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Olena Karpenko, whose stage name is Solomia, has in recent years begun to capture a growing popular attention. She was interviewed by Yevhen BUDKO.
It was three years ago that I chanced to attend the performance given by Solomia at a private party. I did not quite know what to expect. The singer, wearing an evening dress, performed melodic songs, accompanying herself on the piano. I was impressed both by Solomia’s voice and her charismatic performance.
Later I learned that the range of what she performed on stage was impressively large: from opera arias to rock songs. I also learned that she composed her own music and that her interests include poetry, drama, journalism, culture studies and psychology.
Olena Karpenko earned her BA in culture studies and MA in journalism of the University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and she also completed the full course of studies at the National Academy of Music. Her humanitarian studies broadened her culture horizons but it was music and her overriding ambition, nurtured from childhood, that determined to a
large extent her career in life (starting at the age of five, Solomia for several years was a soloist of the children choir of the State Radio and Television) .
Solomia has collected quite a few prizes at music competitions and festivals, among them: 4 Honorary Mentions at the Billboard World Song Contest in the USA in 2007 and 2009; in 2007 she took part in the Song of the Year International Songwriting Competition in the USA and was the runner-up with her song “Inner Voice”; in 2007 she won the Toronto Exclusive Magazine Awards International Contest in the nomination “Best International Adult Contemporary Female Artist” and in the nomination “Best International Adult Contemporary Song” (“I Realize”); her songs are played by radio stations of Ukraine, the USA, Canada, Italy, Germany and Australia.
Olena Karpenko, alias Solomia, won prizes at the literary contests in Ukraine in 2005, in 2006 and 2009. She published two books of poetry: Touch in 1998 and Necklace in 2005; her book Troyanski koni telereklamy. Movni manipulyatsiyi (Trojan Horses of TV Advertisement. Language Manipulations), won a prestigious Ukrainian literature contest Smoloskyp in 2006.
She turned up for the interview wearing jeans and a leather jacket, and evidently well prepared for all sorts of questions.
Ms Karpenko, as far as I know you visited Mexico recently. Why Mexico?
I went there to carry out a music project Arrata which had been launched by Mr Ivan Moreno Arrieta and me. The music we recorded combined rock, folk and even some elements of opera. On the one hand we sought to produce something that would introduce basically a Ukrainian culture product to the world, and on the other hand it would reflect the current tendencies in modern music.
And during my recent visit to Mexico the album was cut. It was recorded both in English and in Ukrainian. The album has not yet been released but it will be soon.
Mr Arrieta is one of the leading producers in Mexico. He has won several MTV and Grammy prizes. Besides he is an excellent drummer, sound engineer and music arranger. He worked for such music stars as Elton John, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Do you have a predilection for rock?
Currently rock is what attracts me most, it’s ‘my” music, but I keep abreast of all styles of music that are current in the world. Only if you are aware of all these styles you can develop your taste, professionalism and your own personal style.
How different, from your point of view, are the approaches to the music business in Ukraine and in the West?
Very different, I’d say. In America and in Europe, once you demonstrate in some way that you have a talent, you have ample opportunities to develop it. If you win a music contest, your songs will start to be played on the radio, you get invited to perform at various venues, and you accumulate experience of public performances. In Ukraine you do not get any of these things unless someone introduces you to one of the three or four leading producers. But even then the first thing that this producer will ask you will be whether you have enough money to engage his services. Some of the money he wants for himself and some of it will go for making a video, for paying for broadcasts, for promoting your song. In other words, you sort of buy popularity rather than earn it.
I know many Ukrainian pop and rock performers and I can tell you that by the western standards their income is quite modest. Talented performers have to squeeze themselves into the “format” that the producer sets. Producers have certain agreements with concert halls and radio stations which target certain audiences and they cater to the tastes of these audiences. In Ukraine, it is practically impossible to live off music festivals, performances on television or on the radio — you earn most of your income at what is called “korporatyvy”, that is parties and presentations which are organized by some “corporate bodies” — all sorts of organizations, offices or private persons.
I find it to be humiliating, and I seek ways of letting people hear my music, not music that producers want me to perform.
That is why I look to the west where I can get my music recorded and promoted, and through my music I want to make Ukraine known as a unique, culturally rich and beautiful land.
Incidentally, some of the performers I know regularly go to China, the Arab Emirates and other eastern countries to perform. They are also looking for their chance to establish themselves as performers in their own right.
It used to be Russia where many performers from Ukraine went to get their music careers launched. So now they travel much further east.
