19 March 2006, Svieta recorded the song Belarus will be free, typical of her kind of activism. The day before, the authorities had announced that anyone taking part in demonstrations would be considered a terrorist and imprisoned. Svieta went to the demonstration all the same, and parked her car in an authorised car park, near October Square.

At that point, a policeman arrived, checked her ID, and asked her to follow him, straight to Okrestina prison, usually reserved for political prisoners. The next day, Svieta learnt of the charges against her : apparently, she had been arrested on October Square while brandishing the banned flag, singing anti-Lukashenko slogans and swearing at the police…

She remained in prison for seven days, alongside five other prisoners, with no way of communicating with the outside world. 'A rather positive experience,' she says in good humour. And all of those arrested with her were neither politicians, nor even demonstrators, simply people from diverse backgrounds, conscious of the lack of democracy. All of them individuals who 'will come out of prison even more furious with Lukashenko than before.'