Olesya Chayka and Oleh But

Ukraine’s Musical Front

As Western orchestras, choirs, chamber groups and soloists scramble to find music by Ukrainian composers, and record renditions of the Ukrainian anthem, what is happening to the musicians who must live through this nightmare firsthand?

Written By

Anna Pidgorna

What happens to music and its makers amidst the terrors of war? Does art become more profound or utterly irrelevant to the survival of the moment? Can one keep making music under such stress? As Western orchestras, choirs, chamber groups and soloists scramble to find music by Ukrainian composers, and record renditions of the Ukrainian anthem, what is happening to the musicians who must live through this nightmare firsthand?

Life as I knew it ended on the night of February 23, 2022. My parents, my sister, and I had just sat down to celebrate some good news. We were happily raising our wine-filled glasses when my mom’s phone rang. It was her brother calling from Slovenia, at 5 am his time, voice cracking, “Zhenya, it started. They are bombing Kyiv. They are bombing every city.” His wife back in Kyiv was hearing explosions. I had never heard him cry before. Slavic men rarely cry. Still holding our wine glasses, we began frantically calling our loved ones. I can never erase from my memory the nightmare conversation with my cousin back in Kherson, a small city in southern Ukraine which is now famous all over the world because its civilian population rose up against the Russian occupying forces. Sobbing, she asked me to take care of her 18-year-old son, who is studying in Slovakia. This is not a request I ever want to hear again.

This is the unique horror of witnessing an invasion of your homeland from afar in this modern age of connectivity. By the time a piece of news hits the newspapers, we have already heard it from our relatives and friends, or through the various Viber and Telegram channels which post a constant stream of updates from all over Ukraine. I spent the first several days endlessly scrolling through them looking for mentions of the neighborhoods where my loved ones live. Air raid siren in Kyiv. Residential building hit in Brovary. Video of a stolen tank being pulled by an old tractor, the tank driver running after it. Fierce fighting for control over a major bridge to Kherson. Pictures of burned out buildings in Kharkiv. Video of civilians throwing Bandera Smoothies (formerly known as Molotov Cocktails) at a tank from the windows of a speeding car, hair almost catching on fire. Explosions. Explosions. Explosions. You are completely informed every minute of every day and utterly powerless.

This nightmare is of course nothing compared to what Ukrainians are living through back there, in Ukraine. We cheer on the Ukrainian soldiers who appear to be superhuman as they wipe out entire columns of Russian troops. We laugh in amazement at the extraordinary creativity and bravery of ordinary people who are disabling military equipment by the most ingenious means. But casualties are mounting and the destruction is catastrophic. I have never been more proud to be Ukrainian. I have never been in this much pain. It makes my muscles spasm and glues my kidneys to my ribcage. I am mostly running on adrenaline, trying to frantically do whatever I can to help from afar. There’s not much time for crying, but sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the question, “How is this our life right now?” I take a jar of soup from the fridge and after staring at it for a while, I think: “I made this before the war.”

Taras Kompanichenko in a Ukrainian military uniform with a bandura.

Here’s a photo of Taras Kompanichenko in the uniform of the territorial defense, the volunteer forces of largely ordinary people helping to protect the cities and towns of Ukraine. Taras, who is holding a kobza (a lute-like instrument that is probably the most recognizable symbol of Ukrainian culture), is officially enlisted as a musician offering psychological aid and morale boosting for the troops. He’s one of the men you see performing in the cellar in the photos below. Taras, a multi-instrumentalista National Artist of Ukraine.

Iryna Danyleiko is a folk singer and ethnomusicologist who works for the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv and the Kyiv Laboratory of Ethnomusicology. She is also a cofounder of ЕГЕ Films, a grassroots effort to document and preserve Ukrainian rural culture. I met her in 2012 during a trip funded by the Canada Council for the Arts to reconnect with my Ukrainian roots. She took me on expeditions to villages in the regions surrounding Chernihiv, where we recorded elderly women, the last carriers of the oral singing tradition. The city itself has been bombed. There’s fighting all over that region now. I hope these women, some of whom have lived through WWII, are okay.

