A manager that consistently sends me quality artists, emailed me a few weeks ago about a rare “find”, that I had to read about right away. This one contact always sends me great talent, so I’m eager to open his emails, since the artist he’s bringing me will surely be one of those that I should be watching. I get emails stressing how someone should be “watched” or a rare “find” all the time - it’s buzz words that PR agents use to get writer’s attention. Some times they’re right, some times they’re exaggerating but with this particular agent, he doesn’t throw it around often. So, “Okay, I’ll bite. Let’s see what we have here.” Then, I open the email, and start reading. Next thing I know, my jaw hits my keyboard—hard. This artist was a rather rare find indeed. I use the term “find” loosely, since at only 31, Ruslan Sirota, an award winning pianist and composer, has been discovered for a very long time. A long time?... At only 31? Yes, Ruslan, like many musical geniuses before him was identified at a young age to have talent that surpassed those around him.
Ruslan is not like the artists I am pitched every week. There was no, “After playing dive bars in New York…” Or, “While working the coffee house scene in LA…”. Ruslan was different, and in a good way. Yes, he is where he is today from doing his “time” like every other artist but it’s how he did that time, where he came from and how he got here, that makes him stand out. After all, it’s not every day I get an email about a music phenom, that went from a humble upbringing in the Ukraine, growing up in Israel, receiving a scholarship to a premier music university, to travelling the world playing with some of the biggest names in jazz as well as pop music, and oh yeah, even racking up a Grammy in 2011. Ruslan knows that his story is not an everyday tale and he it’s that mindset that has allowed him to soak up all he experiences his background offered.
“I’m a cultural mutt,” Ruslan says sarcastically when describing his background. “I’ve spent large parts of my life in cultures radically different from one another.” Born in Uman, which is now within the Ukraine, Ruslan’s family is rich in its musical roots. Both of his grandfathers learned and played by ear, which gave way to his father becoming a professional musician in the Ukraine. However, even though his family shared their love for music with Ruslan, it was a lot harder for him to capture the sounds of music outside of his own house, due to the state of affairs under the then Soviet Union. “In my early childhood in USSR (at the time) it was very difficult to get a hold of American, British or any other Non Soviet music. It was only sold on the black market and musicians like my dad would hunt it down and buy it for amounts of money that would constitute half of their monthly salary. And then make copies of copies of copies of these forbidden records.”
Ruslan stresses that his father’s passion for music, fueled his father to instill music of the world into Ruslan’s life, despite those restraints that were put on him. “I remember my dad spinning a Beatles vinyl at home. It was almost ritualistic. I grew up hearing that and hearing my dad’s band play every week. It was so special! I can only wish to preserve the level of excitement for music I experienced in those years (so far so good). Every rehearsal of my dad’s band was a real important event for me! I was just so into it!”
There would be many other important events in Ruslan’s life, starting with a move away from the Ukraine at the age of ten. His family fled to Israel, where his musical studies continued, however it was at age 17 when Ruslan would make his way to the States after a prized scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, with personal assistance from legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton. And this is the part of Ruslan’s story that seems to have the “Wow Factor”. After all, here you have a child whose father had to save up his earnings to buy bottom-of-the-barrel-quality black market records to now sitting in the classroom of one of the most prestigious music institutions on the planet. Come on, say it with me, “WOW!”
After graduation in 2003, Ruslan began playing with the most prolific and legendary names in Jazz and writing material for Stanley Clarke’s The Toys of Men on the track “Jerusalem”. As well, his talents earned him touring gigs around the world with Dennis Chambers, Marcus Miller, Seal and Brian McKnight. And in 2011, he reached the pinnacle of success in the music industry when he won a Grammy in 2011. Again… WOW! Here is a video of his acceptance speech at the Grammys: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3i0CCqgUKP0
Ruslan’s latest work, a self-titled album is an eye opening look into his heart and mind, that even he is unsure where this journey will lead him next. I asked him about this work, and what makes it different – from other albums he’s worked on, other artists he’s worked with and his answer is rather, well I can only call it, Ruslanian. “Do you know how first dates go? There are two kinds of people on first dates; ones that slowly and cautiously open themselves up, afraid to overwhelm or scare the other person. And then there are those who just let themselves be fully themselves from the get go. The “Love it or leave it” kind of deal. I’m somewhat like that with my music. This is my first album and I simply made a point of allowing myself full self expression. Allowing all of my experiences and emotions take shape in the form of music.”
His path to his point is picturesque but his more direct response is equally profound. “What can you expect from this record? Honesty. And expect to find yourself somewhere in it, you probably will.”
Honesty is the best way I can describe Ruslan as well. If you put the “tale” behind you, if you shelve the Grammy and forget where he came from, it ultimately comes down to the music. It was music that was handed down to Ruslan like a family heirloom. It was music that was smuggled into his house at time when the world around him was not allowing him to venture out his front door. And ultimately it’s his honesty of staying true to where he came from, that has mad Ruslan a leader in today’s music. “My music is just a pallet of emotions, like I am. Transmitting directly from one’s emotions and experiences is the way to go.”
For more information on great artists, follow me on Twitter @RichieFrieman