An unsuspecting star

The Russian estrada singer Eduard Khil talks about his sudden rise to fame.

Eduard Khil, now known as Mr Trololo, performs in a Moscow nightclub in April.
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The Russian crooner Eduard Khil was sitting in his flat in central St Petersburg earlier this year when his grandson returned home from school and bounded into the room carrying unexpected news. "He says: 'Grandpa, I discovered in the internet that you are very famous in America because of a song you sang with no words,'" Khil recalls. "Then he played it for me, and I liked it." Largely oblivious to the ways of the web, Khil, 75, had been unaware that his peculiar, Soviet-era performance of a bouncy cowboy ballad consisting exclusively of non-lexical vocables had become an internet sensation after it was posted on YouTube in February. In the 1976 performance, Khil moseys about the stage while lip-synching - with varying degrees of synch - the "tro-lo-los" and "la-la-las" of the song, entitled I Am Very Happy Because I Am Finally Coming Home.

The melody is infectious, but the popularity of the video - which has been seen by millions throughout the world - may have more to do with the drab browns and kitschy 1970s feel of the set, to say nothing of Khil's loping gesticulations, intense smile and impressive posture. "I have been trying to figure out why a song that was written in 1966 all of a sudden became so popular," Khil says. "And I'm still unable to answer that question."

He speculates that the lack of lyrics makes the song accessible to music lovers across the globe. "It doesn't matter if you're black, white, yellow or whatever: you can understand the song," he says. "And it's a happy, cheerful song." The video has spawned countless parodies and tributes on the internet, where Khil has been dubbed Mr Trololo. The Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for his work in Quentin Tarantino's film Inglourious Basterds, spoofed the performance on the US late-night show Jimmy Kimmel Live, while the American comic Stephen Colbert lampooned the video on his critically acclaimed talk show The Colbert Report.

"I watched several of these comical clips by various performers," Khil says. "I especially liked the one done by Waltz." The video has sparked a renewal of sorts for Khil's singing career. It's not that he has been lacking work. There are still plenty of people willing to pay to hear his still powerful and impressive baritone. But many of his performances ("I have four or five shows a month") are for pensioners at small local venues. But he had been toiling away in relative obscurity, far from the national stage he enjoyed in the Brezhnev years as a celebrated Soviet "people's artist" and a prominent figure in the Soviet/Russian pop music genre known as estrada.

Since the YouTube video went viral, Khil says he has received offers to perform and tour abroad in countries including Britain, Spain and the United States. Khil and his wife have concluded that his curious renewed celebrity is a type of trial - "a test" - to see whether he can withstand the temptations associated with his internet-fuelled fame. "People are calling from all of these different cities asking me to perform ? and I ask myself: do I really need this?" Khil says. "A person doesn't have endless reserves of energy, and I've spent an enormous amount of time on stage."

Khil became interested in music in the 1950s while training as typographer in Leningrad, the former tsarist capital that returned to its historical name, St Petersburg, after the fall of the Soviet Union. "I decided to audition at the Conservatory, and they told me: 'You have a great voice.'" He proceeded to study at the Leningrad Conservatory and originally planned to become an opera singer. At the time, however, there were numerous talented composers writing ballads for crooners, many of whom began producing songs for Khil to sing. One of these composers was Arkady Ostrovsky, who penned numerous estrada hits and popular children's songs. In 1966, a year before he died, Ostrovsky composed the music to the song that would bring Khil worldwide fame almost 50 years later.

The original version of I Am Very Happy Because I Am Finally Coming Home actually had lyrics, though Khil says he cannot remember the name of the poet who wrote them. Nor can he remember all of the lyrics and no record of the original text is known to exist. "I've looked and looked but haven't been able to find anything," Khil says. The gist of the song was about an American cowboy named John riding his mustang through the forests and prairies to get home to his sweetheart, Mary, in Kentucky, who is knitting socks for him as a present, Khil explains. The lyrics were never shown to censors, but on the advice of a prominent conductor who doubted the appeal of the song's storyline, they were scrapped. Ostrovsky, however, insisted the song could find an audience as a vocalised piece without a text, though the original title was kept.

"It was a very popular song at the time," he says. "I sang it at almost all of my concerts. It was a feel-good song." Khil says his son, Dmitry, who is also a musician, is working on a more contemporary version of the song that the elder Khil would like to perform at upcoming concerts. "Something in a more modern style," he says. "I'm not sure how it's going to work out." Khil is continuing to play his regular gigs at small venues for veterans in St Petersburg. But last month he was brought to Moscow to sing for a decidedly younger crowd at a popular club called 16 Tons in a show advertised by promoters as a live performance of Mr Trololo.

"I was terrified," he says. "I figured this would be a richer, more world-weary crowd. But when I came out, all of these young people were singing along with my songs. They said they knew them from their grandparents." Khil opened the show by strolling on stage singing his famous YouTube song a cappella. Khil is completely sincere when discussing his new-found fame, preferring to address the merits of the music. He appears completely detached from the culture of irony that has placed him alongside skateboarding dogs, keyboard-playing cats and Kanye West in the ever-growing pantheon of internet memes. At one point during a telephone interview, without prompting, he belted out several bars of the wordless cowboy song.

He says he rarely, if ever, uses the internet himself, but that he is not indifferent to the medium and is optimistic, perhaps unsurprisingly, about its transformative powers. "I don't use it myself. My son Dmitry tells me all of the news. We get between 150-200 messages a day with offers and invitations. I hear now that they are selling T-shirts and hats with my face on them. We live in a world in which the internet can connect anyone with anyone else in the world. You don't have to write letters or telegrams anymore."

He also has a rosy view of the ability of songs without lyrics to bring people together. Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, after all, did not need words to touch people with thier music. "People connected with the musical idea." He says his famous YouTube ballad has also brought people's hearts together. "Maybe this is the future of music, to bring people together without words," he says. "You don't need to know anything to enjoy it. It's all about energy, feelings, soul and heart."