In addition to her extensive field work in the Chernihivshchina region, Iryna has also traveled through the areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power station, which is currently under the control of utterly insane Russian troops. Iryna and I were only a year old when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in 1986. I suffered some health consequences during the following year. The implications of Russia’s control over the still active remains is terrifying for the whole world. What kind of evil, what kind of stupidity shoots at a nuclear power station? Ukraine has multiple stations like this, including the largest one in Europe, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, all of which are being targeted. Do those watching from afar even realize what this means?

Iryna and her singing partner Halyna Honcharenko, a doctor who is continuing to work in a hospital in Kyiv, recorded this folksong in a Chernobyl forest a few years ago. Iryna’s Facebook post from March 4, 2022 reads, “I will always remember the Chernobyl silence. The silence, which inhabited this place and enveloped it over the last 35 years, has lulled and preserved everything that surrounds it. Absolute peace. Today it’s been 9 days since this silence has been shattered. Suddenly, brutally, horrendously, foully. We will never forget. We will never forgive.”

Two women are facing each other in the middle of a forest in this still from a video posted on Iryna Danylejko's Facebook wall
The video is posted in a public Facebook post.

Iryna was among the millions of Kyiv residents who woke up to the sounds of explosions on the morning of what for them was February 24. The next day, she grabbed her three children and fled to her parents’ home in Chernivtsi, a beautiful city close to the Romanian border. A few days ago, I received a chilling voice message from her. For more than four minutes, all I could hear was the wail of an air raid siren, the relentless ringing of a bell, dogs barking, her breathing. We exchanged the following messages:

Iryna: …this is even beautiful…the first time I’m hearing it. I’m hiding my children.

Me: I love you all. Hang tight.

(a little later)

Me: I heard something similar in a small town in Kansas where every Monday they test their tornado siren.

Iryna: Good for them! Ours just got fixed 🙂 🙂

Me: Glad no one fixed the roads in the villages. Now [Russian] equipment gets stuck on them.

Iryna: Oh…our poor Chernihivshchina…I will try calling the ladies tomorrow…no more expeditions…

Even amidst this extreme tension, her musician’s soul was able to appreciate the sonic beauty of this terrifying sound. Her Ukrainian mentality noted the humor of my comparison to the American town. Her ethnomusicologist’s habits made her reach for her recorder. She’s doing a different kind of field work now. She’s documenting a different legacy. When I reached out to her asking if the last 11 days have changed her relationship to music, she sent me another recording of the air raid siren, her voice now marking the date and location: March 7, 2022, Chernivtsi.

Two musicians performing on traditional Ukrainian instruments near shelves of preserves.

Taras Kompanichenko and Oleh But singing and playing bandura and fiddle while sheltering in a cellar bunker located in a house outside Kyiv during an air raid. You can see the stereotypical Ukrainian homemade preserves behind them. People are always prepared!

Meanwhile in Kyiv, the Ukrainian-American musician and instrument maker Jurij Fedynskyj is performing with a group of musicians in the metro, at railway stations and in bomb shelters to raise the spirits of local civilians and fighters. Jurij’s family emigrated from Ukraine to the United States several generations ago. In his early twenties he felt moved to return to his ancestral homeland, to relearn the language, and to dedicate his life to the restoration of the kobzar tradition, which was deliberately destroyed by the Soviet government. Originating in the 16th century as a form of resistance to Russian imperial expansion, kobzars were itinerant musicians, often blind, who accompanied their singing with bandura, kobza, or lira. The repertoire is often spiritual, historical, or political in nature, reminiscent of some genres of the troubadour tradition in medieval France. The words to the song “A cloud rises,” which Jurij recorded in late 2019, are eerily fitting for this moment, speaking to hundreds of years of Ukraine’s fight against imperial control and oppression.

A cloud rises over the estuary,
Another from the field.
Ukraine has sunk in sorrow,
Such is its fate.

Sunk in sorrow, weeping,
Like a little child,
No one is coming to rescue her.
The cossacks are dying.

Since his arrival in Ukraine, Jurij has been preparing for this invasion. Given Russia’s current and historical stance towards Ukraine, he saw it as inevitable. Russian propaganda has been relentlessly preparing Russia’s population to accept this atrocity. Jurij and his wife settled in Kryachkivka, a village in the Poltava region, famous for its traditional singing. There they set up a workshop dedicated to rebuilding traditional instruments, scouring museums and archives for drawings and examples of instruments which had largely ceased to exist, while planting vegetables on their plot of land. Every summer, enthusiasts from all over the world gather at the Kobzarskiy Tabir-Kryachkivka (Kobzar Camp) to make instruments and share music. Year after year, I keep meaning to go. I hope there’s still somewhere to go when this is all over. Jurij formally invited me when we talked several days ago.

