- Arts and Humanities
- Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences
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Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion has deep historical and cultural roots, including in its music, says Adriana Helbig, chair of Pitt’s Department of Music, associate professor of ethnomusicology and the author of “Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race and African Migration.”
To better understand the Eastern European country, Helbig, who teaches courses on world music, global hip-hop and ethnographic field methods in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, suggested four key Ukrainian songs as a lesson in mixtape.
These tracks tell the story of Ukraine’s resilience in a folk song, a pop hit, a hip-hop ode to feminism and a techno dance jam.
The voice of Ukraine
This traditional folk song about a girl saying goodbye to her beloved is played on a bandura, a stringed instrument resembling a lute that’s sometimes called the voice of Ukraine.
Musicians position the instrument either on their laps or their thighs when plucking a song. In the folk tradition, banduras were played by blind minstrels called kobzars, who would travel from town to town singing songs, psalms and epics called dumas.
Ukraine became a republic of the USSR in 1922, and under Stalin’s rule in the ’30s, the country was subject to a Soviet-sponsored campaign to eradicate Ukrainian identity and culture, including its music. In 1932, hundreds of kobzars were invited to the city of Kharkiv under the pretense of attending a musicians’ convention. Instead, they were executed by Soviet forces, thus wiping out a valuable link to Ukrainian folk history and traditions.
[Read more: Scenes in Ukraine, from a Pitt economics professor]
Today though, “there’s a huge folk revival going on that started in the last 15 years among urban young people who went into villages and recorded music performed by elders. They wanted to hear what the music was like before the Soviets came in,” said Helbig. “There was a shift especially among young people who said, ‘What is our music?’”
Large-scale protests in 2004 during the Orange Revolution also ushered in a new desire to learn from the grandmothers who held onto Ukraine’s folk traditions.
“There’s a lot of fusion that’s happening where younger people are taking the old-time Ukrainian folk elements, especially bandura playing, and incorporating them with techno and hip-hop,” said Helbig.
Reclamation in a song
In 2004, Ruslana, a Ukrainian singer and ethnomusicologist, won the international song competition Eurovision. Her win wasn’t just about conquering the international pop charts — it affirmed Ukraine’s pride and reclamation of its culture to the world.
In “Wild Dances,” Ruslana samples the sounds of trembitas, wooden alpine horns traditionally used by the Hutsul inhabitants of western Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains. She sings in English and Ukrainian on the track, another sign of independence, since Russian was the primary language of Ukraine’s political and cultural sphere when the latter was a part of the Soviet Union. She and her backup dancers also wear animal pelts while performing an adaption of a traditional circle dance called the Arkan.
“In Ukrainian culture, western Ukraine was once perceived as an untamed, uncontrolled area, and with the ‘Wild Dances’ song and the imagery she uses in her Eurovision performance, Ruslana is drawing on that folklore,” said Helbig.
In the early ’90s, the dissolution of the Soviet Union brought about the collapse of Ukraine’s modern music industry, which had previously been an arm of Soviet state-controlled media. Record labels and recording studios ceased to operate, and musicians no longer had a way to distribute their music. While the loss was devastating, Ukraine’s independence also revived the country’s ethnomusicological scholarship, which had been banned under Soviet leadership. Ruslana’s Eurovision win was a mark of Ukraine’s progress and independence, Helbig said.
Hip-hop and self-determination
Alyona Alyona is a feminist Ukrainian rapper heralding body positivity and challenging machismo in mainstream rap music. The former kindergarten teacher’s video for “Little Fish” went viral in 2018 with more than two million views, despite being in Ukrainian.
“In the late ’90s it was much cooler to listen to music that was in English — that’s when hip-hop started being a part of Ukraine’s musical landscape. Hip-hop was an identity marker for young people. Listening to it signaled a connection to the West,” said Helbig.
In an interview with France24, Alyona Alyona described “Little Fish” as being “about women who have piercings, tattoos or strange colored hair, or a body that is not seen as normal.”
"We, these women, are like fish in a tank. And behind the glass, we don't hear the nasty words directed at us,” Alyona Alyona said.
Helbig said Alyona Alyona’s music ushered in a new way of presenting female power.
“After the fall of the USSR, a stereotype solidified that Ukrainian woman were seeking foreign, wealthy husbands as ‘mail order brides.’ That stereotype has stuck around for generations and emerged from the economic collapse post-fall of the USSR,” she said.
Through her work, Alyona Alyona is challenging those stereotypes and offering a new paradigm for Ukraine’s women as agents over their bodies and sexuality.
Remembering the Chernobyl disaster
Go_A’s song “Shum” was Ukraine’s entry into the 2021 Eurovision contest fusing ancient songs from the Chernobyl region with a techno beat. These avtentyka songs (authentic songs) are thought to have originated in Ukraine’s pre-pagan times.
In 1986, two explosions at a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl located in northern Ukraine released 5% of their radioactive reactor core. The nuclear explosion led to the evacuation of 160 Ukrainian villages in the contaminated zone and the disbursement of the singing communities.
Some of the avtentyka songs, thought to be lost at the evacuation of Chornobyl’s surrounding villages, were rediscovered by an ethnomusicologist and released as a Smithsonian Folkways recording.
Go_A’s performance of “Shum” on the Eurovision stage drew on imagery derived from spring rituals performed in the Chernobyl region. The lead singer’s faux fur green coat swaying as she dances invoked the Ukrainian tradition of decorating houses with green tree branches on Pentecost day. The dancers on stage were “recreating the moving branches of the young spring forest, thus awakening the forces of nature, encouraging the unraveling forces of spring, growth of plants, and even pairing of young couples” noted the Euromaidan Press.
“Now that Ukraine is under siege, there is this fear that archival recordings are going to be lost amongst the destruction,” said Helbig, adding, “scholars from the United States, in partnership with the American Folklore Society, are helping Ukrainian ethnomusicologists upload their archives from the war zones.”
“These songs are our sense of rootedness,” said Helbig. “This is our narrative. This is Ukraine.”
— Nichole Faina