Romany guitarist Vadim Kolpakov has a master’s hands and a wanderer’s feet

Sometimes you get the biggest presents at somebody else’s birthday party.

Vadim Kolpakov found that out when a mutual friend suggested he play at the London home of Mrs. Guy Ritchie. Result? The Kolpakov Trio landed a spot on the Sticky & Sweet world tour for 2008-09, playing gypsy-style music for Madonna (who was by then divorcing Mr. Ritchie).

You might say touring is in the blood of the Russian-born guitarist, who has settled into Charlotte life at 30. He comes from the Roma people, who strolled out of northern India a millennium ago and spread their culture across four continents. (You may know them as gypsies. They rarely use that word, though they sometimes apply the adjective to music.)

Kolpakov can’t remember a time when he didn’t sing music, let alone hear it. His uncle, virtuoso Alexander “Sasha” Kolpakov, taught him the Russian-style seven-string guitar, and Vadim joined the Moscow-based Romen Theatre at 15. At 23, he embarked on a career that made him “one of the most prominent and renowned Russian Roma guitarists in the world.”

So says the booklet in the “Rough Guide to the Music of Russian Gypsies.” An entire disc of that two-CD anthology is devoted to duets by Vadim and Alexander.

But what brought him to Charlotte, where we never hear his style of music?

“My girlfriend at the time,” he says, tapping his Parliament into an ashtray outside Caribou Coffee on East Boulevard. “I’d come to the United States with a band and lived in Boston for two years. She got a job teaching music at UNC Charlotte. I came down with her and did (a residency) there myself in 2006-07. And I stayed.”

Quiet at home, busy abroad

Here he performs mostly with the annual spring “Dances of India” concert at Central Piedmont Community College. Why not? Romany culture began there, and he trained as a singer-dancer. (You’ll find him at Halton Theater on April 28.)

The world knows him better than we do. His band Via Romen just ended a two-week Israeli tour with singer Svetlana Portnyansky and will play the Herdjelezi Romany Festival in California in May.

A vast array of modern world music contains a hint of Romany style, from guitarists in the Gipsy Kings (French-born, singing in Spanish) to Belgian-born, eight-fingered jazz master Django Reinhardt.

“Tango, Jewish klezmer music, Brazilian samba – it’s all related,” says Kolpakov. “Take flamenco. It’s got Spanish and Arabic and Roma influences all put together.”

That explains why the Kolpakov Trio could fit in so easily on Madonna’s tour. It did numbers such as “Doli Doli,” an upbeat song by Uncle Sasha and a remix of Madonna’s Latino-style “La Isla Bonita.”

The guitarist and the icon met through Eugene Hutz, singer in the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello and star of “Filth and Wisdom,” Madonna’s 2008 comedy dud. Hutz gave her a recording by the Kolpakov Trio; the birthday party followed.

You’d guess Kolpakov was a guitarist from the way he takes care of his hands. He shakes with you gently, and his slim fingers end in long, tapering nails used to pluck or strum nylon strings on his guitar.

Those hands have played in so many ensembles that you’ll need a scorecard to keep them straight. So here it is:

• Talisman – Romany music dating back 200 years, often with a vocalist. Sounds like classical music of that period.

• Kolpakov Duo – Vadim and Sasha play traditional music, often written by Sasha.

• Kolpakov Trio – Toured with Madonna and plays ethnic Romany music. Consists of Sasha, Vadim, violinist Arkadiy Gips.

• Via Romen – Plays “Nuevo Russian Romany Music.” Co-founded by Kolpakov in 2004 and anchored by four players: himself, Gips, singer-accordionist Petra Gelbart (another co-founder) and guitar player Alex Gorodezky, who lives in Raleigh.

Its “My Two Homes” album matches traditional Romany and Russian sounds with elements that range as far afield as R&B or bits of improvised jazz. The “Triple Delight” album, recorded with Portnyansky, offers Romany, Jewish and Latino music, sometimes sung in Spanish.

A strange, unique collaboration

Via Romen epitomizes the eclecticism of Kolpakov’s career, for he and Gorodezky could hardly be less alike as guitarists.

Kolpakov learned from his uncle to play by ear, without relying on written music. (That’s how he starts his own students.)

Gorodezky’s roots are in a classical conservatory in Ukraine, where he played from sheets, and his heart is in classic jazz: Joe Pass, Al DiMeola, George Benson.

Kolpakov is slim, shy, cautious. Gorodezky is burly, outgoing, a fountain of words. Yet when chance brought them together at a party after a Kolpakov concert in Raleigh some years ago, they fused.

“Have you seen ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’? ” Gorodezky asks. “This character is Vadim. If he goes to a party, he cannot not perform. He puts the drinking aside, he picks up the guitar, and he starts to make a concert. We start playing together, and two hours later he says, ‘Dude, let’s maybe work on something.’

“I was kind of skeptical. He was a great guitarist, but I always had bad luck playing with other guitar players. I never found someone as serious about rhythm as I am. But with Vadim, I don’t even have to look at him, really. I can just play with him.”

Gorodezky uses a traditional six-string guitar and a bass. When he writes a song for Kolpakov, he doesn’t write out a chart.

“I just say, ‘I wrote this song, listen. Play a solo here.’ And Vadim plays a solo without actually knowing all the chords. To play solos and harmonies without written music – I have no idea how he does that.

“(It’s difficult) to carry a melody on a guitar. It’s not like a saxophone, where you can blow long notes when the melody is slow. You have to make runs, add different types of (melismas). He does that so well.”

A man with a different mission

Kolpakov and Gelbart called the band “Via Romen” – loosely translatable as “Romany Way” – and perform in traditional costumes to give people a sense of history.

“We don’t have a country of our own, so it’s hard for people to know who we are,” he says. “Our mission is to introduce people to a culture unknown in the U.S.”

Romany people have long memories – Kolpakov recalls how, in 16th-century Spain, they were not allowed to speak their own language – and have frequently been closed communities, neither seeking nor welcoming interest from outsiders.

“There is still discrimination against Romany people in Eastern Europe, even in the 21st century,” says Kolpakov. “We don’t have many (political) representatives, so people don’t care about us much.

“But we have always had this music. When we make modern arrangements of it and combine it with all the other kinds of music that we like, we keep it alive.”

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