Russian grannies set for Eurovision stardom
Eurovision 2012 starts next month. If you haven't picked your favourites yet, Russia may be a good place to start.
Valentina Pyatchenko, 74, pulled on her dancing shoes -- a pair of slippers woven from lime tree bark with several holes in the soles -- and prepared to perform.
Pyatchenko is one of the Buranovskiye Babushki (the Buranovo Grannies), a group of elderly village women who were chosen to represent Russia in the Eurovision Song Contest, despite a lack of obvious showbusiness attributes.
Their performance of their song "Party for Everybody", with simple dance moves in the bark slippers, charmed viewers in Russia and is now one of the favourites to win the contest in Baku in May.
"We don't know how old these shoes are. They've been repaired so many times, but I danced themin anyway, and they've already got holes," Pyatchenko told AFP as she got ready to go on stage.
Aged from 43 to 76, the women live in a village of wooden houses in the Udmurtia region in the foothills of the Ural mountains. Most worked in farming and still spend their time tending animals and garden plots.
But the Eurovision sparkle has now reached their village of Buranovo around 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the nearest town, Izhevsk.
In the village hall where they rehearse, their diploma as Eurovision contestants hung proudly next to a notice about a Saturday-night disco.
On stage, the women recorded video messages for television channels in Ukraine, Cyprus and Armenia, singing and waving on cue, even if some gently shook out tired legs.
The next day they were due to get up at 5:00 am to fly to Moscow to perform for a foundation headed by the president-elect's wife Lyudmila Putina. But they insisted that fame had not changed them.
"We don't see ourselves as stars. We are just normal grannies from Buranovo. Everyone says 'stars, stars', and we find it funny," said Yekaterina Shklyayeva, 74.
'Not seen much in life except work'
Two of the women worked as milk maids, one was a teacher, another worked at a kindergarten, one was a bookkeeper and one did various jobs in construction, farming and at a factory.
Now retired, they look after an assortment of goats, chickens, rabbits, cats and dogs as well as tending vegetable plots.
"They haven't seen much in this life except work. So it's great that they are getting such happiness," said the choir's leader Olga Tuktareva, 42.
Pyatchenko stroked her cat Ginger as she pottered about her cosy house after the rehearsal. Geraniums flowered in the windows and books and souvenirs bore record to her decades as a teacher in Turkmenistan.
She had gas heating installed in September, which means she no longer has to chop wood for the stove. But she has no running water and uses an outside tap.
Living alone, Pyatchenko has a son who helps with chores, which include looking after chickens. She manages with only one hand, having lost the other in an accident.
It is a hard life by any standards, but Pyatchenko was upbeat about the changes and taking part in Eurovision. A Buranovskiye Babushki t-shirt and stage passes were draped over a chair.
"I've seen everything in this life. The only thing I hadn't seen was Eurovision and now we're going," she said.
Nevertheless, one villager, accordion and guitar player Nikolai Zarbatov, who often accompanies the women, admitted there was tension after they won the Russian heat.
"Some people are suspicious of it. Because there is always evil alongside good. But the majority of the people are glad. We gave them a very good welcome back, with a brass band."
The women plan to make a lasting mark on the village by rebuilding a church destroyed in the Soviet era.
They have already raised enough funds for construction to begin in May -- around 8 million rubles ($273,000), said Tuktareva.
"What three or four years ago just seemed like a pipe dream will come true in our lifetimes."
'We can do it!'
The group's driving force is the youngest member and choir leader, Tuktareva, who at 43 is hardly a "babushka". She came from the next village to run Buranovo's social club 12 years ago.
While the Eurovision song's beat drowns out the women's voices, when singing a capella, it's clear just how practised and comfortable they are, and Tuktareva's voice stands out.
The women began as a "folklore choir", singing in Russian and the local language Udmurt. But under Tuktareva, they have gone over to singing only in Udmurt, adapting pop standards including Hotel California and Let it Be.
Even in Russia, the women are exotic. The language they speak is Finno-Ugric and they perform in distinctive dress that has been handed down over the generations.
It's a multi-layered look: a hand-woven dress topped with an embroidered pinafore, hair wrapped in a scarf, with a necklace of coins and patterned stockings and the bark slippers, called lapti.
Granya Baisarova showed her shiny necklace made of old coins, including Tsarist-era rubles.
Called monisty, these are worn by women on holidays and weddings. Her mother had to divide it up between three daughters -- so hers has been supplemented over the years by Soviet-era coins.
Producer Ksenia Rubtsova said she spotted the women in 2008 at a concert in Izhevsk, where they sang "Yesterday" in Udmurt.
She invited them to a birthday concert for a top Russian folklore singer, the late Lyudmila Zykina.
Zykina, a massive Soviet star, recommended signing up the women. Since then they have performed in France, Finland, Hungary and Estonia -- hence their confident stage presence.
Eurovision was her suggestion, said Rubtsova.
"It was my idea but I got them together and asked 'Girls, what do you think?' They said: 'We can do it!'"
Their first attempt in 2010 saw them take third place in the Russian heat. Not deterred, they entered again this year with a song set to music by one of the country's best known pop composers, Viktor Drobysh.
"Probably it was meant to be. We had more time to prepare seriously," said Rubtsova. "We are hoping for victory."
Visit the Eurovision 2012 website to see the profile (and hear the songs) of the Buranovskiye Babushki and other contestants.
Anna Malpas / AFP / Expatica