Tracing the ‘Coffin Dance’ Meme Music’s Path From Russia to Ghana to the World

Charlie Amter

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The coronavirus has spawned thousands of memes this spring, but perhaps none as ubiquitous as the “dancing coffin” crew from Ghana. The six dancing pallbearers seen in the macabre yet humorous memes popularized by the pandemic, are soundtracked in nearly every video posted by a decade old track from Russian composer and artist Tony Igy (real name Anton Igumnov) called “Astronomia.” Now, suddenly, “Astronomia” has become the most memed electronic tune since Darude’s omnipresent (on the internet) “Sandstorm.” And like “Sandstorm,” the song is curiously cartoonish, but carefully composed — at once dated, yet somehow timeless.

So how did the hook-heavy “Astronomia,” which has multiple versions by multiple artists littering streaming sites such as YouTube and Spotify (the best-known legal version outside of Russia is likely a 2014 update/collaboration by Dutch duo Vicetone, pictured below, with original composer Tony Igy, pictured above) come to soundtrack the dark humor meme? That’s a question almost as murky as the EDM tune’s origins, but Russian entertainment and lifestyle website Afisha Daily traces the meme back to February, when a TikTok user uploaded existing news footage of the African dancing pallbearers, and paired it with “Astronomia” in a clip of a skier’s epic fail that went viral that month. More recently, everyone from teenagers to police departments all over the world have been putting the meme to work online via videos as a way to warn others against violating stay at home orders.

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Igumnov first found out his old FL Studio produced hit was going viral (again, as it had already gone viral in the past, even as recently as last year on TikTok) in March of this year, when kids started to email him. “I found out in March, as African teens started to write me in DM that my track is very popular in their country,” he tells Variety from his home in the Rostov region of the Russian Federation. It wasn’t the first time Igumov received a somewhat surprising message about the track in his inbox: “Astronomia” had been used in several memes in Russia over the years, and it was already an on-again, off-again radio and club hit in Russia and Ukraine. So much so, that rapper Iggy Azalea even used the hit as the main hook for her 2011 offering, “My World.”

But nothing prepared Igumnov or Vicetone for just how big the newly formed juxtaposition of the “dancing coffin” sextet coupled with their song would get in March, and especially April, as the meme traveled worldwide and the song started racking up nearly a million streams per day on Spotify, per Vicetone’s manager, after doing around 75,000 streams per day prior to the meme taking off online. A few weeks ago, “Astronomia” was the second-most Shazmed track in the world (Stephan F’s 2019 version of “Astronomia” is currently No. 49 on the same chart, while Vicetone’s 2014 version is No. 20 and yet another version by Tony Igy solo, is at No. 14 on Shazam’s Top 200 Global chart this week). Both Stephan F aka Stefano Folegatti’s version and Vicetone’s version of “Astronomia” are also in the Top 10 on Spotify’s Global Viral 50 chart this week.

“We first saw that ‘Astronomia’ was getting a ton of more plays out of a sudden [in March],” says Vicetone’s Victor Pool. “It quadrupled its daily listeners in merely a few days.” As of this writing, nearly 90 million streams on Spotify have been registered just for their version with Tony Igy.

“We were happy to see it going viral after all these years,” adds Ruben Den Boer from Vicetone. “We’ve been playing it out for six years now, and we were definitely surprised too, because nobody would ever expect this, and you can’t prepare for it either… it just happens, and we count our lucky stars for it.”

For Igumnov, the scale of the resurrection of the track has also surprised him, but he’s not totally taken aback by the durability of the electro house anthem he wrote ten years ago. “The track has gained great popularity in Russia [over the years], therefore it has been in the rotation of many popular radio stations for many years,” he explains. “And it is still popular here.”

Indeed, the song has been kicking around Russia and Europe (and all corners of the internet) for years in various forms, played at festivals by DJs such as Tiesto, and performed by various Russian artists such as Opium Project (who call their vocal version of the tune “Hello Moskva”).

But the song will always be Igumnov’s, and he is humbled by the truly sweeping global reach a meme can bring in just a matter of weeks online. “I’m songwriter so I make music to order,” he says. “I did not experience any emotions,” he adds regarding when he first saw the meme blowing up. And despite the fact the song’s signature synth line is now near synonymous with death, the music producer considers it “just a funny meme….that’s It.”

But for Vicetone, the track has re-lit a creative fire for the duo, who currently have no publicist on retainer and no tour dates on deck due to coronavirus, yet their profile is, ironically, rising perhaps faster than it has in years as a result of “’Astronomia.”

“Our old-time fans are mostly really happy to see it blow up, but are also equally surprised,” says Pool. “Now that it has blown up, there are a lot of new fans checking out our music, which is great,” he adds, before noting: “A lot of our fans also think it’s cool that they listened to this track and loved it well before it became this worldwide meme….and before the meme the song already had 34 million streams on our YouTube, so it was already doing pretty well before the meme.”

“We played it out in a few livestreams we did and the reaction there was incredible, so we’re dreaming of the moment we can play it out in our live sets again,” adds Den Boer. “We can’t wait to get back on the road.”

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