The current turmoil in Ukraine is providing a fertile ground for some of the country’s musicians. Peter Culshaw travels to Kiev, the stricken capital, and talks to DakhaBrakha, one of the leading players
In spite of the chaos, there’s a surprising, almost giddy sense of idealism in some quarters in Kiev at the moment. It’s as Wordsworth nailed it after the French Revolution: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.’ Vlad Troitsky is one such visionary – from the theatre he set up in Kiev, the Dakh (Roof) Theatre, have emerged two of the most interesting bands in Ukraine, indeed, in the entire world music firmament. One is a female seven-piece band called Dakh Daughters who Troitsky describes as “freak cabaret” and another most brilliant musical phenomenon, DakhaBrakha, the “ethno-chaos” band who will perform at London’s Rich Mix and WOMAD this July. Troitsky has the slightly fluid role of ‘art director’ of both bands.
Troitsky is a cultural dynamo, with a strong sense of creative mischief, who runs the alternative GogolFest, and while he admits that “we may face economic collapse, and have 40,000 Russian troops on our border,” Troitsky also really believes that “Ukraine will be the centre of a new feeling, a new civilisation.” For Troitsky, Europe is a “tired, old culture,” and Russia “has the Putin story – freedom and real energy is being taken way.” He thinks it is possible, indeed it’s imperative, to create a more transparent, more democratic and free society balanced between East and West. It’s an inspiring vision shared by many of the musicians and artists I met in Kiev, even as many wonder whether the lights will still be on by the next winter or whether they will be fighting a war.
The euphoria of deposing the hated and corrupt president Yanukovych was marred by snipers killing a hundred or so protestors, and just after a bitterly cold winter when people hoped to get back to normal life came the loss of the Crimea, insurgency and bloody chaos in the east. By the time of May’s presidential elections, Putin was sounding more conciliatory, but tensions were still running high. Troitsky likes to quote Chekhov: “if a gun is seen in the first act, it will be used by the third,” in other words, with 40,000 Russian troops parked near the border, there remains a real possibility of invasion, whether masked as ‘peace-keeping’ or not, which will provoke a wider war.
The next day I go round Maidan (also known as Independence Square), the fulcrum of the revolution, with DakhaBrakha. Some of the barricades are still there, made of sandbags, street signs and piles of tires, shoes and other assorted detritus. There are still quite a few homeless living in tents in the square. There are photographs of ‘Heaven’s Hundred,’ those who died from sniper fire and, as a matter of respect, the band don’t want to wear their jaunty stovepipe hats, which have become their trademark.
So do they share Troitsky’s vision of a new Kiev? “Kiev is likely to become a centre for something even if we don’t know what it is. After this is cleared up, the physical city won’t have changed. But the mentality has,” says the band’s Marko Halanevych. “People used to say they can’t be involved or make changes but now they are and they know they can.” So he’s an optimist? “For sure. But that’s an emotional optimism, not an economic one. People don’t want to go back to Soviet times, we understand there is a war going on and we may have to fight one of the greatest empires on the planet.” And who will win? “The good will win.”
DakhaBrakha started in 2004 when Troitsky launched a cycle of plays based around Ukrainian folklore that needed musical accompaniment. I met them first in 2007 when his extraordinary, ritualistic version of Macbeth with their music came to the Barbican. The instruments they use are enough to realise they are not a conventional folk band. Halanevych plays darbuka, tabla, didgeridoo, accordion, trombone; Iryna Kovalenko plays djembé, bass drums, accordion, percussion, bugay (cylindrical drum), zgaleyka (Ukrainian bagpipes) and piano; Olena Tsibulska is on bass drums, percussion, garmoshka (accordion) and Nina Garenetska (who also plays with Dakh Daughters) plays cello and bass drum. But it’s the group’s yearning, soulful singing that is perhaps their strongest musical element. Halanevych was brought up with folk songs, while the women, who were in a group called Kralytsia, have spent a lot of time researching old Ukrainian songs with a more academic approach. The result doesn’t sound like anything else you have heard before – it can be as jolly and eccentric as their hats, more like atmospheric film music or even sombre, like on ‘Vesna’, which was used to great effect as the soundtrack to a video of a million people demonstrating in Kiev. As the camera pans back, you get a real sense of enormous potential, and the jeopardy and excitement of a historical moment.
The originality of their music comes from the addition of other global musics to this Ukrainian base such as the Nigerian rhythms on ‘Tataryn’, the Japanese koto influence on ‘Rusalochky’, the use of the didgeridoo on several numbers, and the Bulgarian style singing on songs like ‘Oy Za Lisochkom’ (Beyond the Forest). Their song titles are often taken from nature: ‘Snow’, ‘Berries’ and ‘From Beneath the Oak Tree’.
As Halanevych says “we realised from the beginning that we can’t perform in national costumes because, after all, we don’t play authentic folk music. We described our style as ‘ethno-chaos,’ so we needed costumes to match. Our hats have become a unique element of our appearance. The idea to wear them came from one of the actors in Dakh Theatre. We spent a lot of time searching for similar women’s hats. There is something similar in Bulgaria but they are men’s hats and only worn on certain holidays.”
