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Ruslana — the first Ukrainian pop singer to win a major European pop song contest
The Eurovision Song Contest, hosted for the first time by Turkey in May 2004, attracted a worldwide audience of more than 100 million people. The Ukrainian singer Ruslana, a cult figure in Ukraine, won the contest with her song Wild Dances. With her victory, Ukraine earns the right to stage the 50th Eurovision Contest in 2005. Ruslana, one of Ukraine’s top stars, grabbed the crown, mustering 280 points from the televoting in the 36 participant countries. Ruslana, the charismatic brunette, offered a dazzling spectacle inspired by ethnic traditions in the Carpathian mountains of Western Ukraine.
The singer answered some of the questions put to her by Welcome to Ukraine Magazine.
Let’s begin, if you don’t mind, with your roots. Who were your parents? What are your most vivid childhood impressions? What — or who — were the major influences at the beginning of your singing career?
I was born in Lviv, a wonderful old city of Western Ukraine. My parents are still living there. I always felt as though the very age-old walls of Lviv were an inspiration for creative work. When I was four, my mother took me to a musical school for little children, and at such an early age I became a singer in a pop group. I learned to read notes earlier than to read letters. It was probably then that my destiny of being a singer claimed me. Nevertheless, I continued studies at a specialized, mathematics-oriented secondary school rather than at a music school, but upon graduation I felt my musical calling was stronger than math, and I went to study at the Lysenko Conservatory in Lviv, and majored in piano playing and in symphony orchestra conducting. In fact, I earned two separate degrees, one in piano playing and the other one in orchestra conducting.
My father is from the Land of Hutsulshchyna in the Carpathians, a land of ancient culture and of traditions some of which have come down to us from the pre-Christian times. Hutsul tunes, Hutsul rituals and songs have inspired me to create a new style of pop singing, and it turned out to be a discovery both for us and for the whole of Europe. My father, as true high-lander, is a wise and industrious person. He has taught me to respect and love our land’s culture. He often calls me on the phone and his advice that he liberally gives me is always to the point. Whenever I go to visit them in Lviv, my mother cooks something delicious for me, dishes that I like best. If I happen to be unwell, she brings me back to health in no time. Her care is so touching. But I am not at all mama’s or papa’s darling, holding on to my mother’s apron strings — I left home when I was quite young and achieved everything all by myself, starting from scratch. My parents follow my career very closely; they are my fans and admirers. They’re the best in the world — I love them so much.
Are there any singers that you admire? Which music do you listen to? Which music inspires you? Have your musical preferences been changing over the years?
I am fond of ethnic music, rock and classical music. I often listen to Buddha Bar, Deep Purple, and Bach. Legendary Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” has been a great inspiration. My group and I, when we were working at our latest project, listened over and over again to the authentic songs of the Hutsuls from the villages situated high up in the mountains. We made recordings of these songs during our ethnographic expeditions to the Carpathians.
Can you earn enough money for a more or less decent living by making good Ukrainian music in Ukrainian?
There is no simple answer to this question of a topical interest. Audio-pirating is really a big problem in many of the post-Soviet countries, Ukraine included, and cannot be ignored. But I don’t look at the situation pessimistically — if you believe in what you can achieve, and work hard, then you can really work miracles. I always put ‘cosmic high’ aims before myself to achieve, and in spite of what skeptics say, in spite of all the obstacles, I achieve them. Last June, for example, we released the album Wild Dances in Ukrainian, and we wanted to sell at least 100,000 copies. People laughed behind our backs, thinking we’d never do it. We launched an unprecedented promotion campaign on a scale never practised in Ukraine before. This advertisement stunt included all of Ukraine and was carried out jointly with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and our record label, Comp Music EMI, and we took massive measures to prevent pirating. As a result, we had the first officially recognized Platinum Disc in Ukraine. At the press conference that followed, some of the western journalists said that if things would went on developing that way, then the Ukrainian show business could gradually become absolutely legal in all of its aspects. Nobody could believe that we had done everything in full accordance with law, that we had paid all the taxes and that we had earned money. But we did what earlier nobody had done. We’ve sold already 200,000 copies and several thousand copies continue to be sold every day. We plan to release the Anglicized version of Wild Dances to be distributed in Europe.
