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Oleh Skrypka, Ukrainian rocker says, “The time has come…”

 

Myroslava BARCHUK, Welcome to Ukraine Senior Editor, talked to Oleh Skrypka, VV frontman,

about past and present, about music, culture and politics.

 

Back in 1987, three students, Oleh Skrypka, Yury Zdorenko and Oleksandr Pipa, got together in a room on the 11th floor of a Lyiv Polytechnic dormitory and founded a rock group which they called Vopli Vidodplyasova, or VV* This “historic”gathering in the dormitory opened a new epoch in Ukrainian pop music; in fact, VV became a lasting cultural and social phenomenon. They began with driving, hard punk rock with elements of folk music, graduating in time to a unique style totally their own. VV did not fit any of the Soviet pop music standards. It took VV less than a year to become a hit all over the former Soviet Union.

Now, seventeen years later, VV remains “a cult band” in Ukraine. They have not stalled in their development, they have not become a bronze monument to themselves, they are very much alive and on the go.

 


* Vidoplyasov is a character, pathetic and pitiful, from one of Dostoyevsky’s novels, who signed his letters, filled with cris de coeur, lament, and wailing, “Vopli Vidoplyasova,” or Vidoplyasov’s Howls; why a name like this was chosen is interesting enough in itself but explanations would be irrelevant to the interview that follows.

 

You were born in Tajikistan into a Ukrainian family, you grew up in Murmansk, Russia, you lived in France for several years and you’ve been living in Ukraine for many years now. How does it feel to be living in Ukraine with such a background and experience of foreign lands?

The Land of Ukraine has a terrific potential — which, unfortunately, has not been realized. Quite a few people feel the presence of this potential… You see, this country has not had statehood — and I mean statehood in the all-embracing sense of the term — for far too long. I believe that during all of these centuries of foreign domination a colossal cultural and spiritual charge has been accumulated, a great field of national energy, and now we are living through a phase in our development when this energy, this charge can be used for bringing about great, positive changes — but there is a danger of losing this chance again. It so happens that those who are in power in Ukraine now represent the malignant forces who are not at all interested in realizing the available potential. They can turn the course of Ukraine’s development in such a way that life in this country will become unbearable for us. That is why I think that we are now at a turning point.

Within the past twelve months, you have organized Ukrainian Vechornytsi (vechornytsi — informal get-togethers with a lot of singing, dancing and games, Ukrainian style — tr.) which were held at the Modern Art Centre Dakh, at the Art Gallery Karas, at the Art Gallery Lavra, and you have organized a festival of ethnic music and dance, Krayina mriy (The Land of Dreams) which was held last July in Kyiv. These events look like links of the same chain, like purposeful actions directed at achieving one and the same goal.

They are. It was quite a long time ago that I realized that there were no what you might call “art clubs” in Kyiv where like-minded people could get together and discuss things of mutual interest, issues of creative and performing arts. There were and are many people who would be eager to do that. Since I’m a sort of a public figure, a well-known performer, I thought it would be easier for me than for somebody else to do something about it. Besides, I have ambitions of an organizer and of a director — so why not to realize them?

You didn’t have a feeling that these events were like gatherings in the Ukrainian cultural ghetto in the capital of Ukraine, did you?

We are a bit too numerous for a ghetto. The Krayina mriy Festival, for example, brought together more than 30,000 people. About half of them came wearing traditional Ukrainian national dresses. I saw people cry with emotion and chant, “Ukraine, Ukraine,” at the closing of the festival. The festival was held at a place in Kyiv called Spivoche pole (The Singing Field). The people who gathered there did feel themselves to be Ukrainians to the very core of their beings.

They were residents of Kyiv but there must be millions in the whole of Ukraine who have the strong feeling of national identity. We are a strong nation — but we have to develop these feelings of national unity and native togetherness, and we have to make sure we are not prevented from developing these feelings. Ukrainian Vechornytsi bring together clever, honest, decent, well-educated and cultured people who have had more than enough of all that shit that is being heaped on them… You’ve called it “a cultural ghetto,” or you can give it some other name, but the fact remains that we, at these gatherings, begin to build up a civilized state. We want to live a normal intellectual and spiritual life, without all this aggressive vulgarity disseminated by some local FM radio stations which broadcast most primitive Ukrainian and Russian pop.

But why do so many people actually listen to all this shallow and vulgar stuff? The Ukrainian society which could be considered to be rather cultured and educated in the early nineteen-nineties seems to have culturally degraded so much in the past ten or so years. How do you account for that?

