NE BELA ZARYA (The Dawn is not White)

Sung by Oksana Dobrinskaya of Arkhangelsk, Russia in 2017. In April of 2017 while giving a master class at the Arkhangelsk Music College, I spoke about the beginning stages of this Song Quilts project and the defining characteristics and history of early American folk music. There, I taught the students several songs, including King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-me-o, Git Along Little Dogies, and Nine Pound Hammer. It was a wonderful experience to have all those voices lifted in joyful song. After the class, Professor Anna Akimova invited me back to her studio with several of the students to continue to converse and share songs with each other. Arkhangelsk is one of the major jazz hubs of Russia and the college trains many of the country’s new voices in jazz scene. The city also boasts two major international jazz and blues festivals. We each took turns singing original songs, jazz standards, and traditional folk tunes for each other. It was here that Oksana sang this gorgeous Mezen folk song, Ne Bela Zarya, which translates roughly as "the dawn is not white." Located above the Arctic Circle, the Mezen region is cloaked in polar night four months out of the year. The spring day when the sun rises for the first time after a long and dark winter is often called the White Dawn. The North is a cultural center where unique textile, art, and musical traditions add to the rich cultural fabric of Russia. The Mezen region is famous for its own art, painting, and weaving styles, including traditional paintings and weaving that are full of linguistic symbols used to tell stories of harvests, the land, and the life that inhabits it. The region is also home to the Sami People, whose unique musical traditions and colorful textile art have clearly left their mark on local European traditions. The Sami yoik is a three-dimensional song. Ursula Länsman of the Sami group Angelit describes the tradition:

yoik is not merely a description; it attempts to capture its subject in its entirety: it's like a holographic, multi-dimensional living image, a replica, not just a flat photograph or simple visual memory. It is not about something, it is that something. It does not begin and it does not end. A yoik does not need to have words – its narrative is in its power, it can tell a life story in song. The singer can tell the story through words, melody, rhythm, expressions or gestures. with no beginning or end, and its singers remind listeners that the yoik is not “about” something, it simply “IS” that thing. Yoiks are frequently about the landscape and the wildlife, they have repeated patterns that cycle through phases with no clear meter

The more I learned about the yoik, the more i could hear how this musical tradition has influenced the music of its European neighbors.

This Song Quilt is a transcription of how Oksana sang Ne Bela Zarya. You'll notice that the song is set upon a black canvas. Unlike many of the other song quilts, the meter is "crooked"; meaning that instead of each line being a 16-beat phrase, each line has a different number of beats, which creates the odd length in each line. The root color is a pale white, which leads to reds and blues, much as how the white dawn of the Russian Arctic leads to colorful skies. For the quilting design, I used symbols from Mezen paintings. The backing fabric for this quilt I found in a fabric store in Arkhangelsk. 

Special thanks to Ekaterina Sharova of the Arctic Art Institute, who was my generous host and translator during my time in Russia. Without her this project would not have been possible. 

Translation by Olga and Lusi Klimenko

Oksana Dobrinskaya, Arkhangelsk, 2017

Mezen Carder, a tool for weaving. Picture taken at the Arkhangelsk Regional Museum.

A traditional Mezen formal dress.

The White Dawn of the Mezen region with all its pale reds and blues.


Oksana and I together in Anna Akimova's teaching studio in Arkhangelsk.

Detail of Mezen Carder, including images of caribou, horses, and symbology.

Each of the symbols in Mezen paintings has meaning. Here is a list of just a few of them.

A Sami belt. Notice the beading design’s similarity to the pictograms of the Mezen.

Fabric I found while in Arkhangelsk and a little quilting detail.