Gaining a New Appreciation for Ukrainian Music Scene
The once thriving and multifaceted Ukrainian music scene has of course been severely affected (much like every other aspect of life in the country) by Russia’s brutal invasion. Given the devastation and repercussions of this thoughtless war, we need to support the Ukrainian musical community in any way we can. In order to foster a better understanding of the diverse and creative output of Ukrainian musicians over the decades, we’ve put together a selection of tracks and albums that highlights some key figures and lesser-known artists from a variety of musical genres and scenes. This introduction is meant to spark interest and solidarity with the musicians of Ukraine, to encourage listeners to rally around them and support their important creative work during this difficult time. It also highlights the legacy of the country’s incredibly varied and vibrant musical culture, a culture that we must help to preserve throughout this ongoing crisis.
Kyiv based Nova Guardia is a modular synthesist whose self-proclaimed “music for nobody” features undulating organic textures and the buzzing clips and chirps of untamed circuitry. His latest album, Absence/Presense, was recorded live onto tape in the summer 2021 and was made exclusively with modular synthesizers.
DZ’OB is “all over the place” in the best sense of the phrase, bringing together classical musicians and tradition with a wide swath of genres from electronic music and forging bridges between. Ping ponging between acoustic-electronic versions of IDM, techno, and dubstep, the group exhibits the high levels of musicality with a mix of playfulness and ingenuity.
Anastrophe is Azzuz’s first solo album to be released on the Ukrainian multidisciplinary label Standard Deviation, a newly formed platform, working on the intersection of music, art, and publishing. While she draws from electronic club sounds, Azzuz’s arrangements dismember and disfigure them into something completely new – disorienting the listener, subverting expectations, and building a sonic world that is truly her own.
Vezha Khmar is a Ukrainian dark folk band that incorporates ritual and lofi aesthetics into their sound. Recorded in 1998, Plach features plodding vocal melodies against a backdrop of skittering tape delays and melancholic guitar arpeggios. It’s clear to see connections between both the Ethno-Gothic genre and another common trend within the Ukrainian music scene as whole: the innovative embrace of folk elements creatively re-contextualized.
DakhaBrakha is arguably one of the most famous groups to come out of Ukraine in the past decade. Since their inception they have integrated a variety of influences from local elements of folk culture (both visual and musical) and blended them into their enticing and unique songs – DakhaBrakha has the unique ability to pay respect to these forms in a way that elevates them out of history and into the present and future. While their celebration of local culture rings out in every note they play, their compositions never serve as simple homage or as covers of Carpathian folk songs, but instead embrace disparate musical elements that come together in exquisite combinations.
Cukor Bila Smert
Cukor Bila Smert (Sugar – White Death) was founded by Svetlana Nianio and active in the late 80s and early 90s in Kiev. Considered one of the primary foundations for a Ukrainian musical movement known as Ethno-Gothic, Cukor Bila Smert incorporated the high range and eerie vocals of Nianio, who often sang using lyrics formed from gibberish phrases. The album served a distinct and effective delivery for the language of a new musical genre as it was being born into the Ukrainian underground scene.
Svetlana Nianio has had a long musical career, which only started with Cukor Bila Smert. After the band broke up in 1993, she went on to do a variety of musical projects, many of them incorporating influences from her background in religious and traditional music and drawing from her experiences at the Kyiv Music Conservatory. On her album Kytytsi, Nianio showcases her vocal prowess and flexibility, sung over shifting background of acoustic accordions, Wurlitzer pianos, and other forms of unexpected instrumentation.
Petra Pashkova Band
Petro Pashkov’s ground breaking 1991 album It’s Not Heavy Metal Rock is full of pleasant surprises for every listener. Pashkov’s ensemble meticulously weaves through smooth jazz, prog, and rock textures, seamlessly blending synthesized and acoustic sounds with solid grooves. It’s impossible to predict what’s around the next corner: a classic guitar punctuated by 80’s synthesizer panpipes, sweeping fret-less baselines that drift into the jangling bells and whistles of a far off marching band, drum machines and live drummers quickly alternating between reverb-saturated rhythmic shifts. And somehow this variety is always welcomed, never coming at a cost to the composition themselves but instead enhancing them in the best ways possible.
The bandura is a visually striking cross between a zither and lute, with anywhere between 31 to 68 strings. Its large round frame and dense lines of strings make it is one of the most iconic Ukrainian folk instruments, as does its musical history: it was once exclusively played by blind musicians known as Kobzars. The Ukrainian-American Julian Kytasty is carrying on the tradition of his father and grandfather as a bandura player (a present day Kobzar). On Black Sea Winds, Kytasty channels the former subject matters and themes of traditional Kobzar songs and introduces them to a modern context.
Valentina Goncharova’s sonic experiments represent some of the most daring and diverse recordings made in the late Soviet period. Born in Kyiv in 1953, Goncharova studied classical music until hearing a free jazz concert in the 1970s that completely changed her musical path. She began experimenting with DIY recording and contact mics, recording everyday household objects. Her works are certainly impressive for their scope and experimentation for the time, but if one listens now to the series of concerts she self-recorded in Tallinn, Riga, Helsinki, and Moscow during the late 80s, they sound as if they could have been recorded by an experimental musical artist last week – still exciting, still relevant, and still incredibly personal.
Please consider donating to one of the organizations listed in the link below and/or purchase albums from Ukrainian musicians.