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Leopold Yashchenko and his choir Homin keep the Ukrainian folk song tradition alive
Not that long ago, a gray-haired man wearing an embroidered Ukrainian shirt could be seen in various locations in Kyiv — on bustling street corners, in underground passages, on metro trains and even in buses — playing a traditional pipe. Judging by the quality of the music he played and his dexterity, this elderly gentleman was no rank amateur, but far more likely a professional musician, and apparently one with a mission. Indeed, Leopold Yashchenko, the head of the Ukrainian folk choir Homin, wasn’t playing for money, but to give Ukrainian folk songs and music a modern dose of public relations.
Leopold Yashchenko (born May 2, 1928) did not grow up in the countryside, but was raised in the central Ukrainian urban environments of Kyiv and Chernihiv. In contrast to Kyiv, Ukrainian was widely spoken in Chernihiv. When Leopold’s family moved to the capital from Chernihiv, Leopold heard Ukrainian spoken mostly in Ukrainian literature classes. Regardless of the environment he found himself in and the changing circumstances around him, Ukrainian remained Leopold’s main language of communication.
When he was still very young, Leopold’s mother, who was a teacher of the Ukrainian language, died, leaving Leopold with no living memory of her.
It was when he went to a village one time to help the locals gather a crop that, hearing the village girls sing, Leopold felt a deep connection to his Ukrainian roots.
Though he discovered his musical talent rather early in life, it took Leopold quite some time to realize that music was his calling. He first studied at a music school, specializing in conducting and choir arrangement, and later at the Conservatory in Kyiv where his major was musical theory and folk music. He went on to post-graduate work at the Institute of Art Studies, where he wrote a dissertation, “Ukrainian Folk Music Polyphony.”
Afterwards, Leopold became employed by the Institute as a folk music specialist, and the job took him to many parts of Ukraine in search of Ukrainian folk songs to collect and record. During his travels, Leopold discovered songs he never heard before and set about recording them in almost every village he visited. He published a number of books with the texts and notes to these songs — ‘Ukrayinski narodni romansy’ (‘Ukrainian Folk Romances’), ‘Bukovynski narodni pisni’ (‘Folk Songs of Bukovyna’) — to mention just a few. Many choirs throughout Ukraine would subsequently use his folk song arrangements for their performances.
In the early 1960s, Yashchenko took part in popularizing traditional Ukrainian Christmas carols, known as kolyadky and shchedrivky. In 1969, he organized an unauthorized performance of Easter folk songs with members of the Veryovka choir in a park on the slopes of a hill above the Dnipro River. Among the singers was Nina Matviyenko, a Ukrainian folk song performer of great renown today.
Though he devoted so much time to his work, Yashchenko did not remain indifferent to events unfolding around him. In the late 60s, Soviet authorities cracked down hard on “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists.” In response, in 1968, Yashchenko and his wife Lida Orel signed an open letter to the government protesting the persecution of “those who think differently.” The letter found its way abroad where it was published, making international political waves.
Retaliation was swift. Yashchenko was severely reprimanded and dismissed from work. Yashchenko tried to get his job back at the Institute by legal means but failed. However, he did manage to have his last book, ‘Derzhavna zasluzhena kapela bandurystiv URSR’ (‘State Merited Ensemble of Bandura Players of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’) published in 1970. The book was subjected to strict censorship and much of the original text was either deleted or modified. Yashchenko’s plans and hopes for the future collapsed.
He had to find a new outlet for his Ukrainian music enthusiasm. He founded “an ethnographic choir,” which he called Homin (Sound), with the purpose of spreading awareness of age-old Ukrainian traditions and celebrations. Among the first traditional feasts that Yashchenko wanted to renew was the summer solstice feast of Ivana Kupala (a pagan fertility rites feast modified by Christianity and linked to John the Baptist Day).
