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DakhaBrakha is a Ukrainian music group which plays its own, distinctive style of music which the DakhaBrakha members call “ethno-chaos”, claiming that “it was from chaos that the Universe was born.”
There are three young women and one man in the group — Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsybulska, Nina Harenetska and Marko Halanevych, who use all sorts of musical instruments, both “standard” and those that can be described as “traditional” and “exotic.” Among the “standard” ones are a cello, harmonicas, an accordion, and a trombone. The non-standard ones include various kinds of drums — Ukrainian, Indian, Australian ones, all sorts of percussion instruments, some of which can produce the sounds of rain and wind. The DakhaBrakha musicians improvise freely, making music that comes straight from the heart.
DakhaBrakha perform at music festivals and play their own gigs, and they are an integral part of the Contemporary Art Center Dakh, providing musical background to the plays staged within the Ukrayina mistychna (Mysterious Ukraine) Project (these plays include Prologue to Macbeth, Prologue to Richard III, Prologue to King Lear, Death of Gogol, and Dreams of the Lost Road).
DakhaBrakha have been awarded several prizes and have performed at many ethno-festivals in various European countries.
Marko Halanevych, a DakhaBrakha member, was interviewed by Yevhen Budko, senior editor of Mizhnarodny Tutrysm Magazine and Maryna Gudzevata, senior editor of Welcome to Ukraine Magazine.
How come you, a man, have been delegated to represent a music group which is three fourth female?
Well, the girls do most of the singing and I do most of the talking (smiles). I’m a graduate of the Department of Philology of Shevchenko University in Kyiv, and the girls are ethnographers by education — they’ve been traveling the breadth and length of Ukraine looking for Ukrainian folk songs for quite some time now. They say they don’t like talking, they prefer singing.
Go on, say a few more words about them.
They are all from Kyiv, they began their folk-song singing career in their childhood. They studied at the Institute of Culture, majoring in folklore and ethnography. During their student days, they began traveling around Ukraine collecting Ukrainian folk songs and all sorts of ethnographic materials. And now what they, and other ethnographers have found and recorded is being used by us, DakhaBrakha, in our performances. Some of the songs are age-old and we are giving them a new life.
How did you get involved in this DakhaBrakha “chaos”?
Got involved? I attended the school training actors at the Theater Dakh, and began performing in plays staged there. Vladyslav Troyitsky, the theater director, began to organize “salons” which attracted artists, actors, singers and musicians, and among them were Nina, Iryna and Olena. Incidentally, Troyitsky himself was very much interested in Ukrainian folk music and songs. The girls were bent on creating their own music based on old folk rather than on just reproducing old songs. They had accumulated a lot of experience in folk music to last them a long time.
Do you have any kind of musical education?
No, I don’t. I can’t even read notes. I think my predilection for folk music comes from my childhood which I spent in the countryside. When you grow up among folk tales told by your granny and folk songs sung by people around you naturally, as part of their life not at gigs, you sort of imbibe all that, without paying much attention to it, but then, when you find yourself in an urban environment, it begins to tell, to come out of you. It was only when I began working at the Dakh Theater that I started appreciating it.
My grandmothers were and still are good singers, one of them sings in a church choir. And both my parents are good singers too, and at family reunions a lot of singing is done.
The music DakhaBrakha performs differs a lot from traditional folk — what is the opinion of your family of DakhaBrakha music?
They find it “interesting” but “different”. They are “traditionalists” but DakhaBrakha is not alien to certain elements of traditionalism either. The more diversified a culture is, the better.
Traditions survive as long as there are people who support them.
That’s correct. Folk singing traditions live in the countryside but you would hardly find any one in town who would listen to traditional folk singing at home as people listen to other kinds of music — pop, rock, what have you.
We do not aim at popularizing Ukrainian folk music — what we sing may be based on traditional folk music but it is modern all the same. We introduce into our music a lot from traditional music of other peoples, we use all sorts on instruments which are used in performing music in “exotic,” from the Ukrainian point of view, parts of the world. We transform Ukrainian folk music into something very much different — “classical minimalism”, for example, promoted by Philip Glass, a US musician and composer, or Michael Nyman, a British composer, is a good example of the kind of music we feel is close to what we are doing. And our music is appreciated both by the public and musical critics alike. DakhaBrakha has been awarded the Sergey Kuryokhin Pop Mekhanika Prize for the contemporary music we play. It means that we have elevated what used to be folk music to the level of contemporary art.
Who was actually the founder of DakhaBrakha?
Vlad Troyitsky. He produced the idea of such a group, he goes on giving his advice. In fact, at the early stages of DakhaBrakha’s existence he was the music and art director of the group. At first, Olena, Nina and Iryna were not sure which musical path they should choose. They had beautiful voices, they had a considerable amount of folk material accumulated — but “where do you go from here?” Vlad suggested they use drums. Singing and drumming? Then various non-Ukrainian instruments were introduced. Every step was an experiment. I joined the girls to try myself in something I had never done before — I am very grateful to Vlad for suggesting I join them.
Does Mr Troyitsky have Ukrainian roots?
Not really. He was born in Ulan Ude (capital of the Republic of Buryatia in eastern Russia), and has some Ukrainian, some Russian and some Buryat blood in him. When he moved to Ukraine, he discovered he liked this land, the language and songs of this land, and the people of this land. His contribution to the development of Ukrainian culture is a highly significant one. One of the festivals he organizes, GogolFest, is an important international event that brings together many modern-art performers. Troyitsky is a successful producer, not only an art and theater director. Thanks to him many aspects of Ukrainian culture which would have stayed in the shade, are revealed and better understood. Things that are considered by many to be of little or no interest are transformed by his magic touch into culturally significant phenomena.
