Home News Ukraine reshapes its image, folk songs become the new trend

Ukraine reshapes its image, folk songs become the new trend


At first glance, it looked like a typical nightclub party. It was mid-March, and in central Kiev, about a hundred people were writhing on the dance floor of V’YAVA, one of the Ukrainian capital’s most popular live music venues. The hall was dark, lit only by bright blue and red spotlights. The bartenders were busy pouring gin and tonics.

But that night, the concert hall, which usually hosts pop stars and rappers, had an unexpected lineup: four Ukrainian folk singers, who filled the room with their soaring voices and polyphonic choruses, accompanied by electronic music rhythms played by a DJ, and the audience cheered.

Today, Ukrainian folk music “is becoming a fashion,” said Stepan Andrushchenko, one of the country’s folk singers. Shuka Lebathe band was performing on stage that night. “Very cool thing.”

More than two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, folk music has surged in popularity in the war-torn country. Moscow seeks to erase Ukrainian culturePeople reconnect with the past and affirm their identity through traditional songs.

“It’s like a defensive measure,” said Viktor Perfetsky, 22, who began taking traditional singing lessons after the war broke out. “If we don’t know who we are, the Russians will come and force us to be who they want us to be.”

It’s a major shift in attitudes among Ukrainians, who have long viewed folk songs as an ancient relic of peasant culture. Now the same songs are being played at open-air festivals and trendy bars. “White voice” singing classes — a traditional Ukrainian vocal style that resembles controlled shouting — are selling out, and young people are practicing traditional dances on the streets of Kiev, beer cans in hand.

Bands like Shchuka Ryba are riding this wave and bringing folk music into the 21st century. They are collaborating with DJs and jazz bands to give the music a modern twist, adding electronic tones and guitar melodies. Their ultimate goal is to recreate Ukraine’s rich but long-neglected history.

“This shouldn’t be just a fad,” Yarina Sizyk, 27, a singer with a distinctive, high-pitched voice who sings as Shchuka Ryba, said in a recent interview. “It should be part of everyday life.”

Folk music has a centuries-old history in Ukraine but has long been seen as backward. During the Soviet era, some folk songs were taught in schools, performed by orchestras and often used for propaganda, but authorities eventually turned them into parodies of folk peasant culture, experts say.

After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, several groups traveled across the country trying to save the heritage. Kateryna Kapra, co-founder of the cultural organization Rys, said she traveled to villages in central and eastern Ukraine in the mid-2010s to record and preserve authentic folk songs.

But back in Kiev, Capra had trouble attracting the interest of city residents. She recalled trying to organize workshops to teach traditional carols: “In such a big city, it was hard to find 10 people.”

Many Ukrainians are skeptical of folk music, fearing that it fits “the Kremlin’s stereotype that Ukrainians are just singing peasants,” said Ukrainian-American ethnomusicologist and author of The New York Times.Wild Music: Voices and Sovereignty in Ukraine

Everything changed after the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022. As Moscow attacked Ukraine’s cultural heritage through bombings and looting of museums, the songs became a symbol of Ukrainian identity.

“People realize that it’s more important than ever to preserve this culture because it could be destroyed at any time,” said Andrii Solomiichuk, 33, who was listening to a folk music performance in the garden of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Around him, a small group of folk singers in traditional embroidered shirts sat on the grass, rehearsing as they prepared to go on stage. Many in the audience said they had only started listening to folk music after the war began, because they longed to reconnect with their roots. “Tradition is the foundation, the lifeblood of the nation,” said Iryna Bilonizhka, 34.

As the war dragged on, Reese’s singing classes filled up. Last year’s summer classes “sold out in a day,” Capra said.

At a recent class in Kiev, six men stood in a semicircle, chests puffed out, and performed vocal exercises. They sang “Ta-te-ti-to-tu-to-ti-te-ta,” the note rising with each repetition, their deep voices filling the room.

It felt like an oasis of peace in the middle of this war-torn city, but the traces of the war were never far away. One student wore a prosthetic limb — it had been amputated last year after stepping on a landmine on the front line — and another wore a T-shirt depicting Ukrainian airstrikes on Russian targets.

Stanislav Ivko, a student who lost a leg, said he likes to learn about Ukraine’s history through songs. One of his favorite folk songs is “Hey, I have a horse“It tells the story of the difficult journey of the cavalry Cossacks who once ruled the southern region of Ukraine and their yearning for a better life.

Ethnomusicologist Sonevitsky said the songs were Ukraine’s “way of showing its historical existence” and a way of confronting Kremlin claims Ukraine’s statehood is a fiction By restoring “what was lost during the Soviet era”.

However, returning to roots does not exclude modern elements.

After the war began, the band Shchuka Ryba began to Fusion Musicis a Kiev-based collective of musicians that aims to fuse traditional tunes with elements of mainstream music such as jazz, rock and electronica. Their goal is to spread folk songs as widely as possible.

“We’re trying to make these works accessible to younger audiences,” Sizzik said one recent afternoon. “These are not just for grandparents.”

She and other members of Shchuka Ryba had just finished rehearsing their most popular song, “Oh, my father has a daughter” was created by a bassist, drummer and pianist in a studio in central Kiev. This song was adapted from Folk songs recorded a few years ago In Villagers of Central Ukraine, the band added drums and synthesizers to the mix.

Andrushenko said the band wants folk music to “become part of people’s lives” so that it is “more than a trend.” For example, band members teach traditional dances to the audience during concerts – pausing the music, having the audience line up and showing them basic dances.

This has led to some unusual scenes in some of the Ukrainian capital’s trendiest venues. In mid-March, at the V’YAVA concert hall, the band led the audience in a kind of circle dance, with people holding hands and twirling around the room while bartenders looked on in amazement.

Perfetsky, who joined a singing class at the start of the war and now hosts his own weekly singing sessions in a cafe, says Shchuka Ryba has inspired many people to get in touch with folk music. “Now people think, ‘Wow, they’re so cool,’ ” he said. “People say, ‘I want to sing, too!’ ”

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