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Melodies of Elza’s Ocean
It was back in 1994 in the city of Lviv that four young men met to form a rock band that would take but little time to become arguably the best rock outfit in Ukraine, and would prove that given talent and drive, it was quite possible to make world-class music with lyrics sung in Ukrainian. The four musicians were Pavlo Hudymov, then a landscape architecture student, Yury Khustochka, an economics student, Denis Hlinin, an energy economics student, and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a theoretical physics student. The band is called Okean Elzy (Elza’s Ocean).
This spring they released a new album, Supersymetriya, and toured Ukraine, playing 43 gigs in 40 towns all across Ukraine.
Nataliya Rudnichenko, a free-lance journalist, has recently interviewed Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, exclusively for Welcome to Ukraine Magazine.
In recent years, Okean Elzy was voted the best group in Ukraine in several categories — from rock to pop music. Some find that your style has been influenced by British and American rock, and others say that it was Lviv urban romance that was the dominant influence. And what do you say?
Probably, there’s some truth in both opinions. We never hide our love for rock, but you can hardly escape the influence of your native place you grew up in, can you? We are from Lviv, and we bear the stamp of Lviv, as, say a group from Seattle will bear the stamp of Seattle. You just can’t help it. Besides, I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz and pop music of the 1930s and 40s, both European and American, and it has influenced our style. When I listen to Billie Holiday, Solomiya Krushelnytska (famous Ukrainian opera singer of the early 20th century — tr.) or Leonid Utyosov (Soviet jazz and pop singer famous from the 1930s well into the 1950s — tr.) sing, I’m moved to tears. In spite of the fact that I am a child of the 1990s, my music tastes were to a large extent formed by Nirvana and similar bands. I do like that kind of stuff which for some is something very ancient. I know very little of Lviv romance, which, as far as I can tell, is mostly Polish rather than Ukrainian. Anyway, I cannot exclude some influence that could have passed on to us through the air, as it were. I’m a Ukrainian and I care for things Ukrainian, and consequently, I do my best to introduce some Ukrainian folk themes into our music — but I do it carefully, not in a blunt, straightforward manner. I do not want our music to sound folk but at the same time I want, say, a Briton who would care to listen to our music, to immediately realize that it is Eastern European music we are playing, not Anglo-Saxon, even if it were sung in English. Incidentally, there are three songs on our new album which were written in 3/4 metre. And it shows that there is very little of rock influence in them — rather something folk from the beginning of the twentieth century.
What’s more important for you — music or the words of the song you sing?
I think you could say that music is, in fact, more important for me. I believe that any truly creative musician would say that. But I know that there are many people for whom the words are of a greater importance. My poems, turned into lyrics, come straight from my heart, they are very honest, no matter what their quality is. I don’t invent things — I just take a situation, familiar to many, and sing about it, expressing what they know so well and yet may find it difficult to express it. Music is something that has to be created — but the words, they just come out all by themselves. People like that kind of spontaneity and honesty. I rely on my instinct and intuition. I don’t usually spend much time figuring out the right words for a song — I hear or see or remember something and I just sit down and write down the words that emerge from I don’t know where. I didn’t used to be like that — I used to write words which would be artificially attached to something that would sing well.
Okean Elzy is often said to be a symbol of the 1990s’ generation. Do you accept your status of a symbol?
I don’t know about a symbol, but Okean Elzy did prove that even under rather harsh conditions of the Ukrainian show business you can do what you want to do, you can toe your own line without having to do what everybody else does in order to please, and yet remain financially and creatively independent — we’ve got enough fans to support us. I know we are liked by a great many people and I consider it to be a great honour. I’m part of the generation that was formed in the 1990s. Those were hard times, we did not know what it all would get down to politically and economically, but we had faith and we persevered. We remained what we wanted to be. In that sense we, Okean Elzy, are probably a symbol of our generation, the generation that went down to sleep in one bed and woke up in a different one. Our generation did not have time to get adjusted to one political system when a great change came and we found ourselves in quite a different system. Most of the people who were born in this country in the 1970s and early 1980s experienced this momentary lapse of orientation. Those who were born a little later will have a different world view, will have different priorities and will listen to a different sort of music. Okean Elzy, I hope, expresses in its music what is close and dear to our generation.
There are also some who call Okean Elzy “just a very successful commercial undertaking.”
I know. We have quite a few people who work professionally to make it possible for us to tour, to record albums, and this fact makes some people think that we do what we do only in order to earn money, and that it is only money that makes us what we are. But it’s absolutely wrong. What we do is very much different from that kind of pop music which is constantly broadcast by popular FM radio stations. We realize we are different, and it is probably our passion, drive and earnestness that people like. Paradoxically, in spite of being popular in Ukraine, we do not fit into the category of popular music which is mostly listened to in this country. We have probably found a way to be original and yet to be acceptable to many.
In other words, you are a success.
