Born in Chisinau, Moldova in 1958, Oleg Shkolyar didn’t exactly grow up listening to the same music kids in the United States did. He couldn’t. Western music, like rock & roll and jazz, was actually forbidden by the Soviet government. For Oleg, that music simply didn’t exist. He grew up listening to Russian folk music and what he calls “Soviet pop.” “It was supposed to make us think how great we are,” says Oleg, “and how good living in Soviet Union is.”
When his interest in sports didn’t work out, Oleg started to focus more on music when he got into middle school. Oleg’s older brother had a friend who had a reel to reel tape recorder, along with some smuggled tapes of The Beatles. His friend made records of the tapes on x-ray film, and Oleg listened to them over and over. “But I didn’t speak English, and I’m wondering what they are singing about. I don’t understand it.”
Oleg had to get creative when it came to a drum set. He made his own cymbals out of metal used for roofs and cymbal stands out of bent metal rods taped to the frames of chairs. He once accepted a cheaply-made cymbal for working in a restaurant in lieu of his pay of 90 rubles. Oleg didn’t have his first “real” drum set until he was 22 years old. “My uncle worked in wood shop and would make me drumsticks.”
In 1977, Oleg was drafted into the Soviet Army. “In Russia, you either go to Army or you go to jail.” After his compulsory two years of service, he worked in a factory that built tractors. During this time, he began focusing on music more and began playing with various local bands playing Russian pop music at parties and dances.
In the late 1980’s, after living under communist rule all his life, Oleg and his family decided they wanted to emigrate to the United States. After a period of over two years, they were finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Oleg, his wife, and his daughter had two suitcases and a few hundred dollars. Not long after arriving in Jacksonville, Oleg took a job as a delivery driver to earn money, and he took two semesters of English to learn the language.
Fast forward to 2015. Oleg was playing drums in a country band in Jacksonville when he received a call from the late Banner Thomas (of Molly Hatchet fame) asking if he could fill in for a gig with the band Those Guys. Oleg agreed and has been with the band ever since. He also plays with the Jacksonville-based Boogie Freaks.
Oleg only recently left that delivery driver job, retiring after 25 years. “When I start, I don’t even know English enough to ask directions. But they throw me in the ocean, and I swim. I worked hard for my family, for my daughter, and I made it. And this is what is American dream.”