Since 2008, the JetLAG festival has presented Russian, Slavic and Eastern European music in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Organizers considered canceling the gathering this year, a decision taken by two other Russian diaspora music gatherings this summer on the east coast. But after deciding to raise money for Ukraine relief, they decided to keep the show going.
Several subcultures collide with JetLAG. Every summer big Russian bands – rock, reggae and cabaret – are flown in to play. But this year, they couldn’t get a visa to perform at the festival.
“It’s a shame,” said JetLAG creative director Pavel Lion, who plays Psoy Korolenko. Lion was based in Moscow.
About 2,800 people attended this year, many from the New York and Boston areas. 500 of the attendees were performers, volunteers or people running craft, theater and yoga workshops.
Tents and RVs were set up and the kids cycled around the 300-acre campground, just a stone’s throw from the East Fork of the Delaware River, which was freezing but not deep enough to swim.
At night, festival-goers were dressed in colorful, see-through rain gear and the instruments of Emperor Norton’s Stationary Band were decorated with LEDs as they played in the dark.
Two festival artists have decided to flee Russia because of the war in Ukraine. Alyosha Levstein, 24, quit her job as a graphic designer in Moscow and now lives on a farm in Maryland with friends of her grandmother, a prominent lawyer.
“It’s not an easy decision to stay here,” Levstein told NPR. “Starting to work, finding new people, renting [an apartment]all these things I’m dealing with right now, and apparently I don’t really have a clue how to deal with them.”
Bassist Vitaly Prismototrov fled Russia shortly before the war began and spent time in a detention camp after crossing Arizona from Mexico. At JetLAG, Prismototrov performed with a Russian-speaking band from California called the Flying Balkan Laikas. He was a last minute addition to the set.
Some of JetLAG’s key people have dedicated their time to helping war-torn Ukraine. Co-Creative Director Alice Feldman quit her job at a Western Massachusetts talent agency to work with the Global Disaster Relief Team, a new nonprofit. And Daniil Cherkassky, a Chicago-based, Kyiv-born performance artist, co-founded Ukraine TrustChain which raised $1.2 million to evacuate and feed 36,000 Ukrainians, an effort that continues to this day.
Cherkassky told NPR he noticed the war had affected campfire singing at JetLAG this year because Russian songs are now considered toxic in some circles. For years, Cherkassky sang old Soviet propaganda songs. But the 39-year-old performer decided the material was inappropriate at this point.
“Before, it was funny to sing the communist regime’s fantasies about colonizing other stars because there was a distance,” he explained. “That was in the past. The Soviet Union fell apart, so it was like content that was safe to use and now it’s not.”
Instead, Cherkassky sang traditional Ukrainian folk songs at JetLAG. He said that sometimes he cried while singing.