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Tsviten — a choir that promotes both Ukrainian folk songs and Ukrainian traditional culture
If you are looking for CD's with recordings of Ukrainian folk songs in the music stores of Kyiv, you may be in for a disappointment — in fact, you may consider yourself lucky if you find any. It is easier to buy discs with Irish folk music or African drums than with Ukrainian traditional folk music. The answer to your question, And why is there such a dearth of recordings of beautiful Ukrainian music? will be painfully simple — Ukrainian traditional folk music is not promoted, much less popularized. Fortunately, there lives in Kyiv a person who, together with Confucius, believes that kindling one small candle is better than living in darkness.
Seventeen years ago Professor Anatoly Avdiyevsky and Mariya Pylypchak co-founded a children’s choir in Kyiv and called it Tsviten (it can be rendered in English as ‘blooming’ — tr.). At the very outset, the choir existed under the auspices of the famous Hryhory Viryovka Ukrainian Folk Choir. The artistic director of Tsviten now is Mariya Pylypchak, a great enthusiast of the Ukrainian folk song. By education she is a composer and music critic. In the past twenty years she has been travelling across the length and breadth of Ukraine, recording folk songs, of which she has in her archives now more than five thousand. In addition to making recordings of songs, in her travels she learnt life stories of peasant families in many parts of Ukraine. All of the stories were impressive, all of them exceptional, with a lot in common.
Tsviten is more than just a choir. It promotes Ukrainian culture among children of Kyiv who live in a mostly Russian-speaking city which also happens to be Ukraine’s capital. The Tsviten choristers imbibe things Ukrainian through authentic Ukrainian folk songs. “Inculcating children with traditional Ukrainian grass-roots values,” Mariya Pylypchak calls it. She was interviewed for Welcome to Ukraine by Myroslava BARCHUK, Welcome to Ukraine Senior Editor.
When and how did the idea of creating a children’s choir originate?
Back in 1982, I brought together a group of singers from the Hryhory Viryovka Ukrainian Folk Choir to have them sing authentic Ukrainian folk songs the way they are sung by peasant singers. We were an instant success. We went on tours, even to America. But then, at some point, I understood that it was necessary to promote Ukrainian culture, starting with the children. And in 1986 a children’s choir was founded. We gave it the name of Tsviten.
The very first children that joined the choir — how were they chosen? Just anybody who could sing?
I’d say it was God who sent them to me. They were children from the families of Ukrainian intellectuals. Their parents knew Ukrainian traditions, they knew Ukrainian folklore, and they understood how important it was for their children to be inculcated in national traditions.
Who can join your choir today? Only those who have had some musical training?
No, not necessarily so. The main thing for a child is to have the proper background — the family who want their offspring brought up in the Ukrainian spirit, and of course, the wish to sing. It’s only at the next stage, when the child does get into singing that some forms of musical education become necessary. Children begin to learn to play musical instruments. But at the first stage, when three- or four-year olds come to us, we begin with what you may call singing games. I introduce the children to what may be called the Ukrainian children’s game and play folklore, it becomes part of their world, and we stay within it. We sing songs of the “Bake Bread, Bake Bread, Fire’s So Bright and Red” kind, and through such songs the children, even without suspecting it, learn to follow the rhythm, the tempo, they learn to sing along. For the first couple of years, it’s mostly games. We grow fond of each other, and gradually from games we make a transition to hard work of learning to play musical instruments, of singing ever more difficult songs. And then comes a moment when you feel you just can’t live without those children. And they can hardly imagine life without their choir.
You’ve been directing Tsviten for over seventeen years now, you’ve travelled far and wide, you’ve taught and trained hundreds of choristers. I know that some of the former choristers bring their own children to you for them to join the choir. I also know that there were several films and TV programmes made about Tsviten — have you released any recordings?
Yes, we have released two CD’s with recordings of authentic Ukrainian folk songs and published two books. We have financed the release of the discs and books ourselves. One of them contains Ukrainian children’s games and the other one is devoted to Ukrainian lullabies.
Have you performed on the radio or television?
Yes, we have. Our songs were played at the evening fairy tale shows at the UT-1 TV station which is run by the government. Several concerts were shot on video and then shown. Also, some of our songs were played on the radio, but frankly, I do not find any real interest either on the Ukrainian television or radio, they don’t seem to care for promoting authentic Ukrainian folk songs. But it does not discourage me in the least. Our choir lives on, we have these beautiful children, they learn to sing, they learn Ukrainian culture. My whole life is centered on it.
In other words, in this Russian-speaking sea you are like an island of Ukrainian language and culture?