It makes me happy to know that Ukrainian musicians have begun to improve their professional level, to change their attitude to the way things are done in show business, to use modern technologies in recording music, to have their music recorded at well-known foreign studios. The realization that Ukrainian pop music can be modern, popular and commercially viable is gaining ground abroad, and now we have to come to this realization here, in Ukraine.
Practically all of your music videos are evidently costly projects. How do you manage to get things done with so many expenses involved? Very few pop singers can afford to do that.
All I do and achieve in life, is done thanks to creativity and for the sake of creativity. In other words, everything that I earn is not spent on myself but invested into creative projects. Besides, Oleksandr and I (Oleksandr Ksenofontov — Ruslana’s husband and producer — ed.) have been involved in advertising professionally from the very early stages of advertisement development in Ukraine. We’ve gained quite a lot of experience in it, and now we are running our own advertisement company which employs 40 qualified professionals. We make music films, commercials, organize concerts. I’m happy that I earn enough to get my ideas and projects carried out. That’s what I live for and work for.
Do you feel yourself comfortable in the Ukrainian show business? Do you feel you are an integral part of it?
I have many friends in the world of Ukrainian pop music. It’s a joy to meet them when I’m touring Ukraine with shows. Most of them share my moments of joy and support me in the moments of sorrow. Oleksandr Ponomaryov (a Ukrainian pop star) came to meet me at Boryspil Airport when I was returning from the Eurovision contest. He gave me flowers and congratulated me with victory. Of course, there are people who are envious, or whose inferiority complex makes them resentful. But luckily, I do not have time to pay any attention to petty intrigues.
Could you say a few words, please, about such interesting projects of yours as Zamkamy Zakhidnoyi Ukrayiny (Castles Tour of Western Ukraine) and Ukrayinske rizdvo (Ukrainian Christmas)?
Original artistic projects are my hobby. They are designed to remind people of things eternal, most important things, to attract attention to something that is in danger of being forgotten. My projects are my own ideas and I always take part in writing scenarios and in editing the videos. If I had not become a musician, probably I would have become a movie director. I have very nice recollections of the Castles and Christmas films, but now I’ve entered quite a different period, a new style, and my Wild Dances is a sort of a social statement too, connected with the national and cultural identity of Ukraine in the world.
Who writes songs for you? Who does the arrangements, and who is responsible for choreography?
Iryna Mazur is our chief director — we’ve been working with her since the time we just started. She’s my good and reliable friend and advisor. I write and arrange music for my songs myself. My husband Oleksandr writes lyrics to this music and helps with the sound engineering. He is a talented musician and an excellent sound engineer. Lyrics for some of the songs on my latest album were also written by Andriy Babkin, my PR manager, Andriy Kuzmenko, a musician from the Skryabin pop group and by Yuliya Mishchenko from the Talita Kum pop group. As far as the electronic remixes are concerned, we work together with various leading world DJs, with DJ Nekrasov from Kyiv in particular. The Sterling Sound Company in New York, Stephen Badd’s Studio in London and Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio participated in the work on the single Wild Dances and on the album of the same name.
It’d be interesting to hear the story of how you hit upon the idea of Wild Dances, and how was this idea implemented?
