A Look at Contemporary Ukrainian Music Photo: Oleksii Karpovych

A Look at Contemporary Ukrainian Music

November 20, 202013-15 minutes read

Written by:

Ivan Shelekhov

Edited by:

Dragoș Rusu

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What is contemporary Ukrainian music? Is there a vibrant scene? What would a foreigner be interested in? What do we ourselves love? Is there a real distinction? Sometimes it seems that everyone has their own vision.

My goal is not to provide any tangible answers to such an uneasy topic or to draw a complete picture, but rather to emphasize what is visible and influential, and to make space for the underappreciated, the marginal, the hauntingly beautiful.

An outsider perspective

The word “outsider” will have here two different meanings. An outsider seen as a foreigner who has his perceptions of what is happening within his nation’s culture, or even a desired image of that type of person –I’ll try to name musical tendencies known of us from the outside; and also an outsider seen as a strange visionary who doesn’t fit in any category. I feel that the latter definition is as highly important as the mainstream narrative itself.

One of the reasons for using this metaphor was also the name of an Ukrainian self-released music magazine from the 2000s. In my teenage years, I found The Outsider as a kind of entry to The Wire and The Quietus style of writing. It lasted for half a decade, published less than ten issues and was limited to 50 copies per each. Some of the authors became musicians themselves and eventually stopped writing.

I assume that the outsider position is natural to many interesting and original musicians. Kyiv-based and critically acclaimed electronic composer Oleg Shpudeiko aka Heinali believes in theory, according to which today we have musical practices rather than music itself, meaning that different communities and individuals operate within their own frameworks. The artist also claims that he lacks like-minded people within the local music community, still after more than a decade and a half career span.

When talking of outsiders, one can definitely call the names from the 90s Ukrainian Underground. To be an outsider often means that your data is outdated. So finally, the outsider perspective is something we all were offered with the pandemic and lockdown without any voluntary effort of ours.

Foreigner as an outsider

CXEMA. Photo: Vic Bakin
CXEMA. Photo: Vic Bakin
Ukraine, the largest country by area situated exclusively in Europe, has a vast history with a heavy emphasis on colonialism, communism, and traumas in recent times. For the last seven years, events such as The Maidan and the Russo-Ukrainian war have put the country back on the international headlines. Besides these major topics, there were also sports, singing contests, elections, industry, or tech.

Ukraine as a state has officially declared its course towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration, which is now secured in the Constitution.

Ukrainian language is counted as a strong part of national identity and is the only official language of the state. Although Russian is also widely spoken within the nation.

What have been the most talked out tendencies of Ukrainian music abroad in recent years? There are success stories of artists gaining credentials in the pop segment to some extent. You may google The Hardkiss, KAZKA, or alyona alyona. Symbolically important was Ukrainian victory at Eurovision song contest in 2016 of a singer Jamala, who's performance emphasized the tragic events of the Crimean Tatar deportation in the light of the new historical reality, the peninsula's occupation. The metal scene was always vibrant here, with names such as Stoned Jesus being widely known. The post-rock community was also visible in the past two decades. There is even an extreme case of genre-based nature, namely black metal.

There are various blends of pop, rock and hip-hop targeted mostly at the local market, or the subcultural ones in some cases. For long has been here jazz music. Since 2016 there's been a Law on Quotas, which regulates the usage of the Ukrainian language by broadcasting companies, therefore influencing the rise of new music in Ukrainian. But the tendency with genre-codified pop music sung in English is still being discussed. Although we have examples of rock artists being globally popular and recognized using English, some critics are skeptical of such a stance. It has nothing to do with nationalism, but rather a call for young artists to be themselves and gain respect within local communities. Is it necessary to sing in English if you operate with cultural codes of British and American-born guitar music, or even cosmopolitan electronics? Some say so.

We might consider musical languages available for artists from Eastern Europe in regard to being successfully accepted by audiences across nations. World music is roughly a niche restricted mainly for non-Western European/North American musicians that incorporate their local musical traditions to be somehow available for universal perception.

DakhaBrakha is an ensemble that tours extensively around the world. In recent years, their name could be traced in the lineups of several major festivals, such as Glastonbury, Rock in Rio, SXSW, Womad and others. The band itself emerged from the contemporary theatre Dakh. It is evident that the band's success lies in their modern usage of Ukrainian traditional singing styles and also the folk-inspired costumes. Some contemporary scholars of Ukrainian traditional music think of DakhaBrakha as a kind of entry for those who have an interest in that area.

