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The political power of singing in Ukraine

The country's historical and recent anguish provides a strong undercurrent to its music

Singer Verka Serduchka (Andrii Danylko) makes a flamboyant appearance atop a 'train' for Ukraine's 29th Independence Day celebration in Kiev, in August 2020 - Credit: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The ‘breadbasket of Europe’ has also been a major producer of nourishment for the soul. Ukraine was the musical heart of the Russian empire, furnishing the Tsars’ courts with musicians, while fostering an incredibly rich and varied folk tradition at home, including those of its Jewish and Romani populations.

And while Ukraine has a familiar story of the oppression and political manipulation of its national musical culture, first under the Tsars and then under the Soviet Union, few nations have faced such a concerted attack on its musical traditions. Today, its folk music survives against the odds in a daringly unorthodox integration of styles, particularly practiced by bands from Kiev, and the close relationship between music and politics endures.

In the early 1930s Stalin’s attempt to stamp out all traces of a Ukrainian national culture resulted in the wholesale slaughter of the kobzars, the bandura-playing, often blind musicians who were the repository of Ukrainian folk tradition. A Congress of the Folk Singers of Soviet Ukraine was the pretext to gather more than 300 musicians from remote villages all over Ukraine together in Kharkiv, before putting them on trains to the outskirts where they were shot by the secret police.

The remaining kobzars were criminalised via laws requiring compulsory registration of musical instruments with the authorities and the banning of itinerant musical performance. They were demonised as enemies of the workers in state propaganda – Kiev poet and politician Mykola Bazhan wrote a poem calling them “smelly riffraff” and condemning their “damned songs”.

While there were many songs that died with the kobzars, Ukraine’s folk tradition lives on in Kiev, as well as across the large Ukrainian diaspora which is the legacy of the forced starvation of the country in Stalin’s Holodomor and the massive losses during the Nazi occupation.

That other great Ukrainian tragedy – the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, just 60 miles north of Kiev – was responsible for Eugene Hütz’s family, partly of Ukrainian Romani descent, fleeing the capital for the US. He later founded New York gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, who have made a musical mash-up of Ukrainian folk sounds internationally known.

Back in Kiev itself, Haydamaky, a band formed by students from Kiev’s National Technical University immediately after the fall of communism, began as folk-ska band Aktus on the Kiev underground scene, before adopting their name referencing the Cossack peasant paramilitaries who staged several rebellions in Polish-ruled Ukraine in the 18th century.

Combining Ukrainian folk with reggae and the overt influence of The Pogues, the band has a strong interest in the power of music to enact social change – Message from their 2008 album Kobzar, espouses Ukrainian national pride while bemoaning a situation of social inequality where “The oligarch cleans his skin/ The simple man licks his wounds”.

The blending of multiple styles with a Ukrainian underpinning has been dubbed ‘ethno chaos’ by Marko Halanevych of folk quartet DakhaBrakha (meaning ‘give/ take’), a band originally born as a project of the Dakh Contemporary Arts Center in central Kiev. Using traditional Ukrainian instruments like the zhaleyka hornpipe and bugay drum, they blend songs they have harvested directly from the people of the Ukrainian countryside with jazz, trance and African rhythms.

Their dramatic performances, where the three female performers wear a psychedelic take on traditional Ukrainian folk dress, take by turns mystical ‘folk drone’ and aggressive punk directions.

DakhaBrakha’s championing of Ukrainian culture, albeit in a fusion that irks purists, is political enough, but they have also made overt political statements. Their Karpatskyi Rep (‘Carpathian Rap’) (2014), has a feminist message of female sexual liberation, anathema to more traditional social views in Ukraine, as its protagonist reels off the names of the men – from Dmytro to Slavko – she has hooked up with and rejected. But DakhaBrakha are most notable for their use of the ‘white-voice’ singing style of the Hutsuls, the Ukrainian highlanders of the Carpathian Mountains to the southwest, and this sound has recently been given an international platform.

Kiev electro-folk band Go_A placed fifth in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with their hypnotic Shum (‘Noise’), based on a traditional vesnianky (spring song), which featured singer Kateryna Pavlenko using the powerful ‘white-voice’ style. Folk sounds have made frequent appearances in Ukraine’s Eurovision history, and in the tumultuous last two decades, that history has shown just how politically loaded the country’s music can be.

Just the year after Ukraine’s 2003 Eurovision debut, the country won with Ruslana’s Wild Dances. After 1990, Ukrainian-language music had flourished, and Ruslana’s winning song was the first since the 1999 abolition of the rule that entrants must sing in one of their country’s official languages to not be sung entirely in English.

In a performance that opened with dancers holding aloft the characteristic instrument of the Ukrainian highlands – the several feet long wooden trembita horn – Ruslana put on display an interpretation of Ukrainian folk tradition via Conan the Barbarian, with costumes in leather and fur, while the song itself bounced along on an electronic folk melody.

Just months after Ruslana’s victory, the Orange Revolution kicked off in Kiev amid accusations that vote rigging had bagged victory for Viktor Yanukovych in that year’s presidential election against the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko. Ruslana declared her support for Yushchenko and subsequently served as an MP under his government.

The following year, Carpathian rap act Greenjolly (from the Hutsul word gryndzholy – ‘wooden sleigh’) were controversially chosen over original shoo-in, Kiev singer Ani Lorak, to represent Ukraine at the Kiev-staged 2005 contest. Their entry was Razom nas bahato (‘Together We Are Many’), the song that had been the unofficial anthem of the Orange Revolution. While Eurovision prohibitions on political lyrics necessitated the removal of the original overtly pro-Yushchenko lyrics, Greenjolly got a rapturous reception from the home crowds as manacle-wearing dancers broke their chains at the climax of the performance.

Two years later, graduate of Kiev’s performing arts academy, Andriy Danylko, represented Ukraine with his Dancing Lasha Tumbai, memorable for its Hi_NRG folk accordion and Danylko’s appearance as outrageous silver-clad drag alter ego, Verka Serduchka. Verka became an instant Eurovision icon, but the performance was also surprisingly politically-charged. While “lasha tumbai” seemed to be a nonsense phrase, it sounded rather like “Russia Goodbye”. Appropriately enough, Danylko came second in the final results, knocking the Russian entry into third place.

But Ukraine’s Eurovision efforts became most obviously political only after the revolution of 2014. After Yanukovych, finally elected president in 2010, failed to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, instead pursuing closer ties with Russia, protests broke out in Kiev and the Russian annexation of Crimea was precipitated. While Ukraine missed Eurovision 2015 amid the ongoing crisis, they won the competition on their return the following year with Jamala’s 1944.

Perhaps the darkest winning song in the history of the Contest, 1944 told the story of Stalin’s forced exile of the Crimean Tartars – an event that had affected Jamala’s own great-grandmother – but it had a clear contemporary resonance as Russian troops continued to occupy Crimea.

The Russians were irked, and then, as the competition was again hosted in the Ukrainian capital in 2017, the Russian entrant Julia Samoylova was barred from entering the country for having given a performance in occupied Crimea two years before. For Ukraine, both history and current trauma continues to be explored in music.

MUSIC OF THE MAIDAN

The centre of the 2014 revolution was the Maidan protest camp in central Kiev, and a number of Ukraine’s musical stars leant their support to the protestors. Eurovision winner Ruslana was an active participant in the protests, as was Kharkiv singer-songwriter Maria Burmaka. Haydamaky performed on the Maidan several times, later writing their Wooden Shields (2014) in tribute to the more than 100 people killed in the protests.

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