Creating culture through music
‘To own up to “roots” is also to disown them.’
-Stan Smith (Poetry and Displacement)
It is no point of contention that Eastern Europe is not the epicentre of cool music. As an obsessive music listener, and an Eastern European, this has always been something I’ve felt sad about. I so desperately wanted to find a Ukrainian band I could fully get around. While there’s tons of Slavic euro-pop (if you ever want to start a conversation with me and don’t know how, just ask me who ViaGra are), they all feel like novelty rather than legitimate music.
Here comes in ‘Baby’ by a band called DakhaBrakha, found through radiooooo.com (check it out, it’s so fun). An unimpressive, autumn evening in a high-rise apartment in Australia brought me back to a Ukraine I only dreamed about in stories.
The song begins with a typical, contemporary beat, a high voice singing ‘Baby, show me you love’ over and over again. I liked its sound but wasn’t immediately enchanted. Half way through the song becomes something else – the real tempo starts, a trio of female voices begin to sing a chant in Ukrainian and an exotic, folk aroma takes over. The song becomes a melange of old style and contemporary beats. That evening, I found a song which feels like me. I quickly opened YouTube in another tab and fell into the world the four members create through their performances, and began to adore them.
DakhaBrakha, a quartet of three women and one man, describe their sound as ‘ethno-chaos.’ Starting out in the theatre, they are masters of weaving stories into their music and performance. The first thing you notice is their costumes. Marko Halanvych (vocals, darbuka, didjeridoo, accordion and trombone) is always clad in traditional Ukrainian shirts. The three women, Iryna Kovalenko (vocals, djembe, bass drums, accordion, percussion, bugat, zgaleyka and piano), Olena Tsybulska (vocals, brass drums, percussion and garmoshka) and Nina Garenetska (vocals, cello, bass and drums) wear matching dresses, usually wedding dresses, large hats and beaded necklaces. Visually, they are both something mythical, like from a storybook, and modern. I love watching videos of them – my favourite being them playing ‘Yanky’ at Glastonbury and watching the crowd bop up and down in colourful raincoats.
The next thing, which you may have already noticed, is just how many instruments they play. Their artistry is in the seamless way they switch between songs and instruments, how Kovalenko imitates birds and natural sounds, how Halanevych transforms his voice, how much Garenestka smiles.
Na Mezhi (2009) is the album which converted me completely. It flows between playful, soulful and menacing. Each song is its own world, with the voices blending into each other and twisting around each other to create such a unique sound. The cello provides a beat which either makes you want to dance of sit very still and listen carefully.
This isn’t the kind of music you can listen to if you want to party, if you want to sing along. This is the kind of music you listen to when you want to a story. It’s something to close your eyes to. Let it take you away. ‘Vesna’ will make the sun shine for you, as flowers begin to bloom and spring warms your soul. ‘Divka Marusechka’ will take you on a journey to your lover across an uncultivated land, the open sky above you. ‘Nad Dunaem’ will make you feel cold and melancholy. Na Mezhi will open up a whole country for you. It’ll suck you in and show you all the facets of belonging and emotion. For me, this album, and the others, have become an almost spiritual experience.
DakhaBrakha came to me at the perfect time in my life. Ready to accept my culture and history, at such a political time, I needed to be reminded that Ukraine’s art is not dead. Na Mezhi became my soundtrack to the city, perfect for sunny and rainy weather. I was finding my feet in a new relationship. It got me through my poetry assignment at university. It allowed me to understand the bizarre mix of Slavic/Western influences which are constantly swimming around in my mind. Their chaotic sound is a perfect reminder that it’s okay not to have it all together. Plus, their use of Ukrainian folk and borrowing from other countries’ traditional music demonstrates how fluid culture really is. By listening to Na Mezhi, over and over, I came to the conclusion that I don’t have to identify as one thing – this is too restrictive. It’s too late for me; I’ve been mixed around too much. I’m neither completely Western nor Slavic. I get to create my own identity.
‘Dakha brakha’ is a phrase in old Ukrainian which means ‘give and take.’ Perhaps this is how the band sees itself – they take and borrow from their past, their knowledge of theatre and other cultures and give back something entirely unique. But for me, all they do is give, and they give so much. Dyakuyu.
Iryna is a creative lady living in Melbourne, Australia. She is the Editor of The Wall and gets published here and there. She can be followed on twitter @irynabyel