A Chat With DakhaBrakha – Ukraine’s Biggest Folk Band

My wife and I saw DakhaBrakha perform two years ago in Boston and we had planned to see them again last Fall (the show covid-canceled of course.) I’d describe them as a mix between The Chieftains and the The B52s – only Ukrainian. Totally love them and can’t wait for this damn Covid to end so we can see them again. Below, there’s a wonderful interview with the band’s Marko Halanevych, produced by Oskar Smith for Mouthing Off. Enjoy the read! – The Hobbledehoy

By Oskar Smith

If you haven’t yet delved into the sound of DakhaBrakha, you should. Comprised of Marko Galanevych, Olena Tsybulska, Iryna Kovalenko and Nina Garenetska, they’re a band of trained singers and ad-hoc instrumentalists who started out in 2004 as the musical accompaniment to a small theatre in Kiev and have, over the last sixteen years, toured both domestically and internationally, released five studio albums (six including their collaboration with Port Mone) and adopted styles and instruments from all over the globe, combining them with the traditional sounds and songs of Ukraine in ever more elaborate and ambiguous ways.

Not long after I joined Mouthing Off, we released an article exploring their roots and sound, with an analysis of a few choice bits from their six-album discography – if you want to get to know them a little better it’s not a terrible place to start (especially if you’re on Spotify).

Shortly after, we were contacted by DakhaBrakha’s management, who complimented us on the scope of the article and pointed out a small inaccuracy (hey in fairness, 3299 of the words were accurate). After a brief conversation, they agreed that we could send them a list of questions to be answered by Marko Halanevych. So after a flurry of excited thinking, writing and emailing, this article came about.

The translation has been edited in places for fluency, but mostly left untouched to avoid any kind of misunderstanding or muddied meaning.

What’ve you been up to since your last album?

Marko: We were engaged in quarantine. Some have already become ill with the Coronavirus, some are holding on. We managed to play a few concerts in Ukraine, but the main activity is the time we’ve spent with our families.

When the group got together in 2004, did you have any idea that they would turn into far more than a theatre accompaniment?

Marko: DakhaBrakha was founded in 2004 at the Dakh Theatre in Kyiv.
The founder can be considered the director of the theatre, Vlad Troitsky. Yes, at first we made music for theatre performances. These were musical-visual actions, where everything that sounded from the stage was our music. Later, realising that we had a lot of musical material, we started making our concerts. And this has its buzz. We liked it.

What was it like coming from a traditional singing background and being given instruments to play?

Marko: It was a challenge for the girls. And at first, they resisted. They said it was impossible to sing and to play at the same time. They are real masters of singing – it’s their life’s work – but with the instruments, they had to start from scratch.

One of my favourite DakhaBrakha stories is how the celloʼs unique tuning came about. How has it been working to this alternative tuning? Has it presented any challenges?

Marko: Vlad Troisky bought an old cello at a flea market and offered to use it somehow. Since no one could play it and had no special education, Nina adjusted it to her ear with the notes Mi-Si-Mi-Si, and that’s all. We are satisfied now. Sometimes the cello strings are not stretched as they should be, but we call it our specific charm.

The variation I hear on the story is that the cello was ‘found at an old theatre’. Given the specific naming of Vlad in this version, and the fact that Vlad Troistky is the director of the Dakh Theatre, I imagine that both versions have a grain of truth to them, but this one with more detail – Ed.

What does the label ethno-chaos mean to you?

Marko: Chaos is the basis of the emergence of everything, and “ethno” because the ethnic component is decisive for our music. Different sounds, words, melodies, rhythms, voices, instruments – all these components in the domestic whirlpool of creativity form the basis of our music.

I see more and more people in my country listening to you and knowing who you are. How do you feel about your music, and music from around the world in general, becoming more popular in the UK?

Marko: This knowledge pleases our selfishness. Britain is one of the strongest musical countries, it’s no secret. British music is a sign of quality that we only dream of reaching; There’s tradition, industry, and legendary personalities and bands. The fact that the British audience listens to, perceives and empathizes with our music rejoices us a lot. We are happy that this is so. And it’s so great that we have real fans not only in London but also in Wales and Scotland. By the way, we still only dream of getting there.

To what would you attribute DakhaBrakhaʼs unique sound and success?

Marko: We have unconsciously formed our own instrumental series, with such a sound and such a selection of instruments that have developed over time. They have changed over the past 15 years and are likely to continue to change and change. We are always happy to discover new sounds and musical instruments, and we still know how to be surprised and look forward to discoveries.

Youʼve talked about how you want to spread Ukrainian culture around the world. Was this something you aimed to do from the start, or is it a goal that developed over time?

Marko: When we started in our small theatre with 50 seats, we couldn’t even begin to think that we would have big tours around the world and be able to carry our culture somewhere beyond Kyiv. But the level of ambition grew in proportion to the number of tours.

Would you say youʼve succeeded in this goal and was there any one moment that felt like a turning point?

Marko: No, this goal, at the moment, remains unattainable. We still have a lot of work to do. Until now Ukrainian culture is unknown outside the borders of our country, and even prominent Ukrainian figures who may be familiar to Western recipients have long been appropriated by foreign imperial culture and pretend to be Russian, such as Mykola Gogol or Kazymyr Malevych.