Somehow similar but although different in its nature is the success case of pop-project Onuka (“the granddaughter” in Ukrainian), comprising Ukrainian sound producer and musician Eugene Filatov (The Maneken) and Nata Zhyzhchenko (former vocalist of Tomato Jaws and Kooqla) also sharing similar roots in electronic music since the 2000s. Onuka's use of ethnic fleur and also instruments and melodies associated with folk is a kind of national identity trademark.

The question of Ukrainian traditional music and its interpretations is now on a new level of discussion. Scholars of authentic music oppose themselves to the Soviet-born culture of so-called “folk choirs”, aesthetics of which are still stuck in the formal educational system.

Traces of underground and experimental. A homegrown visionary as an outsider

Ukrainian rock music had its first taste in Soviet Ukraine in the sixties, but only until the eighties, the narrative was dominated by government-controlled vocal-instrumental ensembles. Nevertheless, the early seventies splashed a vivid combination of folk-infused pop music with a modern groove that was recently coined as 'moustache funk', to correspond with the hairstyle fashion of that era. Now it’s known to be a crate digger’s thing and also might be considered as our own first-wave Outernational analog.

Experimental currents in post-war classical music also appeared in the sixties. The most prominent was a story of The Kyiv Avantgarde, a community of young dissident composers, initially influenced by then-banned dodecaphony. From that innovative circle emerged original authors such as Valentin Silvestrov or Leonid Hrabovsky, who since then have developed their own rich and personal styles. Free-improv survivors still have their “patron saint” in the figure of performer and artist Yurii Zmorovych.

What I call the 90s Ukrainian Underground is an umbrella term composed of various musical acts and a few scenes. Except for time and space, they shared a spirit of creativity in uncertainty. It all began during the Soviet Perestroika era, mainly after the Chernobyl catastrophe.

First came the rock clubs, the government-controlled associations for rock bands. The lyrics always had to be reviewed by a censor in the first place. The most popular youth genres were hard rock and heavy metal. And out of this racket born the distinct and the uncanny.

Kyiv’s first and the finest were Kollegian Assessor, or Kollezhsky Assessor. Started as an experimental music trio in the early eighties, later on, they became one of the most original rock vehicles not only in Ukraine, but also in the Soviet Union.

The crucial event in the formative years of Kyiv underground rock music was a 1989 performance by Sonic Youth. It literally changed what was allowed to do.

The early nineties were a wild time supported by economical chaos and the collapse of institutions. Strangely in that disruption bloomed the music of an unheard quality. Among others, Kyiv had ethereal avant-garde hauntings by Cukor Bila Smert’, and urban technical noises of Ivanov Down and Sheik Hi-Fi. At the same time, industrially and infrastructurally important Kharkiv in the East had its own taste of independent sounds. An alternative to rock club phenomena with its socio-political rock’n’roll angst, it managed to bring out blends of something daringly different under the banner of “Novaya Scena”. The Renaissance-influenced chamber post-punk by the mavericks Kazma-Kazma was the movement’s flagship. Chernihiv’s still active experimentalists Foa Hoka were attached to the scenes of both cities.

Often dubbed as independent music, it resonated with Ukraine’s newly gained independence itself. Obviously an early attempt to parallel Western indies, except not having a well-established music industry to oppose yet. The apotheosis of this era can be found in the historically important compilation Novaya Scena. Underground From Ukraine! One of the first CD releases of contemporary Ukrainian music, it showed raw power in the right context. The record was released by a German label What's So Funny About.., which was key to the Neue Deutsche Welle movement. Another critical factor was a Polish label Koka Records. In their catalog, one can find some of the era's gems, later accompanied by editions of authentic folk.

Selected names of that time still gain interest internationally. Svitlana Nianio of Cukor Bila Smert’, and Lviv’s Ihor Tsymbrovsky definitely fit into the outsider category. Not only for their deeply personal, introverted styles of music, but also because the homeland reception is very much so. Beside extra-rare performances and a handful of articles for decades, there were, in the meantime, reissues of their records in the UK, Germany, and Poland, as well as live shows abroad.

Electronic interconnections

The history of electronic music in Ukraine deserves its own in-depth study by a professional music scholar. This would include the parallel worlds of academic electroacoustics with its painful institutional establishment, synth obsessions, the local history of rave, which began in the 90s, international portfolios of a few electronic experimentalists, and, finally, the current all-pervasive trend of electronic music on all levels.

