On August 27, Ukrainian folk music quartet DakhaBrakha will give a concert at the Alexela Concert Hall in Tallinn. In an interview ahead of the show, the band, which consists of Marko Halanevych, Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsybulska and Nina Garentska, explained that at the start of Russia's war on Ukraine, they decided to dedicate themselves to performing and giving as many live concerts as possible.
How are you coping with what is happening in Ukraine at the moment? How does it affect your work, your loved ones and even your performance schedule?
It is a terrible tragedy for a great nation. It's a tragedy for a whole generation, probably for several generations, and will be a terrible trauma for years to come. It is a terrible catastrophe caused by our neighbor. When we were growing up, our grandparents always said, "Let's hope war never comes." We never seriously considered it, but that is what has happened. Of, course it's a terrible tragedy.
We cannot live outside of that context. We understand what is happening, we follow all the news. A considerable number of our relatives or friends are (still) in Ukraine. They are experiencing (the war) much more deeply than we, as people who left Ukraine, are. We decided that we would continue doing what we do best and most effectively. We decided to perform as much as possible.
Now our schedule is much more hectic than it was before the war, or even before COVID. However, as we have chosen this path, we want to go as far down it as possible. We now realize that, perhaps we chose to go at a rather extreme pace. Maybe we'll take a little break in the fall because it feels like it's more of a marathon than a sprint. We need to assess our strength and also find time to rest.
You have been performing all over the world for years, including shows in the USA and Canada. Please can you introduce yourself to the Estonian audience? When, and through which events, did you (and your music) become widely known?
Yes, our band has been together since 2004. About 15 years ago, we started touring quite intensively. After the WOMEX (World Music EXPOD) festival in Greece in 2012, we received a lot of invitations from many countries. (WOMEX) is where bands show what they can do and promoters and festival managers from all over the world decide if they want to work with them. That's how it went (for us). We've had a lot of invitations to perform and we started working with an agency from the US. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we did big tours three times a year in the US, Australia, Mexico, China, New Zealand and Europe. We have visited more than 30 countries but have been to Africa or Japan, so there is always room to expand further.
This is the first time you've performed in Estonia. Have you been to Estonia before, or do you have friends here? What have you heard about Estonia?
To be honest, we haven't heard much about Estonia, although (our countries) are very close. We are well aware that Estonia has always supported Ukraine. We have a common enemy, who (says it) wants to "rescue" our countries from so-called "Nazis" or "fascists," or "save" Russian-speaking people. That is what we are (both) dealing with now.
There is no doubt that Estonia and the other Baltic countries feel threatened. For a very long time, we lived together in one huge country, which, rightly ought to be understood as a prison of nations. Nobody felt free, not Estonians nor us (Ukrainians). Now we can be much closer to each other.
We don't know much about each other's culture or each other's lives, but that is why we are very happy to come to Estonia. We are really pleased to be in Tallinn because we know that we have very special fans there. I also have to mention, that one of my children has a dresser, which was made in Estonia! I bought it 10 years ago, precisely because I wanted to support a country which is so dear to us today!
You're coming off the back of a long tour in front of packed houses almost everywhere you've played. What has warmed your heart the most during the past concerts? Which concert stands out in your memory?
Yes, we've had some great experiences performing all over the world. What we like the most is the reaction of the audience, how they perceive us, how they share our emotions and feelings, our music.
That's what inspires and empowers us. We are happy with the way our audience understands us. All over the world, people understand us on an emotional level, even without understanding our lyrics.
If we had to choose one concert, it would be the one in Schenectady, New York State, during our most recent tour (On August 3, 2022 - ed.) Even though it took place during a thunderstorm, there was instantly a fantastic connection with the audience. They brought candles and we all prayed together for Ukraine. People came together and sang the anthem on stage. It was really inspiring and moving. The mayor was also there and he declared that day as "DakhaBrakha Day" in the city. It was extremely touching. Such acts of solidarity are of the utmost importance to us today.
You are ambassadors of Ukrainian culture and traditional music. What do you think people who don't live in Ukraine should know about your culture and music?
We offer people the opportunity to explore a part of Ukrainian culture as one small part of world culture. It is really important for our country that the world is interested in Ukrainian culture. We stand in the shadow of a huge empire, so we are doing our best to open our culture up to the world.
We are a post-colonial country, whose culture has been marginalized for more than 300 years. Marginalized and provincialized. We live, and have grown up, with an inferiority complex, believing that our culture cannot possibly be interesting to the rest of the world because it is strange, rustic, and in no way modern.
Today, we are trying to break free of these complexes and prove, even to ourselves, the Ukrainian people, that there are (Ukrainian cultural) projects that can be modern, successful and relevant to the whole world. That the world wants to know about our musical tradition, which includes a huge variety of songs, because the territory of Ukraine is enormous.
That is why our songs are so different. Some critics have even said that the code of a nation and its people are encrypted in songs. Songs and language can save a nation. We never say we are super-unique, but (our culture) is as unique as Estonian or Georgian culture, Spanish or Bulgarian culture. They are all unique. It is crucial not to lose our roots, because they enrich our understanding of the diversity of our world.
Have the responses of your audiences changed over the last year?
We see a lot more Ukrainians and people with Ukrainian flags or symbols. Or just people who support us even more whole-heartedly (than before). Of course, our concerts have become more political and a lot of people now come to them to support our country.
Over the last eight years (since Russia annexed Crimea – ed.) we have, for the most part, always talked about what Putin and modern-day Russia has been doing, during our shows. We have been calling on the civilized world to stop them. Now our messages are clearer and even more urgent.
A lot of people (used to) say they didn't understand what we were talking about. It is only now that they see the real nature of the problem. Not only for Ukraine, of course. There is no doubt that there is a strong sense of solidarity now, and awareness about what is happening in Ukraine. It is a full-scale invasion from Russia. With our messages, and our words, we are trying to reach everyone, the ones who come to our concerts at least. People are aware of what is happening, but we want them to feel it intimately, on an emotional level.
How do you come up with new music? Does one of you come into the rehearsal room with an idea or some notes, or does it happen in another way?
It comes about in different ways. Mostly without notes. We don't have a professional musical education. The girls (Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsybulska and Nina Garentska) are professional folklorists. They have studied and collected items folklore. We use the exact things that they, and their colleagues, have studied. We have so many different sources of inspiration. Sometimes someone hears a song somewhere and wants to experiment with it, or someone has the idea to try out a new genre. It's the same process, whether it's with a sound, a rhythm or a melody. That's how music is born. Usually, we usually start off with a cup of tea, so that we can set the right mood to create something!
We haven't really had time to do that, as we decided to devote most of our focus to performing and interacting with audiences. So, we haven't had time to practice. We had a few hours between concerts when we were in Germany for instance, and we had some ideas, but we haven't managed to make much out of them yet. We can see that a lot Ukrainian artists have been inspired by what's going on and have created some powerful and patriotic work. But, at the moment we aren't able to do that. The war is still too fresh for us, and we need more distance to reflect on it.
More information about DakhaBrakha's upcoming show in Tallinn can be found here.
You can listen to the band's most recent album "Alambari", which was released in 2020 below.
Kuula DakhaBrakha 2020. aastal ilmunud albumit "Alambari":
Editor: Michael Cole