Telnyuk Sisters have been performing in Ukraine and internationally for over two decades now. They work with the poetry of Taras Shevchenko, Vasyl Stus and Vasyl Symonenko, all prominent Ukrainian poets, and write their own lyrics. When the 2013-2014 revolution was in full swing, their partner and writer Oksana Zabuzhko initiated a book with posts of different people about the Maidan on social media. Titled The Chronicles of Eye-Witnesses. Nine Months of Ukrainian Resistance, the collection features live reactions and unretouched texts. It was then reincarnated on stage with music by Telnyuk sisters where they mixedsongs andShevchenko’s poems, a choir and an orchestra of the Ukrainian Radio, and posts by social mediausers read by actors. The Path to Freedom project has been presented in Canada, France, Poland and Ukraine last year. This year, themusicians and artists have gathered again for the fifth anniversary of what took place at Hrushevsky Street to commemorate thefallenand toshow how art can heal without pathos or pompousness.
How did you come up with the idea of The Path to Freedom?
Halya: It grew like a baby, gradually. It didn’t start as something mature, grand and thought-through. In fact, The Chronicles of Eye-Witnesses. Nine Months of Ukrainian Resistance appeared as an initiative of Oksana Zabuzhko. In parallel, Lesya was working on music forTaras Shevchenko’s poems as lyrics. All this was in harmonywith what Ukraine was going through. We first tried to do thisjoint project when we toured to the ATO zone with Oksana Zabuzhko. Lesya and I played the piano while Oksana presented the book and read posts from it. That grew into a large composition and we went to Canada where project director Oleh Repetsky compiled it into a great story. We engaged actors Hryhoriy Hladiy and Nazar Stryhun, musician Viktor Morozov and Crimean Tatar violinist Eskender Bekmambetov. By the way, Eskender joined our project after he heard Lesya’s songs. He brought together the orchestra and composed his pieces. Two choirs from Toronto and Ukrainian Literature and Art Canda – LATCA joined us. Established by Ukrainian artists, LATCA took care of the organization. The artists created an exhibition for our project. It was a great performance!
Of course, the project cannot exist constantly as it is because it was created by many people from different countries. Some came from Ukraine, some from the US, and some from parts of Canada. The performance lasted three hours. It was the first time we revealedour work to the Canadian audience.
Lesya:The artists painted images onthe Revolution of Dignity.
Halya:So many differentpeople came up to us after the performance, from the audience to the stage light technicians. They were crying and saying “We’re sorry we didn’t know so deeply how it happened in Ukraine”. Our project focused on theCanadian audience, so the lyrics were done in English, Ukrainian with subtitles and French. Then the program expanded and became a performance of its own. We presented it in Ukraine.
Lesya:It played in Lviv, Kyiv and Kharkiv last year.
Halya:In 2018, we also presented The Path to Freedom in Paris and at the Council of Europe. Ukrainian Cultural Foundation later supported our performance in Strasbourg and Poznan. The project turned into a serious step of cultural diplomacy, revealing the truth about what Ukraine had experienced.
As Sviatlana Aleksievich wrote in the introduction to The Chronicles of Eye-Witnesses, it was a “lost story of human feelings”. It’s these human feelings that make history and us, and they can be lost in the flow of news on TV and social media. The Path to Freedom portrays human feelingsasthe most important thing.
How did your personal memory of the Maidan change? You had to plunge into your experiences over and over again in order to share them with the audience, didn’t you?
Lesya: I think this process is very interesting: it feels like comparing and testing yourself over and over again about what you have done, what you have become and what has changed in you. Have you lived up to the memory of the people who gave up their lives? I think of it as a test of resilience, truthfulness and integrity of one’s heart and mind, for every person. Have you not frozen yet inside, are you still alive?
Halya:In my view, this cleanses you of the daily problems and depression. When you walk on stage with this project, you really feel pure, childlike, beautiful and courageous. When we are young, we are ready to give our life because we think that we still have a lot of it and nobody can take it from us. You find courage in yourself when you hear the voices of living people – their posts have no trace of doubt, despair, dirt or something meagre. In our daily life, we often wiggle in trash and leftovers of food and essence. Our project reveals the core of your essence, a realization of why you have come to this world. There is nothing show-off, pompous, official or political about it. It reflects the highest brand of human purity and essence. The voice of Shevchenko is, too, the highest brand of childlike human purity.
Why did Shevchenko become so contemporary during the Revolution of Dignity, in your opinion? His poetry matches modern-day posts of the protesters so well in your project. Yet, for many kids in schools, he is just “someone to study in the curriculum”. What should we do about it?
