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13 December, 2012  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Learn to Listen to Yourself

Composer Cai Caslavinieri talks about Ukrainians in Poland, commercialized music culture, and freedom of musical choice

Cai Caslavinieri is a popular Polish composer and DJ. Mykhailo Jankowski – that’s his real name – has Ukrainian roots. His grandparents moved to northwestern Poland in 1947 during Operation Vistula, the forced resettlement of the Ukrainian ethnic minority from Polish territories near the border with Ukraine. He never hid his roots despite the many troubles they caused him, and eventually achieved remarkable success as a musician. Today, he is known as an electronic musician and DJ, and has composed many tracks for global corporations and fashion houses. Cai also works with Ukrainian musicians. He recently remixed a song by the Ukrainian folk-rock band “Haydamaky”, which became quite popular in Poland.

You have to live and fight your way through the circumstances into which you were born. I was born in Poland, although I consider myself Ukrainian. Actually, I don’t know where whether it’s better to be a patriotic artist in Poland or Ukraine. Of course, many people believe that the grass is greener in one’s homeland. But Ukrainians now have a good life in Europe, especially Poland, because all of their former problems and conflicts have faded away. It’s a powerful thing to feel that you belong to a community. I’m happy to be Ukrainian, even in a different country. But I would choose to be born in my historical homeland if I had that choice. My grandfather helped open the first Ukrainian school in post-war Poland and still only speaks Ukrainian to this day.

It is no longer shameful or dangerous to be Ukrainian in Poland. I myself experienced being pointed at, called a “banderite”[1] and judged – especially in school. I remember that in those days, someone could beat you up just because you were Ukrainian. Meanwhile, the older generation of Ukrainians who survived Operation Vistula have similar sentiments about the Poles. They hate the Poles because they see them as the primary oppressor. Of course, all these conflicts arose simply out of human folly, not because of some innate national animosity. But now, with access to huge amounts of information about anything in the world, even the least educated people are beginning to realize that culture is the only thing that makes us different from each other. And culture is gaining immense value in the globalized world. Ukrainian culture in Poland is no exception.

There is a persistent hunger for pro-Ukrainian initiatives, especially with the emergence in recent years of a new wave of Ukrainian migrants who now work here on a permanent basis. For instance, Ukraińska Watra (Ukrainian Bonfire) has been the largest festival and gathering place for Polish Ukrainians for 30 years, connecting generations of families. I remember my mum taking me there every year since my early childhood. She told me that her parents had done the same thing. Surprisingly, the Poles grow more and more interested in the festival. Now, as the number of Ukrainians in Poland grows, any Ukrainian initiative will be successful because people look forward to it. They don’t just want to talk and listen to Ukrainian songs, but truly unite.

Sometimes I just don’t understand the things that Ukrainians have allowed to happen in their homeland. My grandfather turns on Ukrainian TV and almost all of it is Russian. It’s a tragedy, a shock. You know, it’s the same as if Poland had a German president who spoke German instead of Polish. Meanwhile, even Yanukovych has switched to Ukrainian in public. Why don’t voters want to follow his example?

Only after Euro 2012, average Poles began to realize that Ukrainians are not Russians. Before that, everyone had been Russian for them – all thrown into one pot, and that was a huge problem. Experts say that the championship did not draw anyone closer, but as an ethnic Ukrainian who lives in Poland, I can say that the positive change in the attitude towards Ukrainians is really palpable – especially compared to Russian fans and their outrageous behaviour during the championship. The key thing is that both nations hosted the championship – and they did well. Now they share this good feeling of having accomplished a difficult task. In Poland, everyone was very serious about preparations for the Euro – it was the key theme in the country’s life for a while.


 When I compose music for corporations, it’s exclusively my creation. Clients do not interfere at all. Moreover, the companies I work with prefer this approach. They are happy with it because they want to have something exclusive in the end. My interest as an artist is to create good alternative music for a company’s advertising campaigns. Most people involved in business don’t know much about music. They listen to whatever is on the radio. That’s why it’s nice to know that something you created is not only good commercially, but contributes to the development of their taste, and is something they really like.

I used to have little contact with Ukrainian artists. But we’ve been working closer lately. Director Svitlana Fedoniuk (under the pseudonym Dominika Domal) used my music in her film God’s Miracle (Чудо Господнє). The film was awarded a gold medal at Kinokimeria, a festival for independent films in Kherson. I also remixed a song by the band Haydamaky.

Ukraineneeds to develop the habit of paying for art. You want a song, you should pay a euro or a dollar for it. It’s not much but it’s supposed to breed this cultured attitude towards the artist and their intellectual work.

Artists need to eat. Nobody brings us chicken, eggs, or bread just for having beautiful eyes or talent. We have to pay money for everything just like everyone else. All work is commercial in essence because it is supposed to provide the performer with the means for survival. And all art is work essentially—there is no such thing as non-commercial art or non-commercial artists. That’s only possible if art is not a job or work for someone. A long time ago, kings and lords paid to support artists they liked. Today, gifts like this no longer exist.

I highly respect all people involved in art. It takes courage not to simply go work at a bank to provide oneself with sustainable income for life, and instead bet everything trying to earn something with such an uncertain occupation as art, where there is a huge risk of never achieving any success. That’s why I have equal respect for big-screen celebrities and guys playing the violin on the street.


Computers have rapidly transformed from productivity tools into musical instruments. This process will be the key musical trend – and the new era in music that is being born in front of us – for the coming decades. Earlier, you would hear the term “electronic music” for any music made on the computer. Now, everything is changing. Computers are no longer note calculators for sounds and effects. They are a separate world where totally new musical realms emerge. A special trend – or style – will be the fusion of ethnic instruments and folk music with modern computer technologies. We will add multimedia to this, turning it into a complete show of music and other art forms.

The analog sound of real instruments is sort of coming back, bringing back the music, the sound and the style of the 1970s. Remember that hugely popular “Barbra Streisand” track by Duck Sauce? It was just a song by Boney M put to a primitive dance loop. People just experimented with it, and it grew into a huge success. Partly, this is the reaction to all spheres of life growing ever more computerized, while people want to grasp the simplicity and neatness of the 40-year old sound, and take the best from that interesting period. It’s quite logical, because the young artists who represent this trend are searching for a style of their own. Naturally, they have to experiment with everything before finally finding one.

I don’t listen to music because I want quiet and rest after I compose my music or play eight fashion shows in a row. In fact, music begins with internal harmony and the ability to listen to yourself. That’s why I try to not imitate anyone. Still, I look up to the best piano performers or composers whenever I have to compose a piano piece, or the best violinists when I do a piece for the violin.

I never write lyrics to my tracks. Whenever I work with a vocalist, his or her vocals should be a different instrument with its own emotions, feelings and ideas. The vocalist has to contribute something of his or her own into the piece for it to become live and real. Every instrument has to tell a story of its own. Then, they intertwine into one big story. A composer should be open to the world. Otherwise, he will be the only one who loves and understands his music.

The barrier between composers and listeners is dissolving more and more every year. Earlier, very few people could do music because all of the equipment was expensive and inaccessible. With the appearance of the Internet, everything changed. Now you just need a PC and a few instruments to record beautiful music at home without an expensive studio. And it takes seconds to distribute it around the world. That’s why conventional show business, television and radio are suffering. In Poland, for instance, MTV is mostly watched by people with limited taste in music. Today, everyone has freedom of musical choice. People no longer want their choices dictated by someone else. That’s why the most popular artists today are the ones who proactively share their product with the audience and bring the barriers between themselves and the users to a minimum. 


[1] An adherent of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandery (1909-1959)

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