But is there one definite line that you pursue?
Today we may be using African rhythms and tomorrow we may be inspired by Australian aboriginal music. Vlad has a great collection of “musics” from all over the world and he used to play all sorts of music to us — we would listen and get our inspirations. Indian, Japanese — anything goes. We continue to experiment with all sorts of instruments — those that are tried and found to be able to give us what we need are used and others are discarded. We put no limitations on our music or the instruments we use — our taste is the only judge. We may take an old Ukrainian folk song and transform it into something entirely new.
Do you think that the elder generations accept such transformations of their music?
I can’t say for all of them but at one of the music festivals, in the evening, after the performance on stage, the DakhaBrakha girls, sitting around the campfire, began to sing. And suddenly we heard some elderly women singing the same song somewhere nearby. We found them and girls joined in their singing! As it turned out, it was from those women that the song had been recorded by the girls some time before! Everybody was moved to tears — a direct link between generations had been established! I think it’s all right to introduce any changes into traditional music — it would be much worse if folk songs were allowed to die.
Do you keep collecting folk songs?
Me? No, it’s the girls who do it but these days long interruptions in their ethno-travels happen due to performances we give. They do want to go on with it, even though we have enough material to last us or many other groups like ours for many years.
Which activity do you like better — performing at the Dakh Theater or at concerts with DakhaBrakha?
I can’t say, really. They are quite different things. In a theatrical performance the link with the audience is not so strong as it is when I perform with DakhaBrakha at the gigs. In the theater we do what the director tells us to, and at a concert we do what we want to do, and once the feedback is established, it provides a good link with the audience. Besides, I can stop playing music for a minute or two and tell a joke, talk to the audience.
Mr Troyitsky’s plays in the Ukrayina mistychna series heavily depend on your music, do they not?
They do. I know of many cases when people who thought that they were indifferent to folk music and heard us for the first time, changed their views and opinions. And mind you we are not great instrumentalists, you know — our forte lies in something else.
Could you be more specific?
I can’t, I can’t express it. Come and listen. And let’s leave it to the music critics to pass their professional judgment.
You must have performed to accompany those plays many times — don’t you get tired of doing one and the same thing over and over again?
Sometimes repetitions begin to tell, like it was, for example, in London when we played Prologue to Macbeth ten times in a row. But theatrical plays are not mechanical repetition of one and the same thing — there are little changes that occur in every performance and that takes away the tedium.
Did you find the reaction of the London audiences to your music and the plays different from that of the Ukrainian audiences?
I can’t generalize but I know that our Prologue to Macbeth went very well with the London audiences. They were impressed, and the papers wrote that London had never seen such an interpretation of a Shakespearian play before. For props we used hundred-year old Ukrainian decorative towels and the visual impact worked excellently.
When we performed Dreams of the Lost Road in Russia the Russian press said that “these Ukrainians have shown us the true, mystical Gogol”
What was the venue where you performed in London?
Barbican Center. It’s a place where, they say, the most advanced theatrical companies perform. The tickets were sold to all the ten performances well in advance.
Where else did you perform in recent times?
It was at the Ukrainian Pavilion at the art biennale in Venice. We welcomed distinguished guests to the pavilion by playing our music. Among them was Naomi Campbell, the former super model, who sort of danced to our music.
Do you do a lot of touring?
Yes, you may say that. Mostly it’s Europe, but recently we performed in Shanghai, China, at Expo-2010. Our musical message gets across to all of our audiences.
In the Czech Republic, for example we performed in a small town at a music festival that had been regularly held for decades. Most of the people in the audience seemed to be well advanced in years. They politely listened but did not applaud or express their appreciation in any way. We thought we faced a complete flop — but after the performance was over many people rushed to the stage holding the CDs with our music for us to sign them!
When at the Pohoda Festival in Slovakia we performed late at night, the late hour did not dampen the enthusiasm of the audience either. We experienced almost the best welcome ever!
In Ireland we played at the World Culture Festival in Dublin a couple of times, and the second time we performed at prime time in the evening. The video of our performance on stage was projected onto the screen fixed to the wall of an old building nearby.
How do you promote DakhaBrakha abroad?
In the past six years we have not spent a cent on promotion — foreign theater and music promoters and producers see our performances somewhere and then invite us to take part in various music and theatrical events. Our performances seem to be a good promotion for us.
Are you recording anything these days?
Yes, we are. We are finishing cutting an album which we tentatively call DakhaBrakha Light. It seems it’s going to be “lighter” than the previous ones. I hope though it’ll not sound like pop.
We are planning to go to Canada on a tour — they keep inviting us. Next May, if all goes well, we, together with Dakh Theatre will go to Paris with Dreams of the Lost Road. For this performance we build a rather fancy multi-tiered structure on the stage, and provide a complex lighting system.
Does the word DakhaBrakha mean anything? And where does the headgear you wear on stage come from?
DakhaBrakha was Vlad Troyitsky’s invention. He claims he picked up the words dakha and brakha from an old dictionary, and that these words in old Ukrainian meant respectively “to give” and “to take”. Besides, there is some correspondence in sound with the name of our theater — Dakh.
As far as our “stage headgear” is concerned — the design for the headgear was suggested by an actress of Dakh Theater. We thought it would look nice and would add a distinctive touch to our appearance on stage. We did not want our dresses to look too authentically “ethno” but yet we wanted to wear something that would catch the eye.
It is clear what you give — but what is it that you take?
Energy. We give our energy to our audiences and they give us back their own energy!