Are those worlds really that mutually isolated as they might seem at first glance? I would say “not really” if you trace the lineups of the prominent electronic music festivals like NextSound. Then you may see the guardian of Ukrainian electroacoustics, IRCAM-trained Alla Zagaykevych, perform among self-taught noise veterans in the epicenter of all techno, the internationally known Closer club. But that's clearly not an everyday thing.

While dance music was conquering the media with creating its own pantheon, and modern technologies settled in our homes, the new millennium presented the electronic underground of radical qualities. Now it gained international connections through the Internet and was clearly needless to jump across language barriers. Even not so long ago, when I met independent music experts from abroad, they tended to name Andrey Kiritchenko and his NexSound label, as well as Kotra and Zavoloka of Kvitnu, as what they know of Ukrainian music. Not only these artists did much for popularising a wide range of electronic music practices by their own creative examples, but also their roles as publishers and festival initiators do matter. Originated from Kharkiv, Andrey Kiritchenko is one of the major figures on the electronic scene for the last two decades, and so was his label Nexsound. In recent years Kiritchenko curated NextSound festival with the likes of Sote, Mouse on Mars, and Rrose alongside Ukrainian artists such as Voin Oruwu, Nikolaenko, Bryozone or Noisynth.

An outsider story came loose off the label. The multifaceted improv wanderers The Moglass grew up attending Novaya Scena events in the nineties Kharkiv. Nowadays they continue to explore a free-improv-meets-butoh-dance unit called White Blood Blue Bones, while collaborating with likeminded avant-folkers Riasni Drova Consort, or performing with electroacoustic outfits of synth wizard Stanislav Bobrytskyy. All down the rabbit hole!

If one persists in tracing connections between the 90s Underground and the 2000s electronic community, one may see how pervasive these traces actually are. In the catalog of Edward Sol’s Quasi Pop, there were the likes of Langsames Steuer and Rabbota Ho, the bands of that era. The label's historical compilation Between Rains And Drought was predicting the rise of Odesa's Cardiowave. And the list goes on with Oleksandr Yurchenko’s electronic band Suphina Little Beasts, Merzbow, and Mats Gustafsson. In Ukraine, Sol’s own analog electronic records were also released by Kvitnu.

Kvitnu’s Detali Zvuku Festival was central to the experimental music community. Just until recently, you could find Kvitnu's now Berlin-based residents remixing “Lullaby for the enemy” by a war veteran and Ukrainian singer CTACIK. Or putting out their own new solo releases, and also the reissues of Muslimgauze, and so on. For around twenty years were and still active Ternopil’s ZSUF, Dubmasta's SKP Records with its exotica travelogue taste, and even longer–the hometaping veteran producer King Imagine. Dnipro's dark electroacoustic unit Gamardah Fungus is persistent for over a decade. Newer contributions to the experimental angle were made by several fruitful and obviously diverse communities and labels, such as the Ternopil's long-standing Pincet, Teple Yabluko, The Institute of Sound. Motoblok, Diser Tape and NFNR are representive of these groups respectively. A duo Ptakh_Jung is gaining popularity exponentially, and even an indie pop act Grisly Faye came out of the 2010s experimental milieu in some way. Another outsider initiative was Chenihiv's Flying Super Pension led by Dima Silich, the founder of Delta Shock record label.

In the past six or seven years, electronic, and mainly dance music gained a new level of popularity and media coverage. Last year’s editions of the Strichka Festival and Brave! Factory (both under the umbrella of the famous Closer club) gathered thousands of visitors respectively, with 30% foreign guests. The club was always collaborative with different initiatives and festivals, and even launched important cross-genre projects like the Am I Jazz? festival. As with most of the venues worldwide, the current crisis seems to be a threat to Closer’s existence.

The vivid nightlife is always on point at the famous weaving factory, where the club is surrounded by a nebula of other independent venues or platforms: Mezzanine, Otel’, 2c1b, 20ft Radio and more.

Not a partygoer myself, I noticed that many people of various backgrounds–be them office clerks, bohemians, classical musicians, or else–are into dance culture. Some said that it gave them a sense of transgression, and some are definitely into the culture itself. Not so long ago, the state-owned Dovzhenko Centre was a home for Plivka, a space for collaboration between new classical music, electronic community, and even improvisers and experimentalists.

Since 2014 a series of parties called CXEMA has become one of the biggest things in Kyiv’s raving life. Just two years ago TIGHT magazine wrote that “the [CXEMA] parties have got a new form, which differs from everything that is happening not only in Kyiv but also far beyond its frontiers”. Electronic dance music events of different flavors occurred systematically. From Rhythm Büro to ШЩЦ and beyond. Post-punk/synth-wave promo Worn Pop have intermingled within this all too.

