The Czar of the Russian Ska Jazz Revolution - Denis Kuptsov

Whilst I was over in Russia I was introduced to a chap called Denis. It turns out that quite a few of you out there may have heard / seen Denis and never known it.

Denis has a rather ‘colourful’ musical past. He’s played with the Toasters on numerous occasions, he’s an internationally requested DJ (DJ Messer) and produced / played on Rocka-billy / proto-psycho-billy / proto-punk and Ska bands internationally too… Oh, as well as the small detail of helping to organize an after party for the Rolling Stones via the Saint Petersburg Trojan Crew…

Denis’ credentials in the Vespa Club of St Pete come from the fact that he was the first person to bring one of the ‘new’ range of Vespa into St. Pete, he also has a Vyatka (The Russian/ Soviet 1960s Copy of the GS) being renovated by Butcher Garage… (More of that to come as it’s being done).

So here we were, sat outside a coffee house in the centre of the amazing city of St. Pete and Denis told me of his musical and scootering ‘journey’ up ‘til today. He began with the Rolling Stones episode…

One night, I was touring with the band in Germany and I get a call from Katia Galitzina, she’s a London artist and relative of the Duchess Galitzin family (one of the Dukedom families from when Russia had a Royal Family – Pre Russian Revolution). She called and asked if I could DJ at the Rolling Stones after party. They wanted a Ska and Rocksteady DJ. It was Keith Richards daughter’s birthday. I was gutted. I was in Germany, on tour, but I knew some kids that were doing a Trojan Crew project back in St. Petersberg, so I hooked her up with them and off they went. The next time I met the Trojan Crew they were on their knees…you know? Oh my God. Denis… Thank you! Thank you for this wonderful opportunity. They played a brilliant set and they went down really well. I was gutted I couldn’t do it myself, but I’m proud I participated and helped it happen. Tell us of how you got involved in this globe trotting musical affair…

My ‘career’ started back in the late 1980s with my first band The Swindlers – playing rockabilly and neo rocka-billy, we wanted to tour the world, play music, pick up girls, drink, all the usual young guy stuff. But at that time it was very difficult, you couldn’t get abroad easily. Even though perestroika had kicked in, it was still hanging over from the Soviet regime travel rules. So the band managed to move to Denmark and the band lived there  for a couple of years. We did a lot of shows there and then the band split, some of the guys wanted to stay in Denmark and others wanted to push on to bigger things. I went back to St. Petersburg to build another band. I wanted to do something with Ska. It had always been one of my favourite genres, both Jamaican and its Two Tone descendant. I got the remaining members of the original Skatalites to come to St Pete to play back 2001. One thing led to another and I bought my first scooter (which I still have) it’s a Vespa ET50, its still going and I still love it, I’ve got a Vyatka, there’s two different models of Vyatka, I’ve got the one that’s like a GS, its tough and cool at the same time. There’s also a 1965 Vyatka with a side car, which is cool… and also dangerous, but still cool. I was thinking of buying a PX, but here, in Russia, if its 50cc or under, you don’t need plates, over 50cc and you’ve got a whole world of responsibilities.

The scooter scene is different over here. We don’t have the weight of history. None of the historic mods and rockers on the beach. There’s never been any of that on the banks of the River Neva. The British mod, skinhead, suedehead, soul boy history is fascinating for us, as well as the Scooterboy era, I suppose we’re lucky, we can pick and choose – and there’s only a very few who can spot what’s right and what’s not. There’s a lot of books I’ve collected and a huge amount of films I’ve watched. I love it all. To be honest, there were guys here that were ‘scootering’ long before I did, but they were on different scooters, I was passionate about the ‘old school’ scoots, the real deal, Vespa, Lambretta and the old Soviet stuff. Yeah, to begin with, I was the only one with a Vespa. That was in 2004. It’s kind of weird, because back in time, in Soviet Russia we had tons of scooters, but no ‘cult’ or ‘scene’ or ‘group’ around them really. There were loads, Vyatka, Tulitsa, Electron and the Tourist – which can look like a Lambretta at some angles… (Denis sees the look on my face at his remark, he laughs). I broke your heart? (he’s grinning impishly) Ok, maybe it’s not.

The scooter scene over here is growing, There was a point a couple of years ago when people bought scooters because it was a fashion accessory, but it was kind of like that before we did real scootering, I mean real scooters, Vespa and the like – not the Japanese or Chinese plastic pieces of crap, those that melt in the sun. Before ‘real’ scootering we had a problem here with idiots on scooters gathering together at the Winter palace square and causing problems. They weren’t real scooterists, don’t get me wrong, we all like to get a bit rowdy now and then, but these guys only bought scooters because they couldn’t afford bikes, they really wanted bikes, but didn’t have the money, all they could afford was cheap a Chinese or Japanese ’scooter’, which they attempted to ‘tune-up’ and stuff, but nothing with history or class. So in my eyes, they weren’t real scooterists at all. We very quickly distanced our selves from them. Even if we gathered in the same part of the square, we’d tell them to do one.

Nowadays, I don’t get to ride as much as I’d like, the season here is short, due to the weather, naturally, and then I’m always on tour, or DJing, but any chance I get, I’m out on the scoot. Even so, in all its aspects, I’ll continue to support the scene a lot.

On the band side, Back in 2001, the band ‘Spitfire’ (a band already famous within Russia as a whole) started a spin-off project called St. Petersburg Ska-Jazz Review in collaboration with members of the St. Petersburg-based, afro-Caribbean band ‘Markscheider Kunst’.

The idea was a program comprised mostly of jazz standards and original ska tunes. The original idea was for us to perform at the Sergey Kuryokhin International Festival (SKIF) in April '01.

The show attracted a load of interest and the band continued to play live gigs on the Russian club scene. SPb Ska-Jazz Review’s debut album.

Soon after the release of the first album, American vocalist Jennifer Davis joined the line-up, and the band went to work on its second album, Too Good To Be True, recorded in April 2004. The first SPb Ska-Jazz Review album was re-released on the well-known German ska label, Grover Records, in January 2005 and was supported by an extensive German and Swiss tour.

In 2008 Jennifer had left the band to go back to the US and continue her studying, as well as that some of the band members quit during the crisis period in Russia, and the band ceased for a while.

In the spring of 2010 I decided to reunite the troops – and by the summer the new line up had performed their first shows in Saint Petersburg.

The vocals, this time were courtesy of Ulia Kogan. SPB Ska Jazz Review recorded few tracks with the new line up, after two years of playing, Margarita Kasaeva came with her vocals. With new band members came new ideas and visions of a sound.

We recorded and released a new single "Water Taxi" Almost starting again, we played the clubs of Saint Petersburg and Moscow gaining a great support from an ever growing audience.

The band also played abroad – Reggae Land Festival in Poland for one. In 2015 we recorded and released a new album called "Elephant Riddim" it’s a mix of our own material – mixing with some of the bands choice of covers.

SPB SJR Still is strong on the Russian independent & underground scene, and also gets enthusiastic airplay on independent radio stations – Russian Riks Scoot Club on-line at Fab Radio being just one.

This band swings as hard as it skanks.

I've played in London a few times with the band ‘Leningrad’, but not with any other of my bands. With Ska Jazz Review we'd love to do a UK Ska Festival, but I’ve no connection to the organizers. If anyone can help in that direction it would be great. An event like that could provide us a with a paying show from where we can build the British tour it would be great actually to play in the UK.

Check out St Peterburg Ska Jazz Review on You tube or hear them each week on the Lucky Bag on - Target Radio

Interview conducted 1 year ago

words by Rik Bardsley

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