Here the fairy tale began – Alexander Rybak – Norway’s hope in ESC 2009

Here the fairy tale began

Alexander was a “king” on the piano. He loved it. But “war” broke out when his parents also wanted him to try he violin, recalls the grandmother. 

Text to picture: He is three years old and is going to have lunch at the family country house. Two years later, Alexander Rybak moves and has not been to Belarus since. VG Friday has met some of those who meant most  to «Sasha».

Source: VG Fredag, paper issue, published 15.5.2009. Found by TessaLa, translated by Jorunn Ekre. Revision Anni Jowett.

Sasha looks like me, doesn’t he?

CLOSE RELATIONSHIP: Alexander on the arm of the grandmother Zinaida Jegorovna outside of the Gorkij park in Minsk. Photo: PRIVATE


Grandma Zinaida asks proudly and shows us great black and white photos of Alexander Rybak’s childhood in Minsk at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. 

Many of them were taken at the dacha – the summer place which today is located on the Russian side of the border – but even more are from Gorkij Park, in the centre of the Belarusian capital. 
We’re walking together with the beautiful grandmother of the Norwegian Melodi Grand Prix contestant in the park. Alexander Rybak definitely has several traits from her. 
To Zinaida Jegorovna he’s just Sasha, the pet name for Alexander. 
She is walking very lightly even if she’s 77 and she has a memory like an elephant. 

Bicycle repair: – I’m big, I can repair my bicycle myself, said Alexander Rybak, when the family was at their dacha (summer house). He tried, but had to ask for help at the end.

Like many other “babushki” (grandmothers) she often looked after her grandchildren, not least Alexander, who was only one year old when Zinaida retired from her job as a teacher, at the age of 55, which was the rule in the old Soviet Union and still is in today’s Belarus, at least as long as we’re talking about women. Men have to work for five more years. 

IN THE PARK: Alexander Rybak almost grown up here in the Gorkij park in Minsk. Here he smiles brilliantly from the back of a play horse in the park. Photo: PRIVATE

– Sasha almost grew up in this park. At first he was in his stroller, later he was running around. I remember it was difficult to make him sleep in the beginning. He was crying a lot. But if we took him in the stroller to the park, he fell asleep while we were walking.

Alexander hasn’t been to Belarus since his family moved 17 years ago, but Zinaida visits Norway every year and has followed her grandchild’s adolescence closely. 

She really looks forward to the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow. 

– Do you think he can win?

– Objectively speaking I think so. But there’s a lot of tactics in the voting, isn’t there?
Zinaida Jegorovna certainly knows who she will vote for. She remembers when Alexander wrote his first songs, when he was 4-5 years old. 

– He asked me to make sheet music for him. Alexander sat by the piano. Outside it was spring, we could hear the drops of water fall. That inspired him.

– Later, when his mother came back from work, Alexander wanted to hear what she thought of his “composition”. She praised him. Alexander became very happy. He still asks his mother for advice when he writes music. Do you think it’s best like this or this, he asks. Natasha seldom replies directly. They discuss what will be best in the end.

His grandmother recalls that Alexander reacted to music even before he could walk. With a mother who is a pianist and a dad who is a violinist he got the music through the breastmilk. 

– Alexander was a “king” on the piano. He loved it. But “war” broke out when his parents also wanted him to try he violin, recalls the grandmother. 
– He cried his brave tears. He thought it was difficult finding the tones on a violin… 
Tomorrow Alexander Rybak plays the violin during the Eurovision Song Contest final in Moscow.

Remembers Alexander: Alexander Rybak was only 6 years old when he started playing violin with Lev Kuleshov. I have been a violin teacher for 40 years, but I will always remember Alexander, says Kuleshov, who is 74 years old now.

– If you want to become a violinist, you must crack the code. Alexander did that fast, says Lev Kuleshov. 
He is 74 years old and has worked for 40 years at the music school in the centre of Minsk. There have been many students during this time, but he remembers young Rybak well. 

– Alexander hadn’t begun school yet. But I understood there was something special about him. He had an ear for music, he had the rhythm. I honestly felt it was a pity when he quit school to move to Norway, says Kuleshov. 

He is teaching students while we are visiting Rada who is 11 and Tikhon who is 10. 

– The students keep me young, states Alexander’s first violin teacher. 

We bring out the computer and play “Fairytale” to him. Kuleshov moves rhythmically to the music and is very happy about Alexander playing the violin. He doesn’t say it, but it’s obvious that Eurovision music is not his style. Still he exclaims happily “Molodets!”

Which means something like “Well done!”

Jelena Sobolev comes fluttering in from the Place of Freedom and into the music school. A well-built, cordial and warm woman. She was Alexander Rybak’s first music teacher – if we disregard Mom Natasha and Dad Igor. Jelena also had his mother as a student. 

No, she hasn’t heard that Alexander Rybak has won the Norwegian final and is competing in the Eurovision Song Contest. 

– How nice. I knew he would become someone special, she says with a shaking voice, obviously uncomfortable being the object of an interview. 
Alexander Rybak learned how to play the piano in a bit more than half a year, while the family waited for a permission to move. 

– I remember telling his mother they had to continue the tutoring when they went to Norway. He did have a very special ear for music. In addition he was always eager. When the piano lesson was over he always said “already?”. 
– It’s rare that I have such a gifted student. I noticed right away he would have a great future in music, says Soboleva and excuses herself saying she has to take care of ten year old Karina and her interpretation of Chopin’s Nocturne.

Proud: Alexander Rybak’s grandma Zinaida and his first piano teacher Jelena Soboleva studies VGFredag’s photo of the victory in Melodi Grand Prix.