Homin’s first rehearsals were held in the garden of Ivan Honchar, a great enthusiast of Ukrainian culture and traditions and a moving spiritual force behind the Ukrainian cultural resurgence of those times. Choir members would wear traditional Ukrainian dress, which included embroidered shirts from Honchar’s unique collection, during the rehearsals. Among the choir’s first performances was one on May Day (a major labor-related public holiday in the Soviet Union, which served as an occasion to espouse Communist ideology to the masses and is still observed in post-Soviet Ukraine). Honchar thought there would be no harm in wearing Ukrainian traditional dress on that day, and the company proceeded to Kyiv’s central park, singing as they went.
However, the early 70s proved to be hard on the Ukrainian intelligentsia, with many being arrested and imprisoned.
Through the struggle
In the fall of 1971, Yashchenko’s choir Homin was disbanded, and Yashchenko was expelled from the Union of Composers of Ukraine (he got his membership back only in 1989). Honchar, meanwhile, found himself in deep trouble. His home was raided and searched by secret police. The Ukrainian cultural resurgence and the movement to resurrect traditional Ukrainian feasts were brutally halted.
Yashchenko was out of work. His wife, Lida, who had lost her job as well, was badly ill and in hospital — and there were two children to feed. Yashchenko was told by the authorities that if he “repented” he would have his work back and be able to publish his books again. But Yashchenko refused to yield to pressure.
A time of hardships ensued for Yashchenko and his family. To survive, Yashchenko was forced to take odd jobs as a house painter, laborer, or anything that brought at least some money. Adding humiliation to Yashchenko’s poverty, the authorities would search his home again and again.
Yashchenko was not to be broken. His disbanded choir continued to exist clandestinely. Enthusiastic and persevering, Homin singers were not intimidated by the authorities’ repressive measures and continued to gather in one of Kyiv’s parks on various occasions — usually, traditional Ukrainian holidays — to sing traditional folk songs.
Recalling one such occasion in May 1971, Yashchenko said: “The afternoon turned out to be much too chilly for wearing embroidered shirts. I wasn’t feeling very well that day, but I couldn’t let down my like-minded boys and girls and went to join them. I was late, but when I arrived where they had gathered I saw groups of young Ukrainian people singing and dancing in the meadow. I was moved and convinced in my belief in the steadfastness of folk traditions and in the strength of Ukrainian folk songs.”
At the end of 1983, Yashchenko founded “an ethnographic ensemble” at the open-air Museum of Folk Architecture of Everyday Life in the village of Pyrohiv (near Kyiv). The following year, Yashchenko was officially warned not to organize any Ivana Kupala performances, but he did so anyway in Hydropark (a recreational park on an island in the Dnipro River in Kyiv).
Yashchenko struggled to keep the ensemble afloat, begging for permission to perform, submitting a list of the songs to be sung on each occasion, seeking venues for rehearsals and performances, and weeding out KGB stooges who had infiltrated the choir. Yashchenko and his choir were subjected to all kinds of “activities checks” by various commissions. After years of struggle, the choir was given premises for its rehearsals in the Budynok kultury (House of Culture — a community cultural center) that belonged to the Kyivmetrobud organization.
From revival to eternity
Homin came back to life. In 1989, Homin sang what was widely regarded as the national anthem of Ukraine, “Shche ne vmerla Ukrayina” (“Ukraine has not Died”), likely marking the first public performance of the song in all the years of Ukraine under Soviet power. The music to the song was composed in 1863 by Mykhailo Verbytsky, a western Ukrainian composer and Catholic priest, to accompany a patriotic poem written a year earlier by Pavlo Chubynsky, a prominent ethnographer in the Kyiv region. In 1992, the Ukrainian parliament confirmed the song as independent Ukraine’s national anthem, with the anthem’s lyrics changing slightly in 2003 by an act of the parliament and president.
