GOD REWARDS THE STUBBORN!
My acquaintance with Irma Zauber was remote but all-important for me. What ’s to be done here? I’ve abiding respect for strong and talented personalities. So I was glad to do this interview for my reader's sake, too, craving that they get to know this handsome woman.
Her fate was far from easy, but Irma is scripting the book of her life in a worthy dignified manner, firm-handedly sculpting things beautiful and gifting the world her talents.
For starters, I asked Irma to speak about her childhood, family, and her first steps into the realm of arts.
— I was born in Moscow’s downtown ‘Old Arbat’ area. At the Grauermann Maternity Home, made popular by Sharapov, a hero police operative in the blockbuster serial “The Meeting Place Can’t Be Changed”, bringing his foundling there.
My mother was a graphic artist and book illustrator, and those still remembering old-time children’s editions and nursery rhyme books must have seen her works.
My father, a translator and interpreter, had a career spanning simultaneous interpretation, technical and literary translation, as well as the book he authored about President Kennedy, subsequently published in Russia...
For all that, I had to grow and shape up without a father - the parents had an early divorce, so for quite some time I saw little of my dad. Running ahead of myself, let me say I have found him here forty years after I last saw him in Russia... We communicate shunning bitter memories... What’s the point of shouldering past grievances when nothing can be changed anymore?
I may seem to have been fortunate from the very birth in another sense regarding the human milieu I was born into, replete with artists, writers, musicians, and actors. To name but a few, elderly granddaddy Kryuchkov would crawl down to relax out the front of his apartment block; the Mironovs and Menaker lived in the same building, Yuri Yakovlev in the house next door, and Sergei Yursky resided around the corner...
The Arbat brethren fell into three notional subsets: one comprising people of art and culture, another one involving kids of KGB personnel, and another one made up by unmitigated street riffraff. These hoodlums boozed in the backyards, yelled expletives, and herded into aggressive gangs with even girls involved in brawling.
Their parents talked a weird gibberish while the grandpas and grandmas wore rustic-type shawls and caps and praised Stalin. Later I learned that they were former villagers with their families relocated to the city and settled into the former apartments of the people shot or exiled.
My Dad’s departure upended everything overnight.
From a lovely well-off family we were knocked off into paupers in the eyes of people around. My sister and I stopped being invited to kids’ birthdays as before, neighbors said hello to Mom through clenched teeth and forbade the kids to mix with us. The exception, to be sure, was the children of writers and musicians but they were few and far between.
At four, I enrolled in a music school, having first to lie I was five.
My sister was already a student there, soon to be transferred to a well-known music teacher; while still a kid, she played the cello on a high level of excellence and it’s no wonder the famous cellist and teacher wanted her in her class.
To complete talking about the neighborhood kids, I remember distinctly seeing the “good guys” reluctant to make friends with us, seen wearing mended pantyhose, looking brutally hungry, and becoming pretty much latchkey kids... In a stark contrast, the “bad guys” accepted us into their company without much ado. That helped, as my sister and I were just kids in need of peer company and play buddies. I was then a “jolly girlie” and a fantasizer always cramming copybooks with my verse - my own poems... To them I would later add drawings, and thrice a week spend days on end at the music school... Then Mom enrolled me in an art school which I never properly finished off, simply lacking time for everything. That’s because I also entered a special English-language school besides attending the other two...
It was not long before I began flunking one subject after another...
But I am running far ahead of myself.
Though my sister and I were antipodes - direct opposites, this never stopped us from joining forces at play or creation.
Whatever odd turns I wonder we had not been up to in our childhood!
When I was seven an “aunt and uncle”, as Russian kids address by custom all adults , friendly or unfriendly, with or without actual family ties, visited my music school and heard the chorus in Quando Corpus with me singing solo. Thereafter the teacher summoned Mom to talk it out. Mom came rushing, all set for bad news - I was growing to be a street-smart rambunctious girl - what was then termed “hooligan type”; and then suddenly I saw her crying... Scary as it looked, Mom turned out to have tears of happiness after being told I’d been accepted into the Central TV and Radio Chorus.
This was my first stroke of luck and the first ticket to a better life.