Together with grandma we take the bus around the centre of Minsk. “Alexander was born here”, says Zinaida Jegorovna, and points to a building which at the time was “birth house number 1” in the capital of Minsk in the Soviet republic Belarus. 

When Alexander Rybak was born in May in 1986, two weeks had passed since they lost control over the nuclear plant in Chernobyl. The windy conditions were the reason why Belarus suffered the most. 

– But we knew nothing about that. The government in Moscow hid everything from us. The head of the party brought his family and escaped to Moscow, because the level of radiation was highest here. But they didn’t tell us. 

Grandmother complains about the young people in Belarus not having as many children as before. 
– Earlier we thought that a life without children wasn’t worth anything. Now they think more about themselves. 
By entrance number 1, at number 9 Koslovo street, we meet Olga (22). She has never heard of Alexander Rybak. 

– Oh my, has such a celebrity stayed at the house I live? I will of course cheer for him during the Eurovision Song Contest, says Olga. 

Alexander spent his early years in a very modest apartment. Mom Natasha, Dad Igor and little Sasha, and partially his paternal grandmother lived together in one room. In Russian it’s called “kommunalka”, an apartment where two families share both kitchen and bathroom. 
– There was no luxury, grandmother Zinaida confirms dryly. 
She enjoyed taking Sasha to the other side of the street, to the movie theatre “Mir”, a word that can mean both “world” and “peace”. Zinaida also points to a store in the other direction.
– I remember at one point wanting to enter it alone, but Sasha said “Don’t leave me here in the street, someone may steal me”.”
With a Norwegian pronunciation, with the emphasis on the first syllable, Rybak sounds like a place where you’d think no one could live, and the family in Nesodden has given up a long time ago teaching Norwegians to pronounce it correctly, with the emphasis on the  second syllable. The name means “fisherman”. 

Minsk was in ruins in 1945. Every fourth Belarusian had died. The war therefore still creates strong feelings here. Last Saturday they celebrated once again the victory over Nazi Germany on May 9. 

One year old: Only one year old and with a serious mine, Alexander is photographed with his grandparents Zinaida and Valentin, the parents to Alexander’s mother Natasha. Photo: PRIVATE

Alexander Rybak’s grandfather, Valentin, was a doctor in the red army and for several years during the 1960s he was stationed in the DDR. Norway’s hope in Moscow loved his granddad and loved running in the Gorkij Park with him. Unfortunately Valentin passed away shortly after he visited Alexander and the others in Nesodden during the mid-1990s. 

Today’s Belarus is looked upon as the last remaining dictatorship. Aleksandr Lukashenko took over as president right after the Rybak family had left the new nation after the break down of the Soviet Union. 
In the home of Lukashenko things are still much like in the old Soviet Union. In the central place in Minsk, Lenin is standing safely on a gigantic pedestal and some hundred metres away there’s a memorial over Felix Dzerzhinsky, the feared founder of the KGB (on the contrary to Moscow where the Dzerzhinsky statue in front of the KGB headquarters was torn down by raging hordes of people already in 1991 and was a symbol of the fall of the Soviet Union). Hammer and sickle symbol isn’t unusual. 

Here in 2009 it’s still called Karl Marx Street, Engels Street and the Young Communists Street. The Rybak family hasn’t been to Belarus since the mid-1990s, but Alexander has mentioned in several interviews with Belarusian newspapers that he would like to give concerts there. The authorities in Minsk say he’s welcome. 

And they have already “adopted” Alexander. The aforementioned Lukashenko has indeed decided that 75 % of the music which is played on the radio has to be by Belarusian artists. Alexander Rybak is now part of that national quota. 

– That’s why he is played a lot on the radio. I think it’s a very good song, says Anja Sharkunova (24). She is a superstar in Belarus and we meet her after a performance. Anja participated in the national final of Eurovision, but has to travel to Moscow as a tourist. She doesn’t want to comment on what happened, but there are rumours that “someone” had decided she wasn’t going to win. However she states one thing clearly : “I will support Alexander Rybak in Moscow. I think most Belarusians will do that”. 

– How do you rate “Fairytale”?

– It’s not an ordinary Eurovision song. But it’s extremely catchy when you’ve heard it a few times, says Anja. 

Journalist Tatjana Sajknovitj in Komsomolskaya Pravda’s Belarusian edition hopes and thinks Alexander Rybak will win. 
– It would be like a victory to us in Belarus, too. We feel we have a part of him, Tatjana says smiling serving us tea and local candy. 

She has not only interviewed Alexander himself, but also Mom and maternal grandmother before the final in Moscow.
Tatjana shows us a full page interview with the main person.
– He said he was afraid Belarusians wouldn’t like him because he represents Norway. But people here do understand that since he has spent most of his life in Norway.

Back at Gorkij Park, we meet 16 year old Dima who is practising tricks on his skateboard in front of the enormous sculpture of the man who the park is named after, the author Maxim Gorkij. 

Little and cute: Alexander Rybak outside a play house for children in the Gorkij park in Minsk. Photo: Private


– Wow, did Alexander Rybak play in the park during his childhood? How great. Of course I’ll be watching the Eurovision Song Contest and of course. I’ll cheer for Alexander Rybak.

Back with grandmother several more memories appear while we stroll among carousels and playground equipment. 

– He was a “why?” boy, she says.
– When I said something was prohibited, he always asked why. I had to explain. When I had told him why, everything was OK.

Grandmother takes another look at the children’s photos. We get to a photo where Alexander shows that “I am this big”. 
– He always wanted to grow up, recalls Zinaida. 

Perhaps he will be the biggest in Moscow tomorrow…That would be like a victory to us in Belarus too. We feel we have our part in him. 

Journalist Tatjana Sjaknovitj

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