The Ukraine is under siege and many around the world are witnessing the horrors of war in real time. Many of us are doing what we can be it financial contributions, political pressure or spiritual support. Some may debate whether we should be listening to music at this time but in truth life goes on for the rest of the world and if we keep the Ukraine and the people in our thoughts and prayers, that is at least something. I write a blog about Music and not that I think this post will change what is going on but for me personally the research itself gave me a new appreciation for the music of the Ukraine. Here in Canada we have a special relationship with the people as we are have the third largest population in the world of those with Ukrainian origin at approximately 1.4 million. For the most part I “stick to my knitting” in my choice of topics but today I felt compelled to go a bit beyond. For so many there is little time for music now, however as we all hope for the future of a free Ukraine, the spirit of the people will always remain and