The Song of the Dniester Canyon

14 September 2012, 16:21

The Dniester canyon stretches 250 kilometres along the borders of four oblasts and has long been considered one of Ukraine’s most beautiful spots. In a 2008 online poll to determine the best natural wonders of Ukraine, the Dniester canyon ended up in the top seven. The left bank of the canyon is in Ternopil and Khmelnytsk Oblasts, while the right bank is shared by Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast and Bukovyna. 26 canyon villages have hosted archeological research into the ancient Trypillian civilization. Today, regional culture thrives thanks to the local residents and the many talented people who implement projects there aimed at improving Ukrainian society.

In addition to waterfalls, springs with crystal clear water, a mix of fir tree and mixed forests, and eye-catching landscapes, the canyon’s mild climate lures tourists with snowless winters, spring starting earlier than in Transcarpathia, and summers that are never too hot. Before the 1940s, vineyards grew in the shadows of the hills near Khmeleva village. The good quality wine from the local vineyards was delivered to many towns of what was then Poland. Soviet authorities destroyed the vineyards, yet Khmeleva’s cultivation skills survive today. The village has hosted a nursery for rare trees for five years now. The arboretum is part of a large project named after the village where time seems to have stood still, as the locals still plough their soil with horses and flail their crops. The idea is to turn the place into a territory of success where every resident or tourist will treat the land and its resources with respect.

For the past few years, Khmeleva has been a favourite destination for writers, musicians and other artists fascinated by the local landscapes and legends. The locals say that one can often see a pair of lovers who live on two opposite river banks but paddle out to the middle of the river by night to meet. The folk etymology of the name “Dniester” refers to a Slavic tribe that had settled nearby and used marks on the riverbank as a calendar. Once, a flood destroyed them. When asked “Who erased the days?” or “Khto dni ster?” in Ukrainian, they answered “The turbulent river.”

Sashko Polozhynskyi, frontman of the band Tartak, is one of many musicians who support Khmeleva’s development project. He often comes here for inspiration or to support youth camps that take place nearby. In spring 2011, the village inspired an exotic cooperation of Ukrainian and Belarusian artists. The union of musical intellectuals included the Ukrainian ensemble DakhaBrakha and Port Mone, a Minsk-based instrumental trio who arrived to find a Ukrainian wonderland bubbling with spring birdsongs and blossoming trees against a background of red cliffs. Although they barely knew each other, the artists began to jam together and developed their sessions into a programme containing elements of classical minimalism, referencing post-rock sounds, ritual songs of Southern Slavs and Ethiopian jazz. DakhaBrakha’s dramatic songs built around folklore and female vocal polyphony and Port Mone’s ambient melodies drew inspiration from one another and fused into a single programme.

The musical experiment was undoubtedly influenced by the atmosphere of Khmeleva and its nearly 150 permanent residents. They disregard daylight savings time and always speak their unique Pokuttia dialect, using a particular form of verbs and vowels that is different from the language spoken elsewhere in Ukraine. They are also very proud of their 150-year-old church, which took 14 years to build using river stones rolled up the steep hills. The height of its peak is 24 metres—impressive for a village church.

The collaboration by DakhaBrakha and Port Mone won standing ovations and a lot of attention from the press, as well as invitations to the Art Pole festival and several festivals in Belarus and Poland. They recorded their new album, “Khmeleva Project” in a Belarusian studio to be issued in Ukraine.

Traditional songs sung over the Dniester for centuries are still preserved by the Peremitka ensemble, whose singers live in the nearby village of Luka. The group sings carols and ritual songs and can tell tourists that wedding parties used to last three days in Pokuttia. On the fourth day, the bride would put a peremitka, or headscarf, around her head, symbolizing her transformation from a girl into a married woman. The singers still have their headscarves and wear them on stage. They showcased some of their traditions at the 2011 Art Pole festival that has taken place in the nearby village of Unizh for the past two years.

In July 2011, the Art Pole festival offered plenty of singing, luring young people to create a living community based around folk traditions and ethnic music surrounded by nature. This year’s performers included popular bands such as Burdon from Lviv, Perkalaba and Korali from Ivano-Frankivsk, Mitch & Mitch from Poland, Czech wind project Deši, and Transglobal Underground, world music stars from Great Britain.

Getting to Unizh may be a challenge because the surrounding roads are terrible. Yet, the lack of good roads has helped this lost world to preserve its natural beauty. Locals also often tell visitors of the man-made wonders of the region—cave churches and ancient monasteries dug into the canyon walls. One of them, a grotto called the Monks’ Cliff, is located near the village of Lytiachi at the river’s left bank. A traveler looking for the grotto or just wandering around the captivating twists and turns of the Dniester is sure to find a song of his own. 

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