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16 September, 2013  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Harmonizing Ethno Chaos

DakhaBrakha’s lead singer Marko Halanevych talks about music tastes in Ukraine and post-modernist folklore

DakhaBrakha is the brightest, most avant-garde and original world music band in Ukraine. Started at the Dakh (Roof) theatre in 2004, it has since gained popularity worldwide. Over the past few years, the band has performed at most top world music festivals in Europe and beyond. Sadly, as is often the case, DakhaBrakha is little known in Ukraine. Most Ukrainians have not even heard of the band, since it does not fit into the miserable standards of domestic show business. In a brief break between the upcoming GogolFest, a contemporary art festival that will take place this weekend in Kyiv, and their tours, Marko Halanevych finds time to talk to The Ukrainian Week.

DakhaBrakha started out as a theatre project. Vlad Troitsky (Dakh founder and art director – Ed.) wanted to experiment with Ukrainian folklore, so launched a cycle of relevant plays for which he needed a musical accompaniment. What astonished him too was that communication between Ukrainian artists from different “workshops” was almost non-existent. So he launched what can be considered art parties at Dakh. People started to come and that’s how I met the girls. They were then singing in a band called Kralytsia. They were professionally trained in folklore and had been singing since early childhood. By that time, they already had a great repertoire.

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As theatre people, we care a lot about our style. We realized from the very beginning that we can’t perform in national costumes because, after all, we don’t play authentic folk music. We described our style as ethno chaos and realized that it flowed with the global river of world music. So we needed costumes to match. Look at our hats. They’ve become a unique element of our appearance. The idea to wear them came from our actress, Tetiana Vasylenko. We spent a lot of time searching other cultures for similar women’s hats – none did. There is something similar in Bulgaria, but they are men’s hats and only worn on certain holidays.

We don’t really invest in promotion. We may seem naïve but we believe that success and fame should come by themselves. We don’t see any sense in imposing ourselves on people from every billboard in town. We promote ourselves with what we do – music. We spent the past six months touring Europe and Canada. After our concert at GogolFest we are going on a month-long tour in the US. This is largely thanks to our participation in the huge WOMAX presentation fest last year, which took place in Greece. Any world music band can apply but the selection process is very tough. This music forum is oriented at promoters and producers rather than the average audience. That’s where they look at new bands and performers. Otherwise, you have to be a pop artist with someone investing tons of money into your promotion, although even this no longer guarantees success. Pop music is the same all over the world – you make music that fits the format, invest and earn it back. Ethnic music, on the other hand, is always unique and original to every nation.

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We try to experience all our songs along with the audience. Of course, we want people to have fun at our concerts so we end them with quick and energizing tunes. But, we always play slow, dramatic and atmospheric pieces as well, including those composed for the theatre. We don’t play to impress people with our technique because we don’t think of ourselves as virtuoso musicians, and music is not a sport. Instead, we want our sounds to create certain visual images in people’s minds, and emotional experiences. Our main aim here is to open up to people, and encourage them to open up to us so that we part as friends at the end of the concert.

We’re more likely to perform at a City Day in Stockholm than in an average Ukrainian town. Ukraine’s show business has a very strict format: everything is paid for and kept for insiders. Since DakhaBrakha is not shown on TV, it does not exist for most people here. The Internet obviously creates an important alternative media platform, but television is still dominant in shaping the preferences of the Ukrainian mass audience. This year, young locals at Ethnosur, a huge Spanish world music festival, sang our songs along with us. I think they found our lyrics online.

Most Ukrainians have very poor taste in music. This is the result of our historical turmoil, of course. DakhaBrakha is primarily based on Ukrainian folklore, even if this is not that obvious or simple in our interpretation. Unfortunately, most people need something simpler. I remember playing at MED, a festival in Loulé, Portugal. We were happy to play there because we knew a lot of Ukrainians would come (Ukrainians make up one of the biggest migrant communities in Portugal – Ed.) and we would love to play for them. Indeed, they sat in the first three rows. When we started playing, we realized that they didn’t understand our music at all. The climax came when a guy with a huge moustache yelled out, “Play kalinka-malinka!” “Are you really from Ukraine?” I shouted back. But this example clearly shows that even abroad, our people still relate to the simulacra imposed on them through decades of propaganda. They are not yet ready to accept something new.

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Ukraine desparately needs variety in all spheres. We have to rethink and modernize our folk culture. In fact, as a post-modernist band DakhaBrakha is trying to give new life to our grandmas’ songs. Authentic folklore is closely tied to specific actions or holiday seasons, such as harvest, Christmas, or Kupala Night. As authentic rituals disappear, the songs disappear as well and a whole layer of culture dies out. Even if you get a grandma on stage, everything in her will tense up and you still won’t hear live authentic music.

Ukrainian culture is much more natural when it is created in the Ukrainian language. Russian-language Ukrainian culture will always remain on the periphery, especially when it comes to literature. That’s why I don’t really believe some of our Russian-speaking writers, who claim that it makes no difference what language you write in and that they have a better feel for Russian, but that it doesn’t make them any less Ukrainian. What will the world consider them to be? Of course, one can feel like a citizen of the world, of the planet – as does Kira Muratove (Ukrainian film director – Ed.). In fact, we are all the citizens of this planet. But for DakhaBrakha, it is of the utmost importance to remain Ukrainian because we want our music to lift the spirit and boost the confidence of our people.

The European audience is much more open. People come to festivals and concerts with a positive attitude wanting to enjoy music and communication. By contrast, Ukrainians can only let themselves go when they are drunk. We have so many insecurities, no faith in ourselves and are willing to listen to anything that comes from Moscow or America just because it’s foreign. This is a broader social problem, not limited to music alone. Unfortunately, we lived as slaves for a very long time, so can’t immediately be free. Currently, at best, we are at the level of freed slaves. It takes generations and the right focus of development to change this.

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Some say that world music is becoming less popular; that the peak of its popularity was in the 1990s and that it is now hard to surprise Europeans. They have seen everything from Australian aboriginals to the Indians of Tierra del Fuego. But you have to book a camping spot at Rudolfstadt, one of the biggest folk music festivals in Germany, three years in advance, or you’ll end up staying 30 km away. Despite the overall economic recession, the European festival movement is thriving.

DakhaBrakha wants to live and work in Ukraine. This may sound pompous (sincere words are always pompous), but this is our land, where our families live. This is where all the mental and spiritual power, which helps us create our music, is found. I’ve never seen really happy immigrants. They may have money and socialize well but I still think that people work most effectively in their homeland. Whenever possible, people have to take every effort to make life better for themselves and their children here in Ukraine.

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