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Sisters of resistance: inside Ukraine’s bold and unapologetic music culture

This year's Tallinn Music Week has been a showcase for some of the besieged country's most defiant music acts

Fo Sho: a defiant response to the invasion of Ukraine (Photo: Tallinn Music Week)

Estonians understand occupation and they understand resistance.

Almost half a century of Soviet occupation ended in Estonia’s Singing Revolution, with spontaneous gatherings at Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds where the celebration of choral singing, the Laulupidu, still takes place every five years.

And when the USSR entered its death throes two years later, with Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost threatened by a final coup, ordinary
Estonians turned out in force to defend Tallinn’s tactically important TV tower as Soviet tanks rolled in.

During Tallinn Music Week, taking place this week and showcasing 180 artists from 28 countries, the Estonian capital is making its solidarity with
Ukraine crystal clear by extending creative residencies and free accommodation to three Ukrainian acts. That the festival – whose theme this year is unity – is funded by the EU European Regional Development Fund, and that it is partly taking place in Narva on Estonia’s border with Russia, means this act of solidarity is a particularly bold one.

Of course, Estonia has skin in this game, the Nato troops at the Tapa military base mid-way between Tallinn and Narva having been doubled in response to rising tensions with Russia. Estonian solidarity with Ukraine is born of empathy.

The Ukrainian acts being hosted at TMW – hip-hop trio Fo Sho, goth rockers Gentle Ropes, and electronic multi-instrumentalists Krapka;KOMA – have all been displaced from their homes, and will be in residence over the next two months at Studio89, a recording studio run by the Estonian folktronica group OOPUS. These three acts demonstrate both the diversity and the quality of Ukraine’s contemporary musical output.

As three black Jewish sisters, Fo Sho fundamentally defy expectations of a Ukrainian act, and their ultra-ballsy female rap takes its cue from the US. Debut single Catchy (2019) was all about sass and confidence, but they have brought a cerebral edge along with the swagger. BLCK SQR, their brooding trap track that was in the running to represent Ukraine at the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest, was inspired by the radically paradigm-breaking painting of the same name by Kyiv-born artist Kazimir Malevich.

But since then, the sisters’ lives have been turned upside down. They are now in Germany, having fled the bombing of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and Fo Sho’s most recent release, U Cry Now, is a defiant response to the invasion of their country.

With an equally defiant spirit but very different sound is Gentle Ropes’ most recent release Oči (Eyes). Oči is from the duo’s forthcoming album Control, the title track of which tackles Russian cultural expansion in Ukraine.

Oči is Gentle Ropes’ first song in their native Ukrainian. Serj Kost from Kyiv, who heads up the project, has previously always sung in English. That is of course a patriotic act, but the lyrics too hint at Ukraine’s situation.

Krapka;KOMA (Semicolon), an electroacoustic duo formed in 2019 and made up of Ira Lobanok and Alona Kovalenko from Lviv, have responded to the crisis not in song, but by launching fundraising drives for supplies for the defence forces. Such a serious task (they have focused on purchasing tactical medical supplies) contrasts entirely with the pair’s chill-out sound, which brings together electronica, trip-hop and jazz elements.

Krapka;KOMA’s most recent releases before the war began were intensely laid back in both their sound and lyrics. In My Room (2021) is a blissed-out reflection on being happy in your own company and creativity.

Fo Sho, Gentle Ropes and Krapka;KOMA will be joined by two other Ukrainian acts at Tallinn Music Week – the lyrically gifted rapper Alyona Alyona and genre-breaking pop star Ivan Dorn. Both have also turned to volunteering and fundraising, with Dorn’s Masterskaya studio and cultural space in Kyiv becoming a donation centre and Alyona Alyona staffing just such a centre. But as these acts give voice to this diverse Ukrainian music culture, which has become more “bold and unapologetic” in this time of war,
according to Krapka;KOMA, they will be hitting back against the assault on
their homeland in a way that is just as significant as their more pragmatic efforts.


Fo Sho, Xtra (2019)
The Ukrainian sisters of Ethiopian descent reflected on their experience
of racism growing up on this politically charged, vocal harmony-laced trap song, rapping “I’m just flexin’ my complexion/ Love or hate me, I keep it real.”

Gentle Ropes, Cold (2021)
From the darkwave act’s EP Burning Flowers, “about doubts, losses and other things that can make you go astray”, this track made their shoegaze and post-punk influences clear.

Krapka;KOMA, Quarantine Beat 8 (2020)

Showcasing the female duo from Lviv’s chill-out sound, this was one of nine instrumentals they made during lockdown. They play Brighton’s Great Escape festival next week.

Alyona Alyona, Pushka (2019)
The title track of rapper Alyona Savranenko’s 2019 album played with the words “pushka” – meaning “gun” but also “the shit” in Ukrainian slang – and “pampushka” and “pishka” – meaning donut but also a large woman like Savranenko proudly is.

Ivan Dorn, Северное сияние (2011)
From debut album Co’N’Dorn (2012), Northern Lights is a seductive pop track that reveals Dorn’s melding of house, funk, nu-disco and free jazz.

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