The recent study of Ukraine’s music market points out the lasting Kyiv-centric position in terms of industry. TIGHT magazine’s co-founder and editor, Maya Baklanova also emphasizes this tendency for the electronic music scene. “I’m not sure if it’s possible to articulate with such a term as ‘Ukrainian electronic scene’ in general, since it seems that in Ukraine there is a big problem with the decentralization of culture”, she says. Nevertheless, the expert pays her respects to different regional initiatives including the Construction Festival in Dnipro, Kultura Zvuka in Kharkiv, or Atom Festival in Zhytomyr.

In regards to the new rise of its bohemian culture, Kyiv was penned by the mainstream media as “the new Berlin”, obviously a lazy cliché at best. Baklanova thinks that the distinction between musical communities in Kyiv and, for example, Berlin, lies in the enthusiasm itself as a basis here. “Perhaps, owing to this enthusiasm, our scene will be able to emerge from this protracted crisis without state support”, she assumes. The journalist also suggests that electronic musicians are not very business-oriented. “Compared to artists not from here, with whom I had to communicate, [the latter] always clearly know what they will get from each of their actions, and know exactly what they want in most cases. Our artists are young dreamers that live in their own worlds”, she concludes. And that correlates with the study mentioned above, according to which, music is the main source of income for only around 37% of Ukrainian musicians.

An integral quality

So why is there so much emphasis on the achievements of my parents’ peers and their chronological successors? Wasn't I supposed to talk about new things? One of the actual new notions that can be heard within the independent music community is lineage. Or the lack of it.

In 2014, as the country went through painful changes, the “New Ukrainian Music” term was coined. As I understand what it had to offer, is "a new, fresh, and European" quality of our own sound and vision. Then we had a new wave of distinct indie-pop acts, folktronica aliases, and, most of all, the new generation of dance music and hip-hop torch holders. The main idea in music media was to be “new”. Even younger writers themselves started to talk about new music journalism in Ukraine. It was reasonable in the light of the will to change. But at the same time, if we look backwards, we see that we already have a lineage of musical pioneering, already accepted in Europe. Some of Ukrainian indie heroes are certainly transgenerational: Khamerman Znyshchuye Virusy, Vagonovozhatye, Zapaska, Tik Tu – and the list goes on.

I surely do not underestimate the achievements of a new generation–there are things to look up to. But when the pursuit of novelty begins to run low, some start to concentrate on reflection, in order to put forgotten things in just contexts and provide transgenerational communications. Revivals, reissues, and archival journeys are common phenomena nowadays. Dozens of record labels are hunting for rare music from every corner of the world. There are emerging homegrown educational podcasts persistent in various fields of music, from traditional to electronic. Also the archeological media project Amnesia, resurfacing forgotten or under-appreciated but influential phenomena from Ukraine's cultural history and art, played its part.

Ukho agency opened the door for modern classical, so-called “new music” to a wider audience in Ukraine. This music left its refuge within the elitist circles of academically trained listeners, and now not only the names of Ligeti or Feldman are more familiar to the bohemian concert goers, but also the ones of our own 60s generation pioneers are recognized as real and living modern classics. The younger generations of composers are also represented by various platforms, such as The Claquers magazine, Bouquet Kyiv Stage Festival, Kyiv Contemporary Music Days or KORA art-cube.

One of the most interesting record labels in Ukraine to my taste nowadays is Shukai. It’s a sub-label of Dmytro Nikolaenko’s Muscut imprint. While Muscut released some great contemporary music, such as groovy dub-surf mix of Chillera, refined kraut by Indirect, or Dmytro’s own kosmische sounds and musique concrète, the label’s collaborative offshoot goes fully archival. Shukai is concentrated on rare music from the 60-80s era. Some of these works were considered unnecessary library music back in the day, but now the sounds of retro science fiction films and cartoons, or even obscure jazz and electroacoustics are back to shine a new light.

So I tend to conclude on a high note. If we survive now, then we are given a great opportunity to bring this notion of archeology to our own lives. And to find ourselves integrated into the bigger picture. We always had this option of not being so lonesome in the world of art and beyond. The option of integral quality. Should it be seen as an outsider perspective?
About the Author

Ivan Shelekhov

Ivan Shelekhov is a music enthusiast from Kyiv, Ukraine. He is mainly interested in experimental and regional music from all over the world, and its existence within a culture and society.

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