“We can’t make any music,” the singer and cellist Nina Garenetska said. “This is our life now: An air raid siren goes off.”

For years, the Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha has ended its shows chanting, “Stop Putin! No war!” What they had protested has now come to pass.

DakhaBrakha, based in Kyiv, has long served as ambassadors for Ukrainian music and culture, at once preserving and transforming them. The group gives the polyphonic harmonies of Ukrainian traditional songs a contemporary, internationalist makeover, using African, Australian, Arabic, Indian and Russian instrumentation alongside punk, scatting, hip-hop, trance and dance influences. Their appearance has always been equally striking, especially for the three women in the quartet: towering fur hats, long matching dresses and wildly colorful Iris Apfel-style jewelry.

“DhakhaBrakha often sings about love, heartbreak or the seasons, but as stand-in for bigger things — sometimes political things — and how they do it expands upon Ukrainian traditional music that uses metaphor in this way,” said Maria Sonevytsky, an associate professor of anthropology and music at Bard College, in New York, who devoted a chapter in a recent book to DakhaBrakha and gave a public lecture Wednesday on “Understanding the War on Ukraine Through Its Musical Culture.”

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DakhaBrakha – Feature Article

Hailing from Kyiv, Ukraine, World music outfit DakhaBrakha see themselves as ambassadors for their culture, which influences everything from their name (“Give/Take” in Ukrainian) to their outfits. They aim to keep Ukrainian musical and storytelling tradition alive by making it more accessible to a younger, international audience. The result – a musical melting pot described as “ethno-chaos” – bursts at the seams with rhythms, instruments and stylistic effects from across the globe. The question is, have they forsaken their goal in pursuit of this international sound?

Ukraine, as a country, hasn’t had the easiest time of it. Formed in 1917 at the tail end of the First World War, it sits next to Russia amidst constantly changing borders and turbulent shifts of power. Despite gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the nation remains divided, with a largely western faction relishing independence while many in the east yearn to rejoin the USSR.

Ukrainian’s culture remains largely off the map. Once the musical heartland of the Soviet empire, its contribution to music remains somewhat unacknowledged and even within the country folk songs are sometimes eschewed by traditional ensembles. Many within Ukraine see their cultural identity as being under threat, a situation not helped by Russian attitudes towards their independence.

“We thank God and all the generations of people who have fought for our independence and took part in keeping of our songs, language and our traditions.”

DakhaBrakha

While DakhaBrakha choose to stay away from overtly political themes, their simple goal of having Ukraine’s voice be heard could be considered rebellious by certain countries. ‘Considering that Ukraine has a big neighbour which thinks that even the existence of our country is a historical misunderstanding‘ collaborator Marko Galanevych says, ‘every one of our concerts abroad can be regarded as a political act in itself.’ DakhaBrakha certainly make a statement with their appearance, donning striking head-to-toe outfits based on various ethnic cultures.

“For over three hundred years Ukraine didn’t exist on the political world map… The task we set ahead of us now is to reveal Ukraine to the world and more im­portantly to ourselves – Ukrainians.”

DakhaBrakha

The theatrical aspect of DakhaBrakha comes from their origin. They formed in 2004 under the mentorship of theatre director Vladyslav Troitskyi and were initially just the house band at the avant-garde Dakh theatre in Kyiv, an experience to which they attribute to the darkly theatrical tone of their first two albums. Since then they’ve toured the globe but still regard the Brakh theatre as their spiritual home and primary rehearsal space.

Despite incorporating an international plethora of instruments from African drums to the Didjeridoo, DakhaBrakha remain firmly rooted in the sound of Ukraine, featuring instruments like the harmonica, Garmoshka (an accordion typical of the surrounding areas) and Zhaelika, (a single-reed horn instrument that sounds not unlike the bagpipes). They also incorporate the Ukrainian vocal style known as “white voice”, a singing style that utilises the tight register at the top of the chest with an open throat to create a uniquely resonant tone.

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Paul Krugman is the New York Times Op-Ed columnist who holds forth on macroeconomics, trade, health care, social policy and politics.  He is the author or editor of 27 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes. And he loves DakhaBrakha!

In June, he attended their concert in New York City and added this to the bottom of his weekly email newsletter:

Facing The Music

DakhaBrakha is a Ukrainian band that isn’t quite like anything else — no, it isn’t traditional folk music, it’s a wild fusion of influences from all over. I saw them live on Saturday, and they were even more awesome than I expected.