One ancient sage said that music a particular society listens to reflects the moral state of this society and the moral of those who are in power. The answer to your question is a very simple one — the power in this country is in the hands of those who propagate such primitive tastes, such low culture standards. The average Ukrainian has no access to good music, does not have an access, in fact, to unbiased information in general. The mass media which is controlled by “oligarchs” (plutocrats — tr.) and those in power — and they have rather specific tastes — impose biased information on the Ukrainians. It is their tastes and their views that shape and form Ukraine’s culture of today. Well-educated, intelligent and cultured Ukrainian people are barred from positions of power. As it happened so many times in history before, the less culturally advanced but politically stronger forces get the upper hand over the more cultured, more spiritually advanced.

Do you mean to say that modern Ukrainian pop music faithfully serves those in power and reflects their tastes?

Yes, very much so. We are living through a period which is often referred to as “savage capitalism” (dog-eat-dog stage of capitalist development in which personal gain and enrichment eclipse social needs — tr.). A society of “lokhi” (loch — a derogatory slang term for someone who is extremely unsophisticated, gullible and culturally backward — tr.) is being actively formed in Ukraine and such a society can be fed anything — any product from the virtual supermarket of ideas and bad taste, cheap, in a garish wrapping and highly carcinogenic. Modern Ukrainian “popsa” (popsa — primitive pop music catering for the lowliest tastes — tr.) is another product from this supermarket. All those girls with long legs, wearing as little as possible for a heightened sex-appealing affect but with no music talent may look fine on stage but their shows are harmful to the intellectual and cultural health of people. It is particularly dangerous for the young people who, under the influence of such shows and such music, unlearn how to think.

Is it a reversible process? Can something be done to prevent the young people from being further affected?

I divide those who listen to music into three categories. The first one includes people with a high level of intelligence and with developed tastes who do not want to consume the product being offered and just turn off their radio and television sets when popsa comes on; they buy good music on CDs, they search for it in the Internet, in the broadcasts of western radio stations, they buy CDs and cassettes abroad. People whose preferences are basically for good music and who are more or less advanced in their tastes but who do not have enough of inner strength to take a firm stand and sometimes listen to popsa, make up the second category. They are not hopeless and can be rescued. It is worth struggling to win them over. And the third category is made up of people who are doomed and who listen to everything from the popsa market — Ruslana and others like her — has to offer. These people have been pushed to the margins of culture and the word of high culture is closed to them.

Is such a division among those who listen to music a Ukrainian phenomenon, or is it more or less universal?

I’m not sure I’m in a position to make sweeping generalizations but from my own experience I can tell you this. Our band has been touring far and wide and the reaction to our music varies a lot depending on the general public’s attitude to music, on what kind of music is mostly broadcast on the local radio stations. Let’s take Canada as an example. We went there on tour last year. We played in a very big concert hall, and most of our audiences were people of Ukrainian descent — those who emigrated to Canada a long time ago and recently, and the reaction to our music was absolutely tremendous. We felt a great emotional feedback, we saw their eyes filled with understanding and emotion. Their reaction to our music reflected the state of things in Canadian society. Canada is exposed to rock music; most of the FM radio stations play rock, though you can also hear some classical music and jazz. But there’s very little popsa being played. See my point? Understanding of what is good rock music comes through exposure to it. People are educated in such a way that they know and understand what’s what.

But if we look at our neighbour, Russia, we’ll see that the situation there is much worse than in Ukraine. Russia is living under the conditions of a “velvet dictatorship” and it affects people. On our recent tours to Russia, we’ve observed a full and total degradation of those who come to the shows. The audiences do not react to rock music which evoked enthusiastic reception only a few years ago — they have been completely brainwashed by Russia’s “Pop Stars Factory” that keeps mass-producing popsa.

Is it why you have stopped going to Russia on tours as often as you used to?

No, we have not stopped going there, we still go quite often. But on our earlier tours we felt that the Russians’ attitude to Ukrainians was that of the elder brother to the younger, quite friendly, they still thought we would some time soon come back to the fold, there was a positive sentiment. But in the past few years, a certain revolution has come about in their attitudes, provoked by the media, and these days the Georgians, the Ukrainians and even the Byelorussians are looked upon as enemies. This hostility has been aggravated by the movies and satirists, and finds its reflection in the popular jokes. Once such a negative image of Ukrainians was established, they have stopped playing our music on the radio or television. It all happened very fast.