A note is in order that my lucky streak was short-lived, first retreating me from the solo to the back rows and then chucking out of the chorus all together. I came from a destitute dysfunctional family with nobody there to keep me under control. Mom got frazzled in three jobs leaving us pretty much to our own devices. On three occasions I was selected to act in a movie, and once for the Yeralash satyrical documentary weekly, but again, there was no one to drive me to the filming location.
However, as kids we are hardly aware of our finds and losses... and I was a resilient kinetic girl easy to take off...
We were so desperately poor that I hardly had clothes of my own, having to wear off my sister’s; and I remember hunger making the two of us cry at night before sneaking into the kitchen to steal dry pasta... Nibbling at the pasta, we were dreaming about a fridge the size of a house topping out? yummy things like steaks or strawberries... For berries, we ate them twice or thrice a year, seasonably, though often watery and unripe. There was a market of course where one could purchase just about anything. But the market goodies beat by far Mom’s hand-to-mouth earnings.
And that is how we were growing up – my sister, serious and introspective and already a math Olympiad winner, and me, “up to nothing good” and certainly “not college material”, as some people here would be wont to say. Decrying me in this way were likely the people unable to play a single note or scribble a single line. Back then they sought to prevail on Mom that all my occupations were a waste of time since music, singing and painting were for lazybones who loathed “running the machine tool or doing hard work at all”. There was even a period when I was dumped in an orphanage. With both parents demonstrably alive, I ended up an orphan. With my Jewish name, English-speaking, and playing the piano, I could not expect anything but pure hatred and malice from everybody. I was beaten up hard day in, day out. So now, when I hear tales of “happy Soviet childhood” my nose still feels the stench of the dirty rag the teacher assistant used to slap me on the face.
Thank God, I was still a child, and I was soon returned home. Not until many years later did Mom tell me she’d had to sell the much-coveted shearling coat my Dad brought from abroad, in order to bribe the custody council.
But even all that could not outweigh my vivacity – there was so much excitement around! The famous actors who lived nearby, one of them so polite as to greet me in the yard like an adult. One day (I was about nine) Mom pointed out to me a slim man in a coat jacket and said: “Go show him your poems!” Since I was spirited, I did not give it much thought - just approached him, tugged at his sleeve and said in a commanding tone: “Read my poems, please!” He took my notebook, looked inside and asked how long I had been writing. My answer was – I don’t remember...
He sampled some verse, returned the notebook and said: “Good poems! By all means, keep writing”. I was about to return to Mom, but she hurried up to us herself begging: “Would you please sign my daughter’s notebook?” He signed it, since luckily a pen was attached... Mom smiled happily. “Thank you, Bulat Shalvovich!” That was the first time I met the famous bard, Bulat Okudzhava, making me wonder if the people dismissing my poems as junk and a waste of time were correct?
That is how my childhood continued, hungry, vigorous, effusive, with a heady mix of adventures and sorrows, and the weird incredible feeling of a miracle still lying ahead! Only to find me later on! Again, I will jump ahead – a miracle did happen! But it took me a long time to reach it, and a lot to see and experience.???
Ahead were teenager’s infatuations, wars with riffraff gangs, and my first group featuring me as its front singer. There, by the way, I performed alongside my former classmates Sasha Khlopkov, previously with Mirage and The Little Prince, and Yegor Letov of Civil Defense. Then came my first vocal competition which I most definitely won. For Mirage, many years later, I composed The Stars, a song making it to a hit.
Before I finished the music school at 12, I participated, at 10, in the first Soviet rock opera with a religious theme. All of this occurred, of course, “underground”, but one of our emigrant friends managed to bring out its recording and it was aired by The Voice of America and the BBC. The year was 1978.
After that strange people started visiting us – KGB officers. Once my sister and I poured ink into their pockets...
— Tell me about your student years.
— My student years got stretched out. To Mom’s horror, I was kicked out of school after 8th grade. I failed entrance exams to the secondary art school, and since it was already August, the only thing left for me was a medical secondary school. And here, my friends, my talent of a show woman gave bloom! Our talent. Because my sister also quit out of solidarity with me.