Despite not believing in promotion – “we believe success and fame should come by themselves, we promote ourselves by what we do, music” – DakhaBrakha have organically built up a strong following, performing at many global festivals to great acclaim, notably a stellar performance at WOMAD in Charlton Park with Finnish accordion maestro Kimmo Pohjonen in 2012. Their last album was a collaboration with Belarus ’ Port Mone, who added accordion, bass guitar and different percussion to their sonic palette.
DakhaBrakha’s music has a sensual intelligence about it that reminds me a little of mid-period Talking Heads in its mix of global musics and slyly funky bass-lines. I saw them perform a newly composed soundtrack to a version of the visually stunning classic 1930 Soviet film Earth by Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko. “It’s relevant today because of what is promised and what actually happened. The power of Russian propaganda is still as current, even more so now.” One of the thrusts of Russian propaganda, which bewildered most musicians I talked to, was to characterise the interim, post-Yanukovych regime as a ‘fascist junta’ mainly because of the inclusion of nationalist elements. Certainly the likes of the minority Svoboda party look scary, with their swastika-lite logo, and were such a gift to Russian media that several people told me they had been funded by the Kremlin. The short version is that all European countries have to deal with differing parties of nationalists with varying degrees of racism and nastiness, as the recent Euro elections showed. But it would be just as absurd to accuse Ukraine of being a ‘fascist junta’ as it would be Greece, France or the UK. In any case, the far right’s polling figures were derisory in the recent presidential elections.
In fact DakhaBrakha didn’t play as much at the Maidan as other groups such as Dakh Daughters. “We were travelling a lot as representatives of Maidan abroad,” and Halanevych was also nervous about how their Ukrainian songs could be interpreted. “Our music is a kind of soul music and not nationalistic, although very often Ukrainian folk music is interpreted that way. We never wanted people to raise their patriotism to a level they would act aggressively.”
Dakh Daughters, the sister group of DakhaBrakha became heroes of the revolution as they were continually at Maidan, singing among the barricades and on the concert stages that were erected. On their ‘EuroMaidan’ YouTube video you can see them singing to massed ranks of military, police and a delirious crowd. “We did play on the stages, but the most extraordinary times were just singing by the barricades,” says Tanya Hawrylyuk, the band’s pianist and accordionist, even though “on some days it was dangerous and people died, including people I knew, somehow we weren’t afraid.” The songs they sung were often women’s folk songs of Ukraine: “songs of the eternal feminine – songs of nature, of death and rebirth. The strong, beautiful women are the greatest treasure of this country.” Talking to Oksana Forostyna, editor of Krytyka, Kiev’s equivalent to the London Review of Books, she emphasises not just the fact that women got property rights in Ukraine before many other European countries but also the rich bohemian history of Kiev, the relative religious freedom in the past, and the picaresque history of burlesque and cabaret.
Dakh Daughters’ music is genuinely new – colliding classical minimalism and flashes of Bach and Carl Orff with passionate Ukrainian folk – what they call “freak cabaret,” delivered with a punk energy. As far as lyrics go, they also have an original approach; usually sampling words from the most inspiring and relevant places they know. One of their ‘hits’ (they have yet to release a record) is a version of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 35’, with the chorus sung in English: ‘Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud’ and lines like ‘such civil war is in my love and hate’ reworked as ‘The Rose of Donbass’ (where armed separatists barred people from voting in the recent elections). Other songs steal lyrics from everyone from beat poet Charles Bukowski to notable Ukrainian writers like Taras Shevchenko. They have been, slightly absurdly, called ‘a revolutionary Spice Girls,’ but, as Troitsky says, they are “more Pussy Riot – with good music. The Pussy Riot story is almost finished because their music is not interesting.”
Other musicians, even though supportive, didn’t play in Maidan for different reasons. Oleh Skrypka, one of Ukraine’s biggest stars, who started playing punk-ska before moving into folk and psychedelia, and is leader of the Vopli Vidoplyasova band (who played in Hyde Park during the London Olympics) tells me: “I could see there would be violence and didn’t want to encourage fans to come and be responsible for possible deaths.” His critics say he either lacked the nerve or was hedging his bets. “I didn’t feel like playing,” says jazz pianist Ilya Yeresko, whose band Dislocados may be the hottest salsa band east of Puerto Rico. He gave up music for the duration to help out. “I discovered for the first time there was something more important than music.”
The brilliant young classical composer Alexei Shmurak didn’t play because “I didn’t want to become an internet meme,” although he says the energy of crowds here and at the Orange Revolution in 2004 “made me realise I was not alone. It shook me out of a depression.” It is, as others say ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’ The weather is strange in Kiev, hot sunshine followed by unexpected sudden squalls and tempests that can knock down trees.
When I next see Troitsky (below left), it’s at a huge exhibition called AuthentiCity, an architectural exhibit in an enormous building that used to be an arms dump. There are discussions with titles like ‘User-Generated Kiev’ and he’s still as fired-up as ever. “We can’t predict the future, but as long as we keep our nerve and our hearts and minds open to what the future could be, that’s enough. First we have to liberate ourselves, then the people around us, then maybe our city and our country.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #102. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs