by Susan Kepecs
Ukrainian altermodern quartet DakhaBrakha (the name means Give / Take) comes to Overture’s Capitol Theater this coming Thursday, Aug. 28. I surprised myself by loving this band’s hauntingly soulful sound at last year’s Madison World Music Festival, since my taste in world music generally swings toward all things Latin. And I far prefer world music that I can pinpoint, culturally speaking, to the spurious syntheses of roots-related sounds that abound lately on the world stage.
But I had a hard time pinpointing what it was that I liked so much about DakhaBrakha, with its unlikely “ethno-chaos” (the band’s term) instrumentation – cello, piano, trombone, bass drums, zgaleyka (Russian bagpipes), garmosha (Russian accordian), and an assortment of originally indigenous sound-makers including digeridoo and various hand drums like tablas and djembes. So what, exactly, was Ukrainian about this band, other than the musicians’ tall, furry hats, which I took to be a postmodern deconstruction of Cossack headgear from the Ukraine steppe?
Given the raging east/west conflict over Ukraine (or, more specifically, over Ukrainian shale gas and the country’s rich agricultural sector – good articles here http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/07/ukraine-imf-agriculture-2014731945562212.html, here http://consortiumnews.com/2014/04/24/beneath-the-ukraine-crisis-shale-gas/, and here http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/10/us-fracking-companies-climate-change-crisis-shock-doctrine), it seemed important to get a better handle on contemporary Ukrainian culture. So when I found out DakhaBrakha was coming back to town I jumped at the chance to talk to them.
Marco Halanevych, the band’s lone male, graciously answered my email questions. (The three women – ethnomusicologists who’ve combed the Ukrainian countryside for years, learning their country’s traditional songs – are Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsibulska, and Nina Garenetska). I did a little bit of transliteration on Halanevych’s text, to make it read smoothly for US audiences – I’m pretty good at this kind of thing, but any mistakes in interpretation below are my own.
CulturalOyster: From what I’ve read DakhaBrakha has been around for a number of years, and you have several albums – is Light, from 2010, the most recent? Please talk about the band’s history.
Halanevych: DakhaBrakha was created 10 years ago by Vladyslav Troitskyi, director of private Centre of Contemporary Art, for his theater project, "Ukraine Mystical." Vlad asked the women, who are professional folklorists, to make some experiments and try to create something new, create a new myth about Ukraine. The whole project was devoted to searching of new identity for Ukrainians, and the women were resposible for the sound part of it. I was an actor in this theater project, and I accidently walked through during this conversation [between Troitskyi and the women], so Vlad proposed that I join them. Also, the women are professional singers but [at that time] they didn’t play instruments. So we just took some percussion instruments, which Vlad had from his travels, and tried to listen – first in silence, and then to the best examples of different world music.
We’ve recorded five CDs, and a new soundtrack for the 1930s film Earth, directed by Dovzhenko Oleksandr in 1930 and considered an all-time masterpiece. [Check this out, film buffs: http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages%5CD%5CO%5CDovzhenkoOleksander.htm].
After Light we recorded the Khmeleva Project with the Belorussian instrumental trio Port Mone, and also Earth was released as a DVD several months ago. Now we are thinking about creating a CD like a musical trip through Ukraine, all different parts of it. We have some drafts and maybe it will be recorded as one track. We want to create a special video design for this trip, to show the beauty of our land. I hope we will do it in winter.
CulturalOyster: Where does DakhaBrakha fit in the history of Ukranian art? I’m thinking that in the late nineteenth – early twentieth century Ukraine had a number of famous avant-garde artists – in a sense the great ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who was born there though he trained in Russia, but also the painter Mykhailo Boichuck, and the sculptor Alexander Archipenko, who were persecuted in the 1930s by the Bolsheviks. In what way does DakhaBrakha – especially with the band’s origins in experimental theater – link back to that earlier current?
Halanevych: Yes, you are right, Ukraine had a great writers, artists, actors, directors in this period of time. But Soviet times were hard for Ukranian culture. It was only supposed to be done on special official terms. Some of this pseudoculture we still have in our times. But even during the Soviet time we had really talented and even genius artists. As I've mentioned before, we [DakhaBrakha] try to create a new myth about Ukrainian culture, to open Ukraine not only to world but to Ukrainians also. Of course it's very global mission. First of all we play music we like, and we play it in a way we like. Then all of our other senses fall into place. And we are really lucky and happy that in some way our sensibilities coincide with the feelings and images of different people throughout the world.
CulturalOyster: The tall fur hats are a play on Cossack culture, yes? You also had a beautiful painted cello when you were in Madison – does that have a traditional cultural backstory?
Halanevych: About the hats – not exactly. The Cossack hats were shorter and only for men. But as we are not an authentic [folkloric] band we understand that we can't wear pure Ukrainian traditional costumes. They have to be pastiched, as is our music. We have to be very natural and modern, and theatrical at the same time. These hats and costumes (we have several) were created especially for our performances. The hats became our signature, and we joke that they are our connection – our conductors to the Universe. As for the cello – the ornaments on it repeat the visuals of traditional Ukrainian carpets. Nina painted it herself. It’s an interesting thing that a lot of people even in Ukraine accept our images as being very familiar and traditional, but of course they understand that it's only stylization. The same is so about our music - it's all fusion, but on very rich background.
CulturalOyster: You said something in the interview on the RockPaperScissors website [http://archive.rockpaperscissors.biz/index.cfm/fuseaction/current.press_release/project_id/780.cfm#.U_YzVij6-48 ] that gets to the heart of what I want to ask you. You said you “try to shift the emphasis of traditional sounds.” To me, your music sounds like one of the most interesting and ethereal global fusions I’ve heard in ages – you were my favorite band at the Madison World Music Festival last year. If I were to put a label on your wonderful song “Baby,” for instance, I’d say it sounds like a prehistoric spiritual from Motown’s ancient counterpart. “Zhaba” sounds so African – like tribal music from Zimbabwe. “Karpatskyi Rep” sounds partly Ukrainian-folk to my untrained ear, but it’s such a mashup of other sounds, even hip-hop – I can’t quite explain it to myself. So here’s my question: Ukraine’s cultural position between eastern Europe and Russia makes it hard for me, as a non-Ukrainian, to grasp what’s most characteristically Ukrainian – and yet I know that no matter how far afield it goes, your music is somehow rooted in traditional Ukrainian songs. I think right now, given what’s going on in your country, it’s really important to understand your culture, so – can you talk a little about that, and describe the Ukrainian roots in your sound?
Halanevych: The background of all our music is the Ukrainian singing tradition – vocal polyphony. That helps to describe any emotion in any style. The women – they are professional ethnomusicologists – have a great collection of Ukrainian folk songs that they recorded during their own field expeditions, as well as songs recorded by their teachers and their colleagues. And in our music we give these songs new life.
We can combine several songs together, or change melody and rhythms totally but not change the lyrics. A lot of the songs are from pre-Christian times and still have their magic genetic codes. For centuries they’ve accumulated all the destiny and pain, all the tenderness and power, all the love and crying of Ukrainians. We just use these codes in a way that is closer to our modern and urban consciousness, the way we feel it now. We are happy that even though people don't understand the lyrics (there are so many dialects that even not all Ukrainians can understand all the words), they can feel the emotions and create images in their minds. In this way we can share our unique culture with people around the world, and we can them tell more about our culture, about our passion and nature, and most importantly, we can inspire them to feel all of these things.