Looks like it. You see, Ukrainian culture has been suppressed for centuries, all kinds of brutal and purposeful ways were used to do away with it altogether. And as a result, many spheres of modern Ukrainian culture are dominated by Russian or other foreign cultures. Take show business, for example — and you’ll see a very heavy presence of Russian pop music there. Appallingly, many Russian prison and con songs are broadcast daily over the radio by Ukrainian FM stations. We have to build up the badly damaged cultural foundation of the Ukrainian nation. Those little girls who come to sing with Tsviten will one day become mothers — and who else but mothers teach their children from their earliest days the first elements of culture — lullabies, gentle words, prayer teach the children at the deepest, emotional level to love their native tongue, their native song, their culture. There’s one poem by Lina Kostenko (one of the most remarkable Ukrainian poets of today — tr.), which I’m particularly fond of, because it says things which are very close to me. It runs like this:
If I were to make high reliefs of memory,
Or round bronze or porcelain sculptures,
I’d make a museum in which
Mother, Caryatid made of Divine clay,
Supports the rotten beams of her house;
The roof rests on her tired shoulders,
The straws of the thatch stick out from her hands,
And a swallow’s made a nest on her breast.
Father, like Atlas, chiselled from
The sturdy root,
Polished by toil and warped by misfortune.
Mother supports the house, and Father supports
You begin with educating and bringing up a mother who would be able to “support her house” — and by extension, the whole nation, with little things like games and songs. But is it much of a help in a country where hundreds of thousands of young mothers talk to their children only in Russian, read Russian children’s books to them? This Russian influence is so pervasive that even in many families of Ukrainian intellectuals you will hear Russian fairy tales and songs and poems constantly recited.
When mothers bring their three- or four-year old children to us, we begin working, as it were, together. It is not much of a problem to teach children to sing songs. It is much more difficult to inculcate children in the Ukrainian values and traditions, to lead them to love their native language and culture. But it is the only way to help children develop into personalities with deep convictions and comprehensive world view. I want to help Tsviten children to bloom, to be open-minded and receptive. And if their mothers understand it and do what they should, then it is much easier to achieve it.
You’ve mentioned the purposeful destruction of Ukrainian culture — do you believe the damage can be repaired?
I do believe our people will rise from their knees to their full height. And each of us can do something to bring it about, even in small, everyday things. And we should begin at the level of the family. When I ask Ukrainians who speak Russian among themselves rather than Ukrainian, why do they do it, they say, the Ukrainian language was under pressure for centuries, no effort was spared to ban it, to do away with it. But wait a minute — no bans or repressions should make you stop addressing your child in your native tongue! Starting from the time your child is in the cradle! They say Ukraine is a free and democratic country. But unless the people of Ukraine learn how to use this freedom and this democracy, “free” and “democratic” will remain just empty words. We have to learn to be free.
Correct, but freedom is not a passive state, it is not something that is given to you to be used for all time to come. Freedom is to be gained, to be fought for. The people must show their will, they must know how to say, We want it this way! But can our Ukrainian people say now, WE WANT IT THIS WAY?
Yes, potentially we can. Look at the Ukrainian history. Are there many other nations in the world that have been treated in such a destructive way? Just a few. We have survived, we have preserved the traditions, and I think the time has come for each of us to do their best to make our country what it deserves to be. I keep recollecting a parable I once heard. A rich woman sees a beggar but she finds nothing better to give this beggar than a bar of soap that she happens to be holding in her hand. At night she has a dream: She dies and stands in front of God among all the other dead. And right by the side of each one there stands a table with the things that were given to others during their lifetime (Ukrainians say, What you give to others is what you’ll be entitled to possess). The woman looks at her table and sees only a bar of soap. The woman wakes up, gets out of bed and kneels in front of the icons, praying, Thank You, Lord, for warning. It was only a dream and I still have time to change my ways.
I tell this parable to my Tsviten children, I want to teach them to give with joy, to give more than to take. I think if the majority of people in our country shared such an approach, it would be a totally different country.
Does the state help Tsviten in any way?
No, there’s no help or support coming from the state. As the choirmaster of the Hryhory Viryovka Ukrainian Folk Choir, I draw a little salary, but that’s all that the state gives me. I know that it is my duty to preserve, to pass on all those recordings that I’ve made. I know it’s my calling. These songs that I’ve recorded come from the deepest layers of Ukrainian culture and as such must be preserved, no matter what. All the more so that in the Soviet times, the recordings of Ukrainian folk songs that were made are deficient in many respects. The recordings were done of simplified versions, with no melismas, with no subtleties. Often, tunes chosen were not authentic folk songs, even with wrong words.
We, all of us, and those who are in the sphere of culture in particular, have to work in such a way as though we were hired by Jesus Christ himself. And it does not matter whether the state supports us or not. We have to do what we have to do, no matter what. Before each live performance, our Tsviten choristers, say this little praer, May God bless what we are doing so that others may benefit by our efforts.
Photos by Oleksiy Onishchuk