Is there work still to do here?

Marko: Ironically, in the 21st century, our culture, and indeed Ukrainian identity itself, has to fight for the right to exist. To the North of us is a large and rather aggressive neighbour who believes that Ukrainians are Russians and that the Ukrainian language is a “spoiled” Russian. And the inferiority complex that was instilled during the previous 300 years of existence in the Russian Empire left its mark. Ukrainians did not believe in their strength, in their uniqueness and self-worth. They were ashamed of their language and origin. The ice has melted only in recent years, and we hope that we have made an effort too.

In 2014, you said that you felt a new wave of energy come in from the “honourable revolution”. In the intervening years, what changes have you seen and felt?

Marko: And so we did. People felt that they could change something. They are the driving force that determines the direction of development of the country. This is a huge inspiration that has borne its cultural results. Such a wave of exaltation cannot last forever. In a way, the romanticism of those years has faded, but we will feel the momentum of those processes for a long time.

In the initial translation, ‘momentum’ was written as ‘inertia’ – based on the context, I assume momentum is what was meant.

While your first two albums had a theatrical, tribal tone to them and your third had a “pop” feel for home listening, the others are slightly more ambiguous. Was there any deliberate stylistic direction, or a theme (such as the dedication to fallen soldiers behind “The Road”) on Alambari or was it simply a continuation of the music you were making?

Marko: As a rule, most albums are a fixation of what is done in a certain historical context. But “The Road” is the most conceptual and holistic. We are in search of our sound, our music, and we shape our taste depending on what we are influenced by. We hope that we develop like musicians and that we’re open to influences and new impressions.

What music are you enjoying at the moment?

Marko: If we do not take into account the ethnic music of our planet, which interests us always because it is original, unique and real, we can say a few names. So, Einstürzende Neubauten, who have been making very cool music for many years. At one time, the early Philip Glass made a good impression on us. His method was very productive for us. Girls have recently fallen in love with Michael Kiwanuka and his romantic retro style. And when we talk about pop music and superstars, we respect Billie Eilish. She’s talented, and her music is very high quality.

Are there any local artists in particular that youʼre seeing flourish?

Marko: If I understood the question correctly, I will name several Ukrainian bands and musicians and you understand a picture of the modern Ukrainian music scene. It will be a different stylistic and multi-genre immersion, but the slice is quite representative. So, Dakh DaughtersOnukaOy Sound SystemRagapopAlyona AlyonaKalushVagonovozhatyeKrutAlina PashOdyn v Kanoe and also the winner of Eurovision Jamala do not stop to please us.

I’m loving Krut and Odyn v Kanoe in particular

How have you found yourselves affected personally and creatively by the pandemic?

Marko: Well, somewhere like everyone in our world. A year without travelling and touring abroad, not many concerts – it’s time to think, to rethink something, to discover some new opportunities and talents. This is a time for families, children and relatives. Once the planet said stop, we accepted these conditions and did not grieve over it. It is clear that there are not enough concerts and meetings, but the belief that this order of things is not eternal warms the soul. Time will pass and we will miss our relatives again as we’ll be somewhere else in the world.

Given your international sound, have reduced opportunities to travel broad affected your approach to music?

Marko: We released the album in March 2020 during the global lockdown. We didn’t do a tour in support of this album, but thanks to the modern global promotion system, people all over the world were able to meet and listen to our new music. It is clear that concerts are the best way to get to know the listener, it is a special atmosphere, vivid impressions and experiences. We believe that it will be again too. Sooner or later.

Are you exploring any new styles or instruments that we might hear on your next album?

Marko: So we are now working on new material and from time to time we listen to new music and have new impressions. As for the new instruments, there are some doubts, because we already have too many of them. Let’s try make do with what we already have!

Finally, itʼs one thing to read up on a country but quite another to speak to someone on the ground: whatʼs it to live in Ukraine in 2020?

Marko: Most of the country is in a peaceful and calm state. But there is Donbas, where explosions are still raging and bullets are whistling. At this time, you value more the usual things for a modern civilized person – the presence of electricity, water, heat in your home. Opportunities to go to work quietly and for children to go to school. Our country is now on the path to a civilized democracy, to the freedoms that the countries of Western civilization have. But our northern neighbour, Russia, is doing everything to make this path a mistake or a dead end. Therefore, destabilization due to the military factor, due to a powerful propaganda machine and economic levers. Therefore, anxiety and restlessness are present in the life of our country for the 6th year in a row. And, to be honest, all Ukrainian political leaders do not always act justifiably, pragmatically and wisely. But we have already tried to live freely and with dignity. We believe in the best and we make it so. We work, create and build a new country that will welcome guests as soon as the opportunity arises.

Marko, thank you very much for talking to us. Thank you as well to Iryna Gorban for setting up the interview, and thank you to Nina. 

Illustration by Hollie Joiner

Source: A Chat With DakhaBrakha | Ukraine’s Biggest Folk Band | Mouthing Off Magazine

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