A success? Well, yes, in the sense that we have managed to succeed in what we do. But being successful does not mean I’m fully satisfied. I keep searching for something new all the time. On the other hand, I get a great kick out of what I do, I enjoy doing it, that’s my thing, and besides, I earn money from doing it. These are the ingredients of a success, aren’t they?
Would you still be doing what you are doing as a musician if you were not financially successful?
Beethoven and Mozart died in poverty, Haydn was hard up — and they were geniuses, whom the world recognized as geniuses — even though it was after their death that the recognition came. So, on the one hand they could hardly be described as having been successful during their life time, but on the other — what a greater success could one hope for than being recognized by the whole world as a genius?
What are you driving at? You want to say that going hungry is part of being a genius?
Not really. I mentioned composers of the past. Look at a more recent example — The Beatles. It seems the more money they had the better music they produced. But being rich is not something I aim at in life. There are certain material things which I find to be important for me, but they are not the main thing. For me, making music is not a way of making money — it’s a way of expressing myself. I know that there are quite a few of those who say that Okean Elzy had it all easy, that there were no major problems to deal with or obstacles to overcome. No, it was not easy to get started and get going, in fact it was damn difficult. I heard some of the young musicians complain that they cannot afford having a mobile phone. I can tell you that at the time we were just getting off the ground, I had no money to pay my telephone bills and they cut my phone dead. When I wanted to make a call, I had to run to a pay phone in the street to do it. We had a tiny room for rehearsals, cluttered with our equipment, drums included, and we spent at least six hours every day in that room. Things were like this for several years — until we did make it big.
Does your popularity encourage politicians to try to secure your support and then use it for their own ends?
We have never touched politics on stage and we have never taken part in any political ventures. We sing about what people do and think about everyday — about love, or the absence of love, about their private lives, about things they do care about. I do not think people in their majority give much thought to political events that the papers write about or TV news shows speak about. No matter what the front-page news may be, people care for something which is very much different. I really don’t think — though I may be mistaken, of course, — there are hardly more than just a handful of people in this country — anyway of my generation — who devote their mornings and their evenings to reading or listening to political and economic news. For most people of my generation it is much more important to have someone you care for by your side in the morning to start a day with. We live our lives without wanting to get stressed out unnecessarily by the things we have no way of changing. We care for the heart and soul — they are what really matters.
You sound like a conformist.
No. I’m afraid you did not get me right. I do follow what is happening in politics, I am not indifferent to what is going on in my country, I wish things would change for the better sooner rather than later, but I do believe that my best contribution to the development of my country is my music.
Can Ukrainian music of the kind you play, with songs sung in Ukrainian, hope to ever become popular in the west?
I don’t know. It’s very hard to find an answer to your question. I know for sure, from my own experience, that it can be a hit with audiences in Russia, Belarus and other countries of Eastern Europe, but as far as the western audiences are concerned… I really don’t know. I doubt we can win large audiences in the Anglo-Saxon world. They think they’re self sufficient and their world is basically closed in on itself and does not let in outsiders, particularly the outsiders who do not sing in English. In England, for example, rock and pop singers from Italy, France, and Germany who do not sing in English are virtually unknown. World popularity in pop and rock is now determined by popularity in Britain and the US — they dictate the rules. Occasional songs can get through, but very rarely.
Have you ever performed in the west?
Yes, we have. We’ve performed in several western countries, and at the moment we are considering interesting proposals from the USA and Canada. But we performed mostly for Ukrainian and Russian communities there. Only once we performed for a purely western audience — it was when we were invited to play at the MCM Cafe in Paris. Our invitation to perform there came after they had seen our video Tam de nas nema (Wish We Were There). The purely French audience did enjoy the show.
Let’s return to Ukraine. Does the fact that you grew up and were formed as a personality in Lviv effect the setup of your mentality?
Probably. Yes, you could say I’ve got a sort of Lviv mentality. They say that people from Lviv are ambitious achievers, but it’s too general to be true.
During your recent tour of Ukraine you performed in 40 towns. The tour was not extended in time, so it must have been a great physical strain on you.
Before the tour began, I had actually thought it’d be pretty hard but everything turned out to be just fine. Physical fatigue is something you can easily deal with if you know how. Human beings are so resilient that they can adapt to almost anything. And what really mattered was the reception we had. It was great, it gave us a great moral uplift and inspired us to do our absolute best. Yes, after the show is over you are completely exhausted, but no matter how dead beat you are, you feel elated when you know that you were a hit with the audience.
Is there any difference in the way your audiences behave in the east and in the west of Ukraine?
Yes, there is. In the east, people seem to be more open, simpler, in a way. In the west of Ukraine, they don’t rush to hug and kiss you right after the performance, they are more reserved, but if they come to like you, they’ll accept you for a long time.
It is known that in many areas of the eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian language is much less spoken than in the western Ukraine. Did you feel that your audiences in the east were a bit put off by the fact that you sing in Ukrainian?