Jurij managed to send his wife and four children to the U.S. just days before the invasion began, but decided to stay behind to defend his homeland with music. He is with a group of musicians who perform both traditional and contemporary repertoire, creating new, living developments of this 500-year-old practice. Jurij could have ran to the safety of his birthplace, but he chose to stay in his spiritual homeland in order to continue his work. When I spoke to him several days ago, he was filled with optimism and spiritual fervor. Yes, he said, the first couple of days were terrifying and some moments of active shelling are still scary, but once he realized that he is exactly where he needs to be, doing what he needs to do, his fear vanished. “Anna, we feel amazing!” He is convinced that he is guided by God. Every day his group drives to Kyiv from their rented house in a town on the outskirts. They have a mission, in the Biblical sense. They believe that Ukraine will prevail.

A little over 300 km (208 miles) west of Kyiv in the small city of Rivne lives another modern-day kobzar or lirnyk, Andriy Lyashuk. Andriy primarily plays the lira, the Ukrainian version of the hurdy-gurdy, a stringed instrument bowed with a rosined wheel operated by a crank. In addition to several drone strings, the instrument has one or more melody strings operated by a basic wooden keyboard. Most Ukrainian examples are diatonic.

A song that Andriy recorded in 2020 also has an unsettling resonance in the current invasion. This version of the traditional spiritual song “How St. Georgiy defeated the snake” was recorded in the village Krupove in the region surrounding Rivne. It details the legend of St. Georgiy who defeated a giant man-eating snake that lived in the sea. On the first day of the invasion, a small island in the Black Sea, Zmiinyi or Snake Island, became famous the world over after the 13 border guards stationed there refused to surrender to a Russian warship, telling it to “f*ck off.” This final phrase, “Russian warship, f*ck off,” has become the rallying cry for Ukrainians all over the world.

Andriy’s wife Natalka managed to flee to Warsaw, Poland with their one-year-old son Bohuslav. “The Poles are holy people doing more for them than we could have imagined,” wrote Andriy in a text message to me. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are forbidden from leaving the country according to martial law imposed hours after the invasion began. So Andriy has stayed behind to do what he can for his homeland. He owns a print shop, which normally prints advertising banners and posters. Now he’s printing humorous and motivational posters, banners, and stickers aimed at boosting Ukrainian morale and depressing the Russian occupying forces. The Ukrainian government has issued an official call encouraging businesses to replace their regular advertising with banners telling the Russian troops where to go, usually back to Russia in not very polite terms.

A series of stickers with illustrations and commentary in Ukrainian.

Stickers that Andriy Lyashuk is currently printing. Some translations, clockwise from top left:
1. “Love is…when the Russian tanks burn”
2. “What to do when a Russian occupant wants to surrender” (legitimate information)
3. “Ukrainian Armed Forces, hang in there! I still have to marry one of you.”

In the evenings, Andriy picks up his instrument. Like Jurij, he believes that music can be a weapon against the occupiers, acting as Ukraine’s moral-psychological front. “Many musicians have joined the ranks of the territorial defense and various volunteer organizations. In addition to that, they are using music as a powerful motivational tool, which unites us and gives us strength.” Videographers from Kyiv are currently turning one of the songs Andriy performs into a video to add to a collection of Ukraine’s heroic tradition. “Music is our front, our resistance, our future victory.” Slava Ukraini. Heroyam Slava.

If you want to offer financial support directly to Ukrainian musicians, or simply to make connections with musicians working in your sphere, please contact Anna Pidgorna at annapidgo@gmail.com or reach out over Facebook. Anna and her friends are currently sending money through direct transfer to Ukrainian musicians in need. Her network is mostly focused on artists working in folk, contemporary classical, and experimental electronic music.

Zori Ameliko sitting on a street in Kyiv playing a kobza.

Zori Ameliko playing a bandura on a street in Kyiv on March 4, 2022