Do they play your music on the Ukrainian radio stations?

Very little. While they were playing our music on the Russian radio stations, Ukrainian FM stations followed suit. The moment we disappeared from the broadcasts in Russia, Ukrainian FM stations reacted automatically, taking us off the air. In the field of information and music broadcasts, Ukraine is, unfortunately, an obedient satellite of Russia.

Are there direct instructions not to broadcast good-quality Ukrainian rock music? And if there are, how is it explained? What do they tell at the radio stations?

They used to say our music “did not fit their format.” Now they say, “That’s good music, we’ll sure play it,” but they have their priority “play-lists,” which are made up not even by the radio stations themselves but are given them from above, from their owners. As the saying goes, He who pays the piper, calls the tunes. And who are the owners? The same political and business “elite”, plutocrats. All of these people do not want any good rock, because rock opens people’s eyes, makes people think, and thinking people are a menace to those in power today. That is why, ersatz culture, popsa, have become one of the props of those who are in power, similar to their other props — the bureaucrats, the law-enforcement chiefs and organized crime. And that is why good rock is prevented from being played — in fact, obstacles are put in the way of all good-quality Ukrainian music. By contrast, about 80 percent of our concerts in France were financed by the state, and in Ukraine, those in power consider us to be a threat and do their worst to prevent us from being heard.

Evidently they do it because they realize that the humanist ethics of rock, its drive and energy can pose a threat to them by having a potential to stir up the country.

Yes, we, rockers, are dissidents in the eyes of those in power. To choose to play rock means choosing a stand, abiding by certain principles, showing the way. And doing such things is dangerous in this country. Even some of the popsa people, such as Verka Serdyuchka and Ruslana, show the way, even though in their primitive fashion, to national awareness. But on the other hand, the very primitiveness and low standards of such popsa, can turn away a large segment of society from things Ukrainian.

When you mentioned Ruslana I could not help recollecting that this pop singer refused in an interview she gave to our magazine to answer practically all the questions which were connected with the political and civil orientation, national awareness and things Ukrainian, explaining the refusal by her “apolitical stance.”

No wonder she did that. But what about the Russian song, “When She Comes I Don’t Know” that she sang in a duet with “the presidential nominee from the democratic forces that are currently in power?” Is it also an “apolitical stance”? Not too difficult to figure out why she did that. You know, when a person puts a national idea on his or her banner, it is the purpose of doing that that matters. If it’s done for self-serving purposes, then it’s bad. But mind you — it’s my personal point of view.

If you don’t mind, let’s go seventeen years back to the time when VV had just begun to be gaining popularity — you were accused back then of “making fun of Ukrainian culture.”

Oh I remember those times well. But do you remember them? The thing called “Soviet Ukrainian folk music”? That was mockery all right — all those choirs singing pseudo-folk music, all those fat bandura-players who had nothing to do with true Ukrainian folk music. People stopped reacting to that music ersatz, but it gave rise to “zhlobska” folk culture (zhlobsky — a colloquial derogatory term for extremely vulgar, coarse and kitschy — tr.). It could not go on like this any longer, something had to be done about it. I think we felt it on some subconscious level and started doing something about it by playing our music. One journalist described this new phenomenon in this way: “What VV and Braty Hadyukiny play is a neo-folk music.” I think it was a pretty accurate description. Not “post-Soviet” — but “neo-folk.” In the early nineteen-nineties we played hard rock but it was of the kind that I later called “hard-folk.” Gradually, our music evolved in the direction which can be described as “ethnic rock.” There are several bands in Ukraine now that play ethno-rock — Mandry, Haydamaky, and Ocheretyany kit. There are huge resources of unrealized music culture in Ukraine. Ukrainian music culture has been much less lucky than music culture of Arab countries, of India, of the Anglo-Saxons, or of the Afro-Americans in terms of its realization. Remember the origins of jazz and of different forms of rock? Ukrainian music culture is still waiting for a fuller realization.

It seems you’ve already started using its resources.

I turned to tapping the resources of folk music in earnest only a year ago, though I liked folklore even when I was a child. When I was organizing the festival of ethnic music, Krayina mriy, I listened to a lot of Ukrainian ethnic music, and I began getting into it deeper and deeper. And what I discovered in those depths came as a revelation. Thank God, I saw that all those roots were not spoiled, that they were very much alive. But the people who preserve these roots, who study them, have been so much mistreated by the regime that they have become a sort of a secret, underground sect. They guard this genuine culture against interference so tightly that they don’t let almost anybody in. And at first they treated me and VV with a great suspicion. They were put off when they heard our non-canonical folk singing, and behaved like treasurers with the keys to the treasury and refusing to let anyone see it. It took us some time to persuade them to share. They are preserving the genuine folk culture for the time when nobody in Ukraine will mistreat it. Can you believe that?