Absolutely not. Look, we gave ten shows in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (predominantly Russian speaking — tr.) — and only one in Lviv Oblast. It’s very wrong to divide Ukraine into two parts — the western, pro-Ukrainian, and eastern, pro-Russian. It’s a myth, I know it from my own experience. In fact, there was only one complaint that I discovered on our website after a tour of the Crimea — someone grumbled that at our concert in Symferopol, which is a predominantly Russian speaking town, we addressed our audience in Ukrainian rather than in Russian. But wait a minute, Mr Grump, isn’t the Crimea part of Ukraine, and am I not entitled to speaking my mother tongue? The thing is that in many parts of Ukraine people just don’t have a chance to listen to good-quality Ukrainian pop or rock but when they are exposed to really good music sung in Ukrainian they surely like it.
Did this tour let you learn more about Ukraine and her people?
Absolutely. I’ve seen places I’ve never been to before. The tour began when it was still cold, it snowed, the roads were wet, and the trees were bare, and it ended in summer, with everything so lushly green and blossoming. Great.
What do you do for relaxation?
I go to a sports club for workouts, or some place with friends, or go to the movies. I’ve got many friends with whom I love to socialize. And I like reading, I like it a lot.
Books. I read whatever comes my way. Recently I’ve read several books by Henry Miller, Markes and Kundera. And I’ve written a foreword — I was asked to do it — for a book about Lviv compiled by a radio DJ I know well. It’s a collection of essays about Lviv culture in general and music in particular, and it is called Pryhody lvivyanyna druhoyi polovyny XX stolittya (“Adventures of a Person from Lviv in the Second Half of the 20th century”).
Are there personalities in the world of music that you find particularly interesting or close in some respects?
Yes. It’s Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Bob Marley. I like strong, open-minded personalities. Reading about their life, thinking about it, I want to find a way to prevent myself from burning out too fast. I have to admit though that I like the idea of living an unrestrained life, living like there’s no tomorrow… No, I’m not afraid of burning out too fast. Often enough, people just don’t see that you’re burning. Or they see only the flame without seeing the candle. And for some it’s more fun to stir the ash.
Once, you were a student of physics. Do you ever regret you have not become a scientist?
No, but there’s something that I do feel I wish I had — being able to socialize with scientists and intellectuals, to conduct a high-brow conversation, to take part in scientific debates. You see, most of the people who are involved in show business are not well educated and are not refined intellectuals and there’s a limited number of subjects you can talk with them about. I apologize for saying this, but that’s the way things are.
Do you have any idea what’s happening now in the field of theoretical physics in Ukraine? Any chance for it to survive and develop?
A very good chance too. As far as I know, theoretical physics in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv, and other places, in spite of a general slump in the development of sciences, remains at a high level. Theoretical sciences do not need as much capital as experimental sciences do for survival. Unfortunately, because of lack of financing many young talented physicists leave Ukraine and go abroad to work. Out of the group of ten students that I was a member of at college, only two have remained in Ukraine — one of them is me, but I don’t work as a physicist, the other one does not either, and the rest have gone to foreign countries to work — very wide geography, from Portugal to Japan.
Did you get a MS degree?
No, to complete my dissertation that I, incidentally, started writing two years ago, I need at least six months. The bulk is ready but I just don’t have enough time. I still hope for a longer stretch of time in which there’ll be no tours or albums to record and use the time for doing what’s left to be done.
And how is your dissertation called?
Oh, it’s something very specific — “Supersymmetry of the Electron in the Magnetic Field.” I have to admit it’ll be difficult for me now to get into it all again.
The issue of our magazine with your interview will come out around the time when Ukraine will celebrate her Independence Day. Is it a big holiday for you?
It sure is. My father was one of those who contributed to making my country independent. It’s a very special and significant holiday for me. I grew up with Ukrainian independence and it’s in my blood.
If, say, foreign guests would come on a visit to you, what would you tell them about Ukraine, what would you like to show them?
Well, there’s so much that I’d like to show them and to tell them… There are so many things one can be proud of in Ukraine. Our history is so rich — and so tragic. Kyiv is about 1,500 years old and there are still places in it which still can tell their stories of hundreds of years back. It’s fantastic! And the more people would come from abroad to see for themselves what Ukraine is like, to learn more about it, the better it’ll be for my country. Welcome, people! Among other things, you’ll hear Okean Elzy play (laughs).
How long do you think you’ll stay together as one band?
I, for one, want to remain a musician as long as I live, but I am not that sure I’ll want to go on stage and do what I do now five years from now. I want to write music, to create music, I want to live in music. Being a showman is nothing in comparison with being a composer. Just listen to the violin — how beautiful it sounds! I don’t know yet how to write music for the violin — or maybe I just don’t know that I can do it. I’ve come into music through show business, but when I feel I have to quit show business for the sake of music, I’ll do it.
Photos are from Okean Elzy’s archives.[Prev][Contents][Next]