We became A-list stars. We could play the guitars, piano, sing “foreign”, and, come lunch break, we would pool full assembly halls singing Bony Tayler, Smoky and Kruiz. Besides, I learned how to blackmail my teachers. For instance, if an algebra test was looming, I would go to the office of the assistant principal for cultural affairs and sigh: “The competition is coming soon, and I have no time to prepare – a test is pending...” The assistant principal immediately kicked open the door to the teachers’ lounge and rushed to the math teacher: “What on earth were you thinking about??? She is our face!!! Our pride!!! Scheduled to sing in two weeks!!! Right away, give her a B! Or a B+!”
Even now I’m looking back with gratitude to this woman, her name Bella Lazarevna, who always stood firm for me. As did my class master Ester Iossifovna. Their jumping to my defense was a far cry from having my Jewish last name derided in the kindergarten. These were top-notch teachers or doctors, many of whom had excellent understanding of the country they lived in.
— What about admirers?
— I have always been popular with men. When I came home from school, Mom would fish out of my pockets packs of notes with confessions of love, proposals and hearts. To boot, the med school was not the right place for children of the elites. After classes we drank beer on park benches, necked, and played guitars, all making me feel almost happy. It was a “recognition of merit” of sorts after the long-drawn doom and gloom.
Once out of the med school, I went through a specialization course and drove around in a reanimation ambulance, very much in line with my nature demanding that I do something for the world. To think of it, what can be more important than saving lives?
I was admitted to the Gnesins Secondary School of Music and was thrilled to overflowing – I had a job and made certain to become a musician. Here I must mention that medical ‘black humor” came to stay with me for the rest of my life, – Irma laughs.
So by adulthood I could handle almost anything: give an injection if needed, write a poem for a birthday, sing, play, dance, cook, etc, etc.
— How was your personal life shaping up?
— With my first husband I was not very lucky. Even though the hubby was a boy from an artistic family, he was the one to get me learning how domestic abuse occurs. He was pathologically jealous, neurosthenic and abrupt. His mother, a famous actress whose name, sorry, I won’t mention because she was a good person, actually the only one to support me, could not do anything about it.
It was the time when I came to know how it feels to be caught up in the vicious circle of a victim. When nobody believes you, everyone thinks you’re crazy, and there is no place for you to go.
Still, I had he guts to walk away. In socks and T-shirt in November, with no money even for a subway ticket, I just walked away...
It was hard to explain everything to Mom who adored my husband and believed I was exaggerating and imagining things. That is why I stayed with my musician friends for a while. It was the best place to forget what had happened to me.
Many years later this man died of no obvious cause, short of even forty years of age. His heart just stopped.
Generally, I would like to mention that many of my subsequent men tried to compete with me, while not seeing a woman in me. And it was precisely the type of men who “sailed on” to me: cuties and losers thinking themselves geniuses and me next to nothing.
Well, the time came when I changed everything. Perhaps this was a lesson to be learned also, anyhow I acquired two ironclad rules: you must never stay with a man once he tried to raise his hand to you, and you should never start a relationship with a person beyond your social circle and your sphere of interests, who is incapable of appreciating what you can do or rise to your level – he will likely trample you down to the level of his own.
However, a woman going by romantics alone will sooner or later find herself surrounded by parasites of all stripes: unrecognized geniuses or misunderstood poets who will live off her, griping about their hard life... At the same time never lifting a finger to change the lifestyle they find quite comfortable ‘as is’.
— How did you meet the man of your dream?
— My then boyfriend once invited me to a concert of Kruiz, the group whose songs I performed so successfully in my group. An unforgettable impression was their guitarist Gaina. And don’t forget – a musician myself, I got it right about high-standard performance.
The next day, at the Institute, later to become the Pedagogic University, I said it out loud: “I would marry the guy!”
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Surely, I got ridiculed and, for a long time after that, people were pointing fingers at me: “There goes our star!” Where are you now, my finder-pointing ridiculers? – Irma spreads her hands.