It’d be more correct to say that so far it is the east that is going west. At the music academy where I studied, about a third of the students were Chinese. They work very hard and get good results — they know they will have a good future in their native country.
The Ukrainian language is the second best as far as its “singing qualities” are concerned after Italian, and it’s a shame that in Ukraine, a land where there are so many people who have great singing abilities and voices, Ukrainian singers are not promoted the way they should be in their own country.
Some of the people I know who have been lucky to sign contracts with western opera companies wish they’d rather perform in Ukraine than elsewhere. It is their very sincere wish, not just empty words. But in wishing to give, it is important to know that what you give will be gladly and thankfully taken.
In Ukraine, promoters and producers prefer those who have already established their popularity and thus full houses will be guaranteed. Such performers are “exploited” to such an extent that they lose their voices, and meanwhile younger performers are kept away from big venues and do not have much of a chance to get through to the audiences who potentially would appreciate them.
Are you taking steps to hype your image and songs in Ukraine?
No, not really. I don’t think I care much for making my name known to everyone here in Ukraine — but I want Ukraine to be much better known in the world. So I’ve chosen to work at promoting the image of Ukraine at the international arena.
It does not mean that I am doing nothing in Ukraine or for Ukrainians. For example, I’m releasing an album, Den’ Narodzhennya (Birthday), of Ukrainian songs for children. It was entirely my idea — I’ve written music for it, I’ve written the lyrics, recorded the vocals, and I’ve managed the production. I hope and I actually feel it’s going to be noticed and appreciated. The lyrics are full of optimistic cheer. This project has been carried off jointly with a friend of mine, the talented composer Igor Gromadsky who did the arranging of my music. We took care to make the lyrics and music of the songs easily remembered. In fact, some of the mnemonics techniques were used. After a couple of times of listening to the disc, a child can repeat the words of the lyrics and can sing the tune. One of the songs has English words in it arranged in such a sequence that the child listening to it can easily memorize the letters of the English alphabet.
The album is going to be released within the framework of a more general project, Dytyache radio (Radio for Children), which is designed to promote creative thinking in children. It is being carried out with the support of three ministries and the charity Fund Ukrayina dityam (Ukraine for Children).
May I ask a traditional journalistic question — what are your plans for the nearest future? New books, new discs?
Let me tell you this first.… Once, when I was in the USA, I was invited to attend a party. In a big room there was a lot of people talking and laughing, and through all this noise I could hear someone playing Chopin. I made my way through the crowd closer to the piano. When I looked at the woman pianist’s hands, I felt tears filling my eyes — her hands were all withered by some disease, with only five fingers on both hands! It was a miracle she could play at all — and even a greater miracle she could play a difficult piece by Chopin so well! Later I learned that the pianist was a professor of music and her husband who was also present at that party, was a professor of philosophy. One of their handsome sons is a well known pianist in America.
It was then that I realized that there are no limitations that we can’t overcome with God’s help and through our own determination. All we have to overcome is our laziness and passivity.
Now back to my plans — if I made definite plans, set a schedule and tried my hardest to carry them out, I might fail to notice what God has in store for me.
Well, all right. What about things you like to do best?
Giving preference to something at the expense of something else is also a constraint, a limitation. I am open to anything that comes my way, I take whatever God gives me. And then I can easily determine for myself what suits me and what does not.
If you happen to entertain guests from abroad, what do you show them in Kyiv?
I show them the Cathedral of Holy Sophia, the Pechersk Lavra Monastery, streets in the section of town we call Podil. If I can, I take them to the village of Vytachiv in the Land of Kyivshchyna where the geological strata are open to view and you can trace the history of Earth millions and millions of years back in time. I think there is only one other place like this in the world — it’s Grand Canyon in Arizona, the USA…
I personally like so much the picturesque landscape in the vicinity of the town of Trypillya, the park in Kachanivka. I’ve never seen places of such beauty anywhere abroad though I traveled widely.
I can tell you that many foreigners who come to Ukraine for the first time experience many pleasant surprises. They look around and keep explaining, “How beautiful the nature is here, how beautiful women are, how delicious the food of Ukrainian cuisine is, how charming the folk music is!” They make discoveries at every step, and I enjoy helping them make these discoveries.
At the meeting with the US president George W. Bush
In the ancient city of Teotihuacan, now an archeological site.
Ukrainian singer Solomia and the Mexican producer
The scenic place in the vicinity of the village
Photographs from Olena Karpenko’s archive