The occasion of Homin’s anthem performance was the First Convention of the Narodny Rukh (People’s Movement) of Ukraine in September 1989. Narodny Rukh was formed in 1990 from the Rukh National Movement for Perestroika in Ukraine, which was founded in 1989. As a nationalist movement, Narodny Rukh acted as a major force in the drive toward Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, achieved in 1991.
It was also Homin that performed the forbidden religious, and also unofficial, hymn of Ukraine, “Bozhe velyky, yedyny, nam Ukrayinu khrany” (“One and Great God, Preserve Our Ukraine”), for the first time in Soviet Ukraine. The hymn’s music was composed by Mykola Lysenko, a Ukrainian composer, pianist, conductor and ethnomusicologist, born in 1842, who is widely considered the father of Ukrainian classical music, to the words of Oleksandr Konysky, a Ukrainian translator, writer, poet, lexicographer, educator and liberal social activist, born in 1836.
Homin’s repertoire included patriotic songs, as well as old folk songs that had not been heard in Ukraine for many decades.
Today, Homin is an oasis of traditional Ukrainian folk singing in the highly urbanized environment of Kyiv. The choir is often invited to perform on various occasions and at various events, including congresses of patriotic organizations, Ukrainian cultural seminars, and soirees devoted to prominent Ukrainian political and cultural figures of the past.
At their performances, the choir’s members wear traditional Ukrainian dress, with the costumes of individual members representing the features and styles of different Ukrainian regions.
In the words of young Ukrainian fiction writer Mykhailo Kaharlytsky, “The songs performed by Homin are more than words or music. The very essence of these songs is expressed through the performers’ dress, movements, poses, gestures; in the magic that the choristers create on stage, bringing back to life things that are so dear and sacred to us but were suppressed and trampled under foot for so long.”
Homin draws large audiences and performs to full houses. Its songs are part of the Ukrainian spiritual heritage, and Homin helps maintain and preserve this heritage through its performances, making it better known to those who had not been exposed to it earlier.
The choir often performs outdoors, in Kyiv parks. Last year, Yashchenko brought together a number of choirs in the city’s central park. During the performance, the audience was invited to sing along — and it did!
Now, the colorful Ivana Kupala feast is regularly celebrated at Hydropark, complete with jumping over cleansing fires, singing and dancing, and with flower wreaths launched on the waters of the Dnipro River as part of the Kupala rites. The rites draw numerous Kyiv urbanities, who get back to nature and take part in 1,000-year-old rituals.
Yashchenko is much more than an enthusiastic and highly patriotic choir leader. He is also a composer, poet, conductor and folklorist all rolled into one, as well as a very likable person. He is also a talented organizer. A number of other choirs have been launched over the years either with Yashchenko’s help or his blessing.
Yashchenko is the recipient of many prizes and awards, but he considers his best prize to be the feedback he gets from his audiences. His goal is to make traditional Ukrainian songs a part of everyday life of the Ukrainian people, the way they used to be. According to estimates, there are from 200,000 to 300,000 folk songs in Ukraine, but most have either been forgotten or are never performed. Yashchenko wants to bring back to life as many songs as possible, and toward this end he has organized Sunday gatherings at which people can sing the folk songs they know and learn new ones. He believes Ukrainian folk songs are spiritual bread that feeds the soul.
Yashchenko looks physically fit and energetic. At the beginning of a performance he puts his pipe to his lips and sets time for his orchestra. His eyes fill with the glow of delight as he starts using his pipe instead of a baton to conduct, working magic and casting a spell over his audience. His lively face lights up and he seems to soar above the audience, asking them, “Join me in singing, let’s sing together!”
Once, when asked to describe his happiest moments, Yashchenko said, “If you really want to know, I’m happiest when I sing with my Homin. It’s a feast for my soul.”
Homin’s Chistmas concert in the Budynok
pysmennykiv (the House of Writers),
January 9 1998.
Homin’s New Year concert in the Ukrayinsky dim
Cultural Centre. January 11 1998.
Homin in the streets of Kyiv. 2004.