The Kruiz trio has travelled the world over, it was the first Soviet group to represent the USSR in the West; Valery Gaina, then as now, was a guitarist of world renown - the first to arrive in America at Carlos Santana’s invitation as far back as 1984. In the time, it was next to impossible. Next my husband came to America on a contract – he was invited by Universal and granted citizenship as extraordinary musician.
At present, Valery composes music for commercials and various shows, produces two projects, and works on a new album. If during my childhood years, when songs by Kruiz were streaming out of every window, somebody told me I would become his wife I would have never ever believed it!
— Can’s wait to hear more details...
— I was always longing for Valery’s acquaintance. Sometimes life even guided us into close proximity of one another, but never let us come face to face. Apparently, my time had not come yet. And then, when I got the job of the vocalist at The High Fashion Week in Moscow, just by chance I ran into his comments on Facebook. I clicked his name, looked at the pictures, listened to his new album. By then Gaina had spent 25 years in America. I was aware of the two groups he had there; one of these, Karma simply tore Los Angeles to shreds. With time he switched to working more as a composer, writing and selling music for movies, shows and commercials; and is still doing today.
But all this I learned later, whereas then I was just sitting and thinking how to get acquainted with him, after all. I made a blind shot, in the belief that whatever I had to offer - my looks, body or boobs - would hardly attract a man who had criss-crossed the world and performed with numerous stars...
Since I read in an interview about his constant problems with spotting good lyrics, I sent him my poems.
At the same time, sneaky me, I removed from the page all photos where I didn’t look my hundred percent best, - Irma laughs, - and went to bed without much hope for a reply. The next morning though I discovered his letter praising my poems, requesting more, and asking about my life, etc.
We started a tentative friendly correspondence, but both of us later confessed to having a clear notion that this correspondence would evolve into a great love.
At that time I was married. And although my marriage was creaking at the seams, it created a problem. Valery, although divorced, was not free either. And, we lived on different sides of the ocean.
BUT WHEN WAS I SCARED OFF BY DIFFICULTIES? God rewards the stubborn, or so I always believed.
A month later he secretly arrived in Moscow, with no guitar, just to meet me...
Two months later he invited me to America, and in February 2017 we got married.
I have found happiness, peace of mind, my home and my man...
He loves my daughter as one of his own, he rejoices at my successes, never tells me what to do; we are in the middle of composing a new album, working on a project for Korea where a song we had written came out winner at all hit parades - those on U-tube and Rock and Roll Again; a year ago one other of my dreams came true as a Boston publishing company released my book! My first book of prose and poetry, Russian/English, saw print there! Our tracks already available on U-tube are: “Beyond the Edge”, “Ritorno”, and “My Fight”.
— What a beautiful love story! Thank you for sharing. What else can such an extraordinary woman tell us?
— I appreciate the compliment. As to my extraordinariness: probably my life’s most courageous feat came with having my first-born baby at age 44;
Or searching for and finding my Dad; Or a pile of other “or-s”...
— How do you survive the pandemic?
— As best I can...and have the strength for. I won’t teach anybody how to live, won’t give advice, won’t instruct. Have no fear is the simple and universal prescription for happiness I have learned over my lifetime. Neither of people’s opinions or your own errors, of misunderstanding or ridicule, or self-expression in ways you see fit, believe to be right and proper. For the majority of “our folks” , that is, my former compatriots, they hold other people’s opinion to be more important than their own. Inner unfreedom and conventions seldom allow us to be happy, that I know for sure.
Before the pandemic I did a lot of teaching in painting and vocals, but now I have time enough to paint a new series of pictures and put together materials for the second book... And, as I mentioned before, my husband and I are creating our album “The Name of My Game Is Action” - and that is it.
— Your Christmas tree balls are admirable!
— Thank you. I’ve started crafting festive balls with Swarovski crystals - unique, beautiful gifts - approaching each one separately. I invent names for them, give each piece its inimitable decor, while also trying to utilize this time for meditation... It makes me feel like a genuine sorceress.
— Your wishes for our readers?
— Possibly my life-story is one of a Cinderella who never gave up. I know for sure that your destiny comes out the way you have built it. And I’m thrilled to declare: “God writes a book about us and keeps alive the characters He finds interesting”.
KEEP ON GOING!