The idea for Wild Dances began to develop two years ago while we were in the Carpathians. The mountains were a great, breathtaking discovery and a great inspiration. First, there was a song, Znayu ya (“I do know”) and a full-scale video followed. In fact, it was my first video which was also released on film that can be shown on wide screens in modern theaters. In the spring of 2003 we got down to work on Wild Dances. Its concept came to me like a bolt of lightning. For about a month we almost never left the studio, we hardly slept. We invited the best musicians, both Ukrainian and foreign, we could find, to record the music for the album. We even had a Hutsul choir in the studio. We brought them from the Carpathian mountains for recording sessions. I think for some of them it was the first time they left their native village. After we finished work in the Ukrainian studio, we arranged to do the mixing in Peter Gabriel’s studio in London. Working there was an experience I will hardly ever forget.
The idea for Wild Dances that won at the Eurovision contest emerged at that time but the song was not included into the album. When we started working on that song to be presented at the Eurovision contest in Istanbul, it took us a month to get things done properly. The arrangement done by Stephen Badd’s Studio in London did not satisfy us, and we did it ourselves. I played the drums, incidentally. We felt a great responsibility and were careful about getting every little detail right. We kept changing things, some of these changes are so subtle that the ear of an ordinary listener would not be able to pick up any differences. At the time when we performed the song on stage, the stamping of the feet and the crashing of whips were all real, not recorded. And the martial shouts Hey were also very much for real. We did listen to the advice given us by people with experience in show business, but all the basic ideas were ours. I think the success of Wild Dances was a result of our determination to get our ideas implemented the way we wanted them.
You seemed to be very sure you’d win. Was this conviction honest or you bluffed a little?
No bluffing — I did believe we would win. I keep repeating that when I strongly believe in something, and my team believe in me, then we can work miracles. We ignored all predictions, warnings or doubt, we worked hard, we did our best — we knew it’s our only chance to win. Now I can say it was just the beginning. Before we went on stage in Abdi Ipekci Arena, our director told me, ‘Just imagine you’re going to perform in your native Lviv’. I remember other participants were surprised I could be so confident and sure of myself.
Do you have any comment to make about your being appointed “advisor to the prime minister of Ukraine”?
I have always been and continue to be apolitical. Every one should do what they can do best, something they were born for, something they can be professional in. I’ve gained some experience in participating in a Eurovision contest and will gladly share that experience with the organizers of the Eurovision Contest 2005 that is going to be held in Kyiv. The organizing committee is headed by the prime minister, and it was but natural that I was promoted to be an advisor to him. In fact, my official title is “an advisor on youth issues.”
Most of the time these days you spend abroad, right? Touring with shows?
Well, I really have very little time these days. I almost live in airplanes. I move from country to country in Europe almost daily — I give shows, interviews, that kind of thing. I appear on television, I promote my album. My recent visits were to England, Germany, Monaco, Belgium, Poland, Slovakia, Russia, Belarus, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Turkey, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Spain, Iceland — I must have missed something. Plans for concert tours of the United States are being drawn. Besides, we are releasing an English-language version of Wild Dances in Europe. The single with the song that won the Eurovision contest was released in early May and it sells well in some European countries. I’m particularly thankful to the Belgians and the Flemish for getting this song to number one positions in their hit-parades. And, of course, I’m grateful to all those who gave me such a great support during the contest. Without such support, no victory would be possible.
What are most vivid impressions from the countries you have visited? Which countries did you like best?
It was only several days ago that the realization that I had won the contest came home to me. It was in Cannes, when I walked onto the terrace from my hotel room. Somehow, there was no time to feel it fully before. I’m surprised at the European public’s easy going attitudes and the way they accept new things — they dance to Ukrainian music they’ve never heard before with abandon in the most prestigious casinos of Monte Carlo, in the night clubs of Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels, in TV studios of the leading television companies. But don’t worry — the newly acquired star status did not turn my head. There’s a lot of work to be done, and that’s the most important thing for me. I’m always happy to come back home to my native city, to my studio, to my friends.
What are the moral principles that you will stand by to the end, with no compromises?
Love, faith, patriotism, justice. May your readers uphold them as well. It’s my wish to them. Be bold and “wild” in your soul on the way to your victories!
Photos are from Ruslana’s archives