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Sisters Telnyuk: a duet with a difference
Singing has always been close to Ukrainians’ hearts, and today, many foreigners continue to associate Ukraine with the vocal arts. However, what could be referred to as “authentic” Ukrainian singing remains somewhat of an enigma, and is usually not given proper media attention. In this report, Iryna Plekhova brings the subject into focus by acquainting Welcome to Ukraine’s readers with what may arguably be among the most remarkable modern Ukrainian singing duets, known as TELNYUK: Sestry, or The Sisters Telnyuk.
The duet, Lesya and Halya Telnyuk, are very close in age, though not close enough to be twins. They owe both their physical existence and musical talent to their family — their mother, Nella Kopylova, a philologist, editor and translator of Asian languages, and father, Stanislav Telnyuk, a writer and literary critic.
In 1977, when the sisters were 13, they tried their hand at penning and singing rock ballads, and elegiac and lyrical songs. They watched their father on the battle lines against the totalitarian system defending his freedom of expression in writing, and that of his family too.
Those were troubled times for Ukraine.
On the one hand, a cultural Ukrainian renaissance was taking shape in Ukraine with such poets, writers and artists as Vasyl Stus, Mykola Vinhranovsky, Vasyl Symonenko, Lina Kostenko, Ivan Drach, Yevhen Hutsalo and Alla Horska at the fore of this revival entering their creative prime.
On the other hand, it was a time of personal tragedies for these gifted individuals, who were harassed and repressed by the Soviet authorities, often being arrested and thrown into gulag concentration camps.
As a result, many were forced to write “u shukhlyadu” (“into their desks”), that is, with no hope of publishing their writings. Another outlet for their works was samvydav (self-publishing, a phenomenon that arose in the late 1950s in the Soviet Union and lasted until the late 80s). Samvydav writing was produced and circulated unofficially, circumventing censorship. Typically, samvydav literature was typewritten and circulated by hand, initially to a group of trusted friends to be further distributed clandestinely. Samvydav materials included fiction, poetry, memoirs, historical works, political treatises, petitions, religious tracts and journals.
In contrast to many of his fellow literati, Stanislav Telnyuk was fortunate enough to escape arrest, but his freedom of expression was greatly curtailed. For Telnyuk, the repressive 70s were filled with events that affected his personal and creative life.
In 1972, he testified in court as a witness for the defense in a case against Vasyl Stus. In 1974, he published a literary study, ‘Pavlo Tychyna,’ and later, collections of his own poetic works were released — ‘Opivnichne’ (‘Midnight Hour’), ‘Lehenda pro tryokh sester’ (‘Legend of Three Sisters’) and ‘Robota’ (‘Work’). When the poet, who was on the KGB’s blacklist, felt things were getting too tough for him, he volunteered to work on the construction of the Baykal-Amur railroad in Siberia, hoping this self-exile would take the heat off him and help preserve some of his freedom.
Telnyuk was among the first literary critics who dared to “rehabilitate” the poet Pavlo Tychyna, who, in the eyes of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, had acquired the status of a faithful servant of the Soviet regime. Telnyuk revealed Tychyna as a greatly talented lyrical poet and symbolist, whose talent had been grossly misused by Soviet propaganda.
Telnyuk, no doubt, also revealed the Ukrainian poetic word to his daughters, Lesya and Halya. Telnyuk’s own search for poetic expression and the achievements of poets such as Tychyna contributed to shaping the talents of Halyna Telnyuk, the poet, and Lesya Telnyuk, the composer.
This became the foundation on which the duet Sestry Telnyuk was formed.
Back in Ukraine
Following several years of work abroad, the duet returned to Ukraine in the spring of 2007. The sisters had been on tour in the USA, Canada, Great Britain and Ireland. They performed with well-known musicians, such as bandura player Yulian Kytasty (American of Ukrainian descent), violinist Vasyl Popadyuk (Canadian of Ukrainian descent) and guitarist Mick Taylor (formerly of the Rolling Stones). The sisters had recorded a Ukrainian version of the popular blues song “Love in Vain” (written in 1937 by Robert Johnson, and famously covered by the Rolling Stones in their 1969 album ‘Let it Bleed’), and produced a multimedia performance called ‘The Sky Above Us’ for an American audience, to mention just a couple of their productions.
The duet’s time outside Ukraine also saw the recording of eight albums. Their ninth, ‘Zhovta kulbaba’ (‘Yellow Dandelion’), had much to do with their return home. The album contains 10 songs with lyrics written by the sisters and their father. Much in the songs is permeated with the emotions of love and the search for love, the pain of separation, and the everyday struggle against a routine existence.
Halyna: “Our tours, our projects abroad were a constant search for our own way in the art of music. It’s not very difficult for us to create our songs. We have chosen, and continue to choose, texts that we relate to, but we have always strived to work out our own way of behaving on stage, our own way of talking, of presenting ourselves to our audiences.