Halya: School is an artificial institution. Whatever happens in collective studying is always artificial. That’s why we can’t trust it when it comes to high sacred things. In fact, any word, including the word of the Bible, can be diluted in a school textbook, turning Jesus from the Son of God into a historical figure. Just like that, Shevchenko can also be turned into merely a poet banned in the past. It all depends on how the person works on him or herself. Whoever blindly trusts the textbook is not yet mature, they need time.
It’s a feat of sorts to define yourself as a human being that doesn’t just have a physical body, but a soul too. It’s the soul that embraces the words of prophet people who spoke to the entire nation.
Lesya: With Shevchenko, enlightenment hits you at some point and that’s when you star the aring the words you neve rnoticed before. It’s like finally hearing a foreign language you didn’t speak before. I think that the events happening today are discovering Shevchenko’s words with a new force.
The Path to Freedom features lyrics by people who have passed away. How did that feel?
Lesya:For us, these people are present when we sing their poems and work with their texts. That’s the mystery of art: human soul revives every time another soul touches it.
Halya: We will all meet at one place anyway where all souls will be together and will perfectly understand each other. The difference between earth and heaven, and our constant earthly struggle overshadow perceptions and senses. Poetry and music are like a bridge where the souls of those who passed away speak to you personally. In fact, Vasyl Stus has spoken to you personally, and so has Taras Shevchenko. They speak to you as if you were part of their family.
Lesya: We have this interesting joint creative process with the Ukrainian Radio’s orchestra conducted by Volodymyr Sheiko, its choir conducted by Yulia Tkach, the live texts and us.In fact, it was five years ago that we first sang Shevchenko’s All My Hope at the Recording House with this orchestra. It is such a miraculous coincidence that the piece has grown into a great path of freedom for each of us over these five years. But that path continues, it is not yet completed.
How do the military react to Shevchenko and this program?
Lesya: We have seen men crying to these songs. It’s worth more than a thousand words.
Halya: We spoke to some people on the phone and they were gone several months later. We know men who went to battle with our songs and they are no longer alive. Their families were writing to us. These are tragic moments. I believe that they are listening to us from heaven. Many in the military realize after this program that their sacrifice is not in vain, that their heroism and courage are necessary. These words protect them.
Lesya: I remember a mother calling us at a radio interview – her son died on the frontline. She said that our songs still help her.
Halya:These are not just stories, not just a background for coffee drinking. We are responsible for what we give people, for every word. “Good words bring good rewards” people say. We experience this in our life. We try to overcome personal moods and depressions in order to live on and live up to these words. When you go on stage, you have to be pure. You can’t come with bad thoughts and sing David’s psalms. It makes sense to at least pray in the morning before you perform in front of the people because these are sacred things, not show business.
What were the lessons you learned after the Maidan? Some people in Ukraine are disappointed and tired. What do you think of that?
Lesya:The Revolution of Dignity continues every day for me. It’s a test for every person: will you be strong enough to avoid despair? I think that it’s extremely important to be able to accumulate good in yourself and see positive things, develop positive reactions.
Halya:I think that the notion of the Revolution of Dignity was misinterpreted by many people. It wasn’t a drinking party followed by a hangover. What happened in Ukraine in 2013-2014 was giving birth to Ukraine. Now, we have to take care of it and bring it up. It can’t just put on a white suit and go govern us, making everyone happy. The people who were on the Maidan do perceive those events like that. The disappointed are not those who came to the Maidan and faced the bullets, nor those who made Molotov cocktails. It’s those who were sitting on the couch and want quick change now. We are a country with a new post-totalitarian mindset now. Our soviet skin has finally fallen off and we see ourselves as an independent country.
Lesya: I’d like to say that many things wouldn’t have happened without the Revolution of Dignity. These include the tomos (autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Ed.), visa-free travel to the EU etc. Changes are happening gradually, and we should pay attention to them. It won’t be easy, but we should always see light at the end of the tunnel.
Interviewed by Kateryna Hladka
Telnyuk Sisters are a duo of singers and songwriters. They started performing in 1986. Their repertoire includes songs with lyrics by Taras Shevchenko, Vasyl Stus, Pavlo Tychyna, Bohdan-Ihor Antonych.
They sing and compose experimental music, including art rock, folk jazz, romance, blues and ballads. In 1997, they recorded Love in Vain with ex-Rolling Stones’ Mick Taylor. That blues was performed in Ukrainian with an original section of bandura.
Telnyuk Sisters have taken part in many art projects, including Antonych Fest, Stus’ Circle and more. They have recorded 19 albums.
Translated by Anna Korbut