Of course I can, particularly after your remark about Ukrainian folk culture being made “zhlobska.” No wonder people who truly care for it want to preserve it unspoiled.

At the Krayina mriy Festival these guardians of genuine Ukrainian pop culture were absolutely magical, kobzars (folk musicians and bards of most ancient Ukrainian music tradition — tr.) in particular. A lot of people who first went to see the shows at the central stage, well-lit, with all those special effects, where rock groups performed, gradually drifted to the place where the kobzars played and recited their ballads. The audiences were enchanted, they were put under a magic spell, they felt the kobzars came from the unfathomable depths of this land and its traditions. It’s something that goes straight to your heart.

Nina Matviyenko, one of the leading Ukrainian singers of folk songs, was with you at the opening ceremony. How did you find her?

Oh, I listened to the recordings of her singing when I was still a kid. I met her at the Ukrainian Vechornytsi at the Dakh Art Centre, we took to each other and became friends. When, at the festival, we appeared on the stage together and she addressed the audience, it was only then that I realized what a great actress she is. On stage she’s so different from what she is in life. I felt a great, powerful spirit emanating from her, and she directed it at the audience. Yes, she’s a Great Actress — both words in capitals. Such a far cry from those anemic, small-time popsa people who are probably good at making money in showbiz but creatively they are sterile. It’s an inexcusable situation for which the state is to blame when such popsa people as Kirkorov or Poplavsky are given so many more chances than Nina Matviyenko to perform before large audiences.

In an interview given to the BBC not so long ago, you said you were not planning “to fight at the barricades.” Today you declare quite unequivocally your political orientation. You even performed at the rally when Viktor Yushchenko was nominated for the presidency. Does it mean you are no longer “apolitical” as many Ukrainian showbiz people declare themselves to be?

They may declare themselves apolitical but almost all of them supported President Kuchma, took part in his re-election campaign. Do you remember those shows “in support” of him “under the patronage of the president”? These days many rock musicians support the political opposition to those in power. And it’s great. This year at the Spivoche pole when Yushchenko was nominated for the presidency, Okean Elzy and Tartak bands performed alongside VV. You see, there comes a moment in life when you realize your country cannot live the way it has been living any longer, that radical changes are urgently needed, and that you cannot be just a silent and impartial observer. And then you must make your choice, the choice of a mature person. We must not tolerate and put up with injustice and oppression the way the Ukrainians have been doing for centuries, we must not adjust to what is being imposed on us, we must change what we find needs change. I repeat — we have come to a turning point in the history of Ukraine.

And where do you go from here?

I continue to give my solo concerts, to do social work. All the other VV members are also involved in carrying out their own projects. I think it’s OK that we do our individual things though it’s a bit sad, to be honest. It happens when you reach a point in your collective development with the band when you realize you can’t develop any further, you can’t take a deep breath and make the next step. We, as a band, have tried everything there was to try in music… I’ve started working as a producer for the young folk group Bozhychi, we even sing together. Also, I’m planning to make the Krayina mriy Festival, that I produce, a regular event. All of it gives me new energy, and when I return to work with VV, I feel rejuvenated. We are cutting a new album now, more in the “classical” VV style. Our previous album, Fayno, was more avant-garde, and it was not too well received. Probably, people are not yet quite ready for neo-rock.

You lived in France for five years and then you came back to Ukraine. What has the European experience given you?

Our Ukrainian society is rather insulated and confined in its borders, and it was important for me to break out. I’ve noticed that people who lived abroad for a long time and then came back to Ukraine, possess some special energy, a powerful spiritual charge, an inner creative impulse, elan. Ukrainians living in Ukraine seem to lack this energy. Living in an advanced European country has taught me to understand what my rights are, to fight for them and defend them, to understand the advantage of free access to information. Going to Europe is like travelling in a time machine for me. European society is fifty years ahead of us, or more. May God grant Ukraine a chance to be moving forward to the European standards, and not backward, away from Europe.

 

Photos by Natalka Syd,

Svitlana Dolynchuk,

Ihor Karpenko

 

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