 

Marco Werman and Allison Herrera recently discussed a DakhaBrakha concert at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis on their summer tour of the USA.

“When you go to hear the Ukrainian band, DakhaBrakha, the first thing you notice is their outfits.

The group’s three female vocalists, Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsybulska and Nina Garanetska, wear towering hats made of black lamb’s wool that make you think of old-world farmers roaming the Ukrainian countryside. Pair that with the long, white dresses topped with chunky, beaded necklaces.

It’s quite a fashion statement and suits their unique and beautiful blend of traditional, Ukrainian folk music and punk rock — a sound they describe as “ethno chaos.”

The three women and Marko Halanevych, who plays accordion and sings, came together in 2004 at the Kiev Center for Contemporary Art with the help of avante-garde theater director Vladyslav Troitskyi. The band’s name means “give/take” in Ukrainian. Since their start, they’ve released five albums and gone on 14 tours all over the world.

Vocalist and cello player Nina Garenetska says she especially enjoys the reaction the band gets in the US. “Americans are very emotional people. When they love something, they will jump up and scream and clap. And if they don’t like it, they’ll just sit there quietly,” she said through a translator.

In a recent, sold-out concert at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, no one was sitting quietly. There was plenty of dancing, singing and clapping. Clearly, the love is mutual.

DakhaBrakha draws from traditional Ukrainian folk songs — they want to show people through their music that Ukraine isn’t part of Russia. Ukraine has its own rich traditions going back long before they were part of the Soviet Union. The band’s vocal style is called “white singing” and came from the Hutsuls people in the Carpathian Mountains.

DakhaBrakha has been described as “psychedelic ethno” and “punk ethno” but the group doesn’t label themselves that way. They consider themselves as having more of a world music feel — taking sounds and voices from all over the map and tying it together with Ukrainian folklore.

DakhaBrakha incorporates stories collected from small villages throughout Ukraine. A perfect example is the song “Karpetsky Rap,” or in English, “Carpathian Rap,” from their 2010 album, “Light.” The piece is based on what Garentska recorded from a woman in a village she visited. It tells the story of a young woman in a small village who’s looking for a husband. The song, while hearkening to days gone by, has a contemporary theme.

It’s about sex.

Kovalenko, Tsybulska and Garenetska rap about the young woman’s conquest. Here are some of the translated lyrics: “If only my Mom knew/What Vasyl is capable of/She would just tell me/”Oh my God, no way!”/A cuckoo was calling/Somewhere over there/Where all the guys are good/But Mykola is the best./A cuckoo was calling/Over there near the forest./I don’t love anyone/Like that Yurchik guy.”

“It was almost as if, though upon searching for the right husband, she maybe has some neuroses,” said Tsybulska, who plays percussion and sings. The young woman is basically really picky, as the song illustrates.

“It is about a girl who wanted to find a husband and goes through one after another because there were always issues that arose: [this man] had a bad mother, [this other one] does not own a house, this one’s nose is crooked, for example. So, there were always shortcomings that did not satisfy her,” said Tsybulska. Sound familiar?

Making music about the plight of Ukrainian women is what DakhaBrakha does. It’s something they know well, though the three vocalists say they are lucky not to feel the same pressures that so many other women in their country do. For one, their spouses support their musical ambitions.

“For some people in Ukraine, it’s considered normal to have the idea that a woman should be at home cooking and taking care of things, and she doesn’t need to worry about having a career,” said Garenetska.

Also, many Ukrainian women suffer abuse at home. According to the National Police statistics, 60 percent of women in the country experience some form of intimate partner violence.

“The idea is that a woman must not let herself be oppressed. That if a girl is taught by her mom that it’s OK to be treated a certain way, the consequences will come out later in life. And so we have to teach our children, our daughters, to be strong and to stand up for themselves,” said Tsybulska.

That message comes through in their songs. And in Ukraine, it’s a message that isn’t always well-received. Tsybulska said when people back home listen to them, some are “are in shock.” After all, Ukraine is still a young country. But Tsybulska is hopeful. Women’s roles are changing. Just a handful of years ago, women in Ukraine couldn’t hold certain jobs for fear it would interfere with having a child. Today, more women are providing for themselves and their families. And that’s what DakhaBrakha’s music is all about — being a part of that change.”