On February 27th, the great german singer Ivan Rebroff (real name: Hans Rolf Rippert) passed away at the age of 76. This is going to be a personal commemoration, because I´ve been touring with Ivan from 1981 - 1985 and played the bass balalaika on stages all over Europe
Not having met Ivan since then, I just heard of his demise in the news just like everyone else, and this certainly awakes some precious memories, all the more Ivan was someone who had a pretty formative and inspiring impact on my life, so to speak.
After graduating school and completing the subsequent compulsory community service, I was just about to take up some serious course of studies at university -- but then Ivan appeared out the blue and took me and three other young musicians (we, the "Balalaika Ensemble Druschba", were already quite well-known in Germany at that time...) on an incredibly interesting joyride for 4 years. I´m very thankful for this opportunity and will always cherish an experience which many young musicians regretfully don´t have.
Working and performing with Ivan was nothing less that pure and unspoilt fun. When we met him, he was already a *big* star in this genre, but we soon got along with each other very well, also because his fame didn´t bar him from being a warm-hearted and down-to-earth fellow towards everyone -- we certainly didn´t form a close friendship with Ivan, as he was the typical lone wolf who´d rather go his own ways after concerts, but I´d say that we have been pretty good comrades on and off stage. Ivan´s friendly and unreserved nature made it very easy to us, as he always treated us as partners, demonstrated respect for what we contributed, and allowed us being in the spotlight as well.
Ivan even happened to be on good terms with the german tabloid press, all the more they (that would, regretfully, nowadays be quite uncommon...) used to behave very well by never breaking one particular taboo:
Like so many artists (and non artists), Ivan was gay. Not openly, as this would have ruined his aspiring career in the (in regards to homosexuality notably more prude...) sexties and seventies, but everyone how knew him, knew that -- however, I´m absolutely certain that he would indeed have felt much more comfortable by living an openly gay life rather than trying hard to obfuscate this (at least in this "trade" an open...) secret by telling nosey interviewers he considered himself an "confirmed bachelor", what´s in itself of course a a pretty broad hint and a common euphemism for gay men since the Victorian Era.
Gay folks, in particular famous singers who happened to be gay, never had an easy life in Germany those bygone decades. Thankfully the times have changed to some extent, as homosexual artists are nowadays at least tolerated and won´t necessarily risk their career, as long their chosen genre grants them a certain amount of latitude. Regretfully Ivan didn´t have this luck, as he happened to address an audience, which - at least in Germany - was an increasingly aging and rather conservative one, means they clearly wouldn´t have approved their hero to admit being homosexual. It must be said, that the "russian folklore" genre certainly makes it extra hard for gay singers to come out of their closet, as the western audience will require him to perfectly personify "russian" religious attitudes plus several pretty archaic clichés, and giving an impression of "masculinity" is expected from real and supposed russian singers not just since "Dr. Schiwago" was released.
Well, I don´t know if Ivan really had to struggle with this dilemma, but unlike other famous gay artists who really despaired of having to hide their disposition, Ivan apparently managed to come to terms with it by just living life the way he wanted and evade to his adopted country, the greek island Skopelos, whenever possible.
Ivan just wasn´t an arrogant or bigheaded personality, however he was equipped with an inimitable sense of (not always good natured :-) humor which had a strong notion of making fun of himself and the "status" he achieved -- that said, he never took himself seriously, but he had the highest demands on his art and on doing a first-class performance.
Ivan was the archetypal "if I´ll ever have to die, please let it happen on stage" artist; singing and acting was what he dearly loved and definitely *knew* to get across to a demanding audience which expected to get entertained with "class and style" and which always got just that.
Dear Ivan, may you rest in peace -- and I´m absolutely sure you´ll bring some fun to heaven, same as you did on earth :-)