How a Ukrainian-American singer became the “golden voice of Ukraine”
In early April, the world remembers Kvitka “Kasey” Cisyk (b. 4 April 1953) who died tragically at age 44 in 1998. As she explained in the liner notes on her album Two Colors, she devoted her life to “weaving joyful notes into the frayed fabric on which the life of our people is embroidered”. She is often called “the heavenly voice of Ukraine”.
Her voice is the secret to her magical effect on listeners. Despite a shortage of official information, indifference on the state level, absence of legally produced disks in stores and the silence of the media (which was broken only recently), her name is often on the lips of ordinary Ukrainian listeners. An online search reveals the depth of listeners’ adoration: their comments are deeply emotional, replete with lofty words that have sadly become hackneyed and hence insincere in official discourse. But these words could not be more heartfelt and genuine coming from Cisyk’s listeners: “You can’t listen to her without crying”; “If you hear her voice once, you will never forget it”; “She makes us remember that we are Ukrainians.”
Thus, we have, in a way, “a myth of Kvitka” in which, according to semiotic laws, reality is mingled with fantasy, the private is mixed with the social and an individual life becomes a symbol of the history of the Ukrainian people. Cisyk came from a family of “third wave” post-war Ukrainian immigrants and was born in the United States. She lived in modern New York but spoke Ukrainian with an old-fashioned, “Galician” accent. At first glance, she was just another Ukrainian émigré in Manhattan that refused to forget who she was and what her roots were. At the peak of a successful and purely American singing career, she took the unusual step of paying out of her pocket to record highly professional non-commercial albums of Ukrainian folk songs. They were later recognized as the quintessence of Ukrainian vocal art and spread miraculously fast in Ukraine during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when Ukraine was still Soviet and did not have a cultural voice of its own.
The primary reason for this beautiful “myth of Kvitka” was her wondrous name (literally “flower”), which emanated powerful artistic energy. We do not know what made her parents give this name to their younger daughter; no one else in their family could boast such an exotic name – neither her older sister Maria nor her parents Volodymyr and Ivanna. Researchers write: “Not everyone knows that Kvitka also had another name, the English artistic pseudonym Kasey, drawn from the initials of her Ukrainian name. This second name ideally complemented the image of a studio singer whose repertoire included jingles, demo versions of songs by beginning composers, various background vocals for prominent performers and vocal soundtracks to films. These forms of music may seem routine in comparison to her recordings of Ukrainian songs, but they made up the bulk of Kvitka’s professional output, her “vocal business”.
Kvitka’s myth would not have been possible without its other part, namely Kvitka’s united musical family, something Ukrainian culture abounds in (think about, for example, the Sokalsky, Lysenko and Stetsenko families). The Cisyk family was widely known and acclaimed in the professional world of music even before it left Lviv. Kvitka’s father was a virtuoso violinist and her sister an excellent pianist, so the very atmosphere of their home determined Kvitka’s future. However, she later departed from the family tradition by choosing the profession of a popular, rather than academic, performer. She became a high-calibre and versatile musician, a singer of virtually unlimited capacity ranging from country or jazz to operatic coloratura soprano. Kvitka’s musical family circle also included both of her husbands: composer and arranger Jack Cortner, and later Ed Rakowicz, sound engineer and owner of the Clinton Recording Studio. Tellingly, both Kvitka’s husbands and sister Maria were directly involved in her family’s main cause: recording Kvitka’s solo albums of Ukrainian songs.
Kvitka’s intensive professional life as a studio vocalist was highly successful, partly because of her intelligent choice of specialization. Kvitka did not aspire to large-scale solo activity but worked with many large corporations and was the only “official” voice of Ford Motors for 25 years, from 1982 until the final months of her life. In this business area, she made remarkable achievements: according to statistics, her voice was played in the world media space no less than 22 billion times, which is the absolute record in the jingles industry. The video version of her first jingle for Ford Motors “Have You Driven a Ford Lately?” became a true classic of the genre and showed Kvitka to the world the way she really was – a natural, slender woman with an incredible vocal timbre which had a special, ringing overtone found only in a coloratura soprano. Her relatives remember that in everyday life Kvitka loved “sporty living” and was fond of fast cars.
Her commercial career earned Kvitka the title of “Jingle Diva” – a tribute to her exceptional professional status and proof that America not only recognized but came to love her as its own. But the nation betrayed her with equal ease in the typically American story of a “stolen” Oscar. In 1977, Kvitka recorded a soundtrack to the film You Light Up My Life (directed by Joseph Brooks) in which she also played a small character part. The film’s title song by the same name won an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song. However, singer Debby Boone, apparently unconcerned about professional ethics, presented the song at the Oscar awards ceremony and thus came to “own” it. Kvitka did not sue. Her husband Ed Rakowicz later explained that she did not want to destroy her internal harmony.
The material foundation for the myth of Kvitka consists of the two solo albums she had time to record: Kvitka. Songs of Ukraine (1980) and Two colours (1989). Both were nominated for Grammy awards for Best Contemporary Folk Album. In her only video interview, recorded in a New York studio in 1992 by Oleksandr Hornostai, now the director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, Kvitka explained in great detail her motivation to record the albums. In response to her endless stories about Ukraine and its unique singing culture, her colleagues often asked her to “show them something Ukrainian”, but there were no records worthy of being shown. Thus she came upon the idea for a solo studio project of the highest professional standards, which pertained, above all, to the quality of the arrangements and backing musicians. The overall sum spent on recording was US $200,000, a fortune in the 1980s. As a result, Ukrainian culture received truly invaluable artistic capital in the form of melodies and texts. With these albums, Kvitka created a kind of “orchard of song” representing the world of Ukrainian vocal art: ancient lullabies, folk masterpieces of the Cossack era (I Sing to the Hills), 19th-century lyrical romances (A Song to the Moon), modern hits (Cheremshyna) and songs that have become musical archetypes of Ukraine (Two Colours). Ringing over this orchard is a song by Volodymyr Ivasiuk, I Will Go to the Distant Hills. It is impossible to put into words all of the things that Kvitka expresses through this song – the life of the Ukrainian people, frayed and torn between the Carpathian Mountains and New York, lost between the past and modernity. And it speaks to us with an angelic voice, the voice of Kvitka Cisyk.