The songs on every one of our albums have been performed on stage. There were big venues with large audiences and small venues with a more intimate atmosphere. We easily indulge in experimenting. That’s why our style is a specific style developed by the Sisters Telnyuk; we call our style dorosla alternatyva (Mature Alternative). It incorporates elements of jazz rock, blues and ethnic motifs. That’s why we find it easy to work with both academic-style musicians (the string orchestra of the Sate Radio of Ukraine, for example — Author), and with jazz rock musicians, such as Oleh Putyatin, Roman Surzha, Ivan Nebesny and Mykola Tomasyshyn. That’s why the Ukrainian bandura or drymba sound so harmonious in our music when played with the bass guitar or synthesizer. And that’s why there are people of all ages and social backgrounds in our audiences.
The ship of the Sisters Telnyuk is sometimes a mystery for us too, because our images are always present in the musical reality, but what color our sails will be, and what time of day or night we will set sail again, nobody knows.”
Lesya: “Our ghost ship has appeared in the offshore waters of many countries and cultures. Today our top priority is the Ukrainian audience. Ukrainians now travel to Europe and America, they discover these places and capture them for themselves. That’s why we orientate ourselves to Ukrainian audiences before whom we can lay out our creative path. Moreover, the music that was created to match the poetry of words, the modern interpretation of the Ukrainian worldview, should captivate the Ukrainian audience primarily. It is the Ukrainian audience that will best understand all the nuances of our poetry. It is the deep understanding of the spell that words have when expressed through music that lies at the foundation of the Ukrainian musical tradition.
I have to admit, though, the English-speaking audiences that did not speak Ukrainian have reacted positively to our creative search for ways to express ourselves in music and words. Moreover, they understand the internal integrity of our musical world, completing the picture of their perception of our songs. In this way, we get inspiration to continue our poetry through songs. That’s why American or European audiences don’t need further explanations; they are capable of understanding the most subtle nuances of our musical esthetics.
In 2007, we promoted our latest album ‘Zhovta kulbaba’ at our tours, which were part of the East-West project. We have performed in Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Poltava, Odesa, Zaporizhzhya, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Lutsk and Lviv. We have traveled the length and breadth of Ukraine, from east to west. We discovered a new Ukraine.
And hopefully our audiences had a chance to discover not only the Telnyuk duet, but their own affinity with our music and poetry. This dialogue has been successful and we are happy about it. We’ve just started work on our new album, which will become another turn in our singing and poetic career, another dimension in our honest dialogue with our audiences, another page in our life, which is measured by a verse within a musical frame”.
“The one who has the strength to walk on sharp stones will always move over these painful stones toward something higher, which can hardly be attained if one travels along the smooth and easy roads.”
These words by the great Ukrainian poetess Lesya Ukrayinka are relevant for Ukrainian society today. By its nature, the Ukrainian intelligentsia has never been indifferent to social issues and has usually taken an active part in the political and social life of Ukraine. Time has changed the political landscape and new heroes have emerged with new motives to enter today’s political struggle.
The Telnyuk sisters are not guests on political talk shows, which see an increasing number of Ukrainian entertainment personalities voicing their opinions. They don’t perform at rallies in support of any political party and are not involved in politics, but they do maintain a civic stance.
In 2000–2001, the duet staged a play, ‘U.B.N.’ (‘Ukrainian Bourgeois Nationalist’) at the Mariya Zankovetska Drama Theater in Lviv. Halyna wrote the text and Lesya the music for the play. In its own way, the play deals with the issue of the Ukrainian national idea, with the play’s dramatic conflict centering on the protagonist’s love for an American girl. Also, the sisters perform in the play not as lead personas, but with the function of their roles similar to that of the chorus in ancient Greek dramas.
The reaction to the play in Ukraine has been controversial, but this is not surprising, since the sisters said their play was completely “anti-political” rather than just “non-political.”
Halyna: “‘U.B.N.’ is my earnest message, a message to humanity. It is what I wanted to say and repeat when I communicate to the people. Evidently, it is a concentrated expression of the anguish I have suffered and from which conclusions have been drawn. These conclusions concern not only me, but all those people whose destines are directly connected with Ukraine. It seems to me that I had, and have the right to come to these conclusions and say these words.
My verses are only a sketch of today or tonight, or of tomorrow morning. Real life is given to them through the music written by Lesya. It is this music that stirs the romantic, the artist, the monster or the child in the hearts of our audiences. That’s why our creative work is called upon to bring the verses to life through music, to give them a very personalized emotion in the soul of everyone in our audiences.”
Lesya: “I think that everyone can find something that is close to and valuable for them in our verses and music, because our music and poetry capture emotions that we experience ourselves, and through which we make another attempt to give a jolt to our own world. The honesty of our emotions relates to the honesty of every human soul, because we talk about the innermost things. We reveal our inner world but we do not demand that people do the same in their turn. It is the communication of un-cried tears, of un-laughed laughter, of unlamented separations, of meetings unremembered… The greatest happiness for our duet is the division of labor — Halya writes verses and I write music. It’s as though we have our continuation in each other’s creative work, it’s a continuing, daily birth of our emotions, feelings, of ourselves.”