Serhiy “Foma” Fomenko speaks about the Kyiv school of rock, music exports and his willingness to work with the opposition
In the 15 years of its existence the band Mandry (Travels) has achieved undeniable success in Ukraine and made a name for itself as a classical example of Ukrainian folk rock at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s. Its leader and frontman, Serhiy “Foma” Fomenko, has become known as a rock singer who has found his niche and is successfully exploiting it without any particular desire to change his unpretentious songs like “Orysia” and “Miller’s daughter” for something more sophisticated and refined. However, The Ukrainian Week learned after talking to himthat these stereotypes are a far cry from reality. The Mandry frontman has no plans to stop and furthermore, believes his band’s accomplishments until now are just a search for the real thing that has just begun to take shape in their artistic life.
Ukrainian musicians are forever in the underground. Not thanks to, but in spite of, everything. The contemporary condition of music in Ukraine, just like in the rest of the world, is depressive. There seem to be plenty of high-quality artists, but there is no clear system for evaluating them and their activities. Many key things are missing: quality music journalism, music critics, relevant hit parades and well-organised festivals. Most importantly, there is very little Ukrainian music on the radio and television. To many, even professionals, music has turned into their beloved hobby which, in financial terms, keeps their pants from falling off but no more than that.
Soviet legacy holds sway at present. And not only in music. The overall situation in the country is quite disturbing. This is perhaps the most complicated period in the past 20 years. I matured together with Ukraine’s independence, because I was a very young man in 1991. And I had a cast-iron conviction back then that Ukraine was moving and would continue to move in the right direction, even though chaos raged all around. It was quite logical back then, because no-one knew what had to be done or how. And then, after 20 years of what seemed to be evolutionary progress, it all seems to be suddenly collapsing into complete chaos again. I see that the Soviet mental framework is too strong in the minds and souls of generations of Ukrainians. I sometimes begin to fear that our life will pass in vain expectations of change. However, we continue to struggle against this through the force of word and sound to some success. If Ukrainian artists had more extensive media opportunities, their results would be more overwhelming. But in general we should not expect to be given a green light. Instead, we need to set up our own traffic lights and tell everyone who stands on our path: Get out of our way!
Quotas for Ukrainian music must be restored as an extremely important and urgent step.The radio must play Ukrainian songs, and the television show Ukrainian music videos. What we have now is an attempt to speed up the death of Ukrainian culture. Most importantly, these quotas must not remain on paper only but be enforced in practice – and not as they used to be when Ukrainian quotas were met with nighttime airtime. There must be a clear law specifying that Ukrainian products have to appear in the daytime and primetime. This is the only way to create an environment in which we can compete with foreign music. We must also have government support, such as halls for concerts given by Ukrainian performers. We don't need money, okay. Artists are quite capable of earning for themselves through tickets sales. But in the current conditions it looks more like charity than normal concert activity.
Ukrainians are now facing the fact that life is real. You can of course continue to contemplate and drowse, but “tough guys” will come, put you in a coffin and close the lid on you with your contemplations. We have a very simple choice – either come out and struggle or forever remain cattle and sh…it. We deserve the president we have now. This is an adequate answer to our conduct. “’We are small people,’ you say? Fine, but this way you ‘small people’ will soon be no more. You want to have a Lukashenko village – you've got it.”
I am ready to play one more big game in Ukraine. In the time I have spent here I have learned the system, made many connections and learned how everything works. You remember Soviet “five-year plans”? Well, five years is sufficient time to launch another great movement and make another big attempt to seriously change things in the country in the civic, political, cultural and social senses. I have taken part in political movements guided only by my convictions rather than something else. Whether it pans out or not, but this is the last attempt, because in the future I will do only what I like, i.e., audiovisual art. I would rather write books, shoot films and sing songs than sort out the sh…t all around us. Because I hate politics in reality.
Elections are a pretty good way to replace the government, but only if people put pressure on it. So the only alternative to the current government is to act following an old Ukrainian proverb: Together it is easy to beat the father. (Approximately: “Many hands make light work”.) The main question is whether the opposition has enough gas left in it to win. So I am now in contact with people and political forces that are ideologically close to me, negotiating my music being part of their political events. We need to plan something, because otherwise tomorrow we will no longer be on the world's political map.
A PRAGMATIC GENERATION
The Kyiv school of rock was the most vivid in Ukraine. Let me first simply list some of the bands and you will draw the conclusions yourselves. So here we go: VV, Kollezhsky Asessor, Zhaba v dirizhable, Rabbota Kho, Ivanov Down, my first band Den pomyraie rano (The Day Dies Early), Viy, Ruthenia, Katia Chilly, etc. Kyiv rock combines a great variety of styles – experimental music, dance, folk, electronic music and so on. In general, Kyiv-based musicians have always distinguished themselves through their deep artistic search. It was a kind of school of diversity, and this is its main drawing card, even though it does not have any distinct features like Lviv rock does.
Ukrainians still love Ukrainian music. I often travel through remote provinces and always work “for tickets”. But not as often as I'd like. Attendance is always high. We perform in civic centres and in the buildings of philharmonic societies, as was recently the case in Kirovohrad. In fact, it is a stereotype that you can only sit in a hall like that. I remember when Emir Kusturica performed for the first time in the Ukraina Palace, everyone was sitting at the beginning, but he urged people to get up. And the audience danced, perhaps for the first time in the history of that venue. It does not make a difference where to perform. The main thing is what you bring.
I see a tendency for rock bands to receive an increasing number of invitations to perform at corporate parties, contrary to the established stereotypes about the artificial nature of these events. It appears that pop music is everywhere and is very accessible, but it is not favoured by people who pay out of their own pockets to arrange celebrations. The option of having a pretty girl hop around the stage and her sound engineer provide the sound and paying the full price for this kind of show is no longer attractive. Of course, all artists earn exclusively at corporate parties. We are no exception here.
Serhiy “Foma” Fomenko
Foma was born on 19 March in a village in Chernihiv Region and learned as a teenager to play the button accordion and the guitar. He sang, wrote songs and short stories and hitchhiked across Ukraine, the Baltic states and Russia. He worked as a yard sweeper in the Kyivan Cave Monastery and the Saint Sophia Cathedral, as a cloakroom attendant in the Archaeological Museum, as a stage worker in a theatre and as an anchorman in a radio programme. He sometimes paints in oil. Foma lives and works in Kyiv and actively supports various charity projects. He received the Merited Artist of Ukraine distinction in 2005.