How a Detroit native brought Chicago’s open mic scene to St Petersburg

(Photo credit: Robert Schwaß)

When Zoran Panjak enters a room, you can hardly miss him. Not only because he’s 6 ft. 9 in. (205cm) tall, but also because of his loud and clear voice, which welcomes me as I enter Fish Fabrique—one of St Petersburg’s legendary alternative rock clubs. It’s also the venue where Zoran and his friends kick-started a close-knit community of local musicians. After more than 8 years in the city, Zoran has returned to the US for personal reasons – but not without leaving his footprint in St Petersburg!

Summer 2017. It’s one of those few warm evenings in St Petersburg. I meet Zoran near Fish Fabrique, which has existed since 1994 as a hotspot for St Petersburg’s alternative music scene. I’m waiting in front of the entrance on Ligovsky Prospekt. It’s rush hour, the streets are crowded with cars and passengers on their way home to the residential areas around the city centre. “Hey man, sorry for being late. Our drummer brought a bottle of Vodka with him so we had to drink it first!” Zoran laughs as we’re shaking hands and entering the club.

Zoran, 39, grew up in Detroit and studied American and English literature in the US. He hadn’t actually planned on going to Russia, but then he read Dostoyevsky. That’s the truth and, honestly, who couldn’t relate? After reading several novels by the famous Russian author, Zoran decided to study classical Russian literature. Learning Russian was required to graduate from the program, so Zoran’s fate was decided: he went to Russia for two years, returned to the States, and then entered a master’s program in classical Russian literature. After the university degree was done and dusted, he had to make plans for the future. Why not go back to Russia?

Business as profession, music as passion

No sooner said than done, Zoran came back to Russia to work as a business trainer and consultant in St. Petersburg. Outside of his day job, Zoran was a passionate musician.

Zoran Panjak

He had performed with several groups in Detroit and Chicago and now couldn’t wait to play in his adopted home as well. However, it turned out that this wasn’t as easy as expected:

The music scene in St Petersburg is quite big, though a bit different from what I experienced in Detroit or Chicago. I’ll give you an example: Jazz is pretty big here. If you’re making jazz – That’s ok! If you like the Beatles – That’s cool. But if you’re not so much into the classic stuff and are trying to make something more alternative, not everyone is willing to show some respect for that.”

Zoran searched for comrades and eventually found Andrew and Artyom, two local musicians. Once, after a few drinks at a bar, they came up with the idea that St Petersburg needed an Open Mic night, like the ones that are ubiquitous in Detroit and Chicago.

Thursday is Open Mic Day

Back in Fish Fabrique where I met Zoran, more and more musicians have started to get together every Thursday. “For the past two years, this is the place where we come to meet every week. Musicians can meet each other here and just go up on stage.” Indeed, the crowd seems to be edgier than others that I’ve seen at music events in town. Zoran tells me that they tried out several different locations before finding Fish Fabrique: “We had some troubles with the previous bars where we held the Open Mic. At one, the bartender cancelled our event a few hours before it was scheduled to take place because it was a sports bar and they forgot about the night’s football match. Another only thought about profit and wasn’t interested in developing the music scene in town.”

Inkwell concert crowd (Photo credit: Anastasia Khryaschova)

At the beginning of this night, the crowd seems to be a bit restrained before the first groups come on stage. The first is an old man who starts to sing rousing Belarusian folk songs, later, a female singer performs Daft Punk’s smash hit ‘Lucky’ in a chilled and jazzy adaptation of the original song. But Zoran is not pleased with all of the guests of the evening: “One group just left after their own performance. That’s just not fair, why couldn’t they stay a bit longer? I want the people to network with each other and not only to show up.” Of course, Zoran and Artyom don’t miss the opportunity for a little performance. After they finish, they come back for another round of beers: “Next week will be our last concert before Zoran leaves back to the US. We would be glad to see you there!”

Inkwell

One week later, I’m following up on Zoran’s invitation to watch him and his group Inkwell at their farewell concert. Inkwell is an alternative rock band that they founded after several sessions at the open mic. Comprised of two

Inkwell. (Photo credit: Anastasia Khryaschova)

Americans and two Russians—St Petersburg meets Detroit. Though half of the group is Russian, Inkwell’s music doesn’t sound like it’s influenced by Russian rock. As Artyom explained to me, he never really liked Russian rock because the latter emphasizes lyrics over composition. Meanwhile, Zoran says he counts Bob Dylan and Tom Waits as his biggest inspirations when he writes lyrics for Inkwell.

We’re gonna meet up at Z 2.0, a club in an old industrial yard near the train station. It’s 10 p.m. when Zoran and his group come up on stage. The audience is a mix of young and old—mostly Russians with a few groups of international students in between. Inkwell recorded their album (Touch n’ Go) in Serbia, where Zoran’s cousin is a local music star. “Recording an album is like training for the Olympics,” Zoran laughs when we talk after the concert, though he seems to be a bit sad that his time in Russia is coming to an end.

Goodbye Leningrad

“Walking down the road, don’t know which way to go,” Zoran sings in “Hey now”, the second track of Inkwell’s album Touch n’ Go. It’s the beginning of October and Zoran has to walk down a new path in life. But he didn’t leave St Petersburg without first passing the Open Mic to the next generation. It’s now hosted by Anastasia, who met Zoran at one of the events: “Zoran asked me: ‘Do you want to meet different musicians every week?’ and I immediately said: Yes! We’re always happy about new musicians, it doesn’t matter if you have already played on big stages or just in your room, everyone can take their first steps here!”

Meanwhile, Zoran is in New York, thinking about his time in St Petersburg and already searching for new open mics and musicians. Though he knows that his friends in St Petersburg will be waiting for him, every Thursday, at the open mic.

Fish Fabrique:
Ligovsky Prospekt 53
Open Mics start every Thursday at 20.00

Listen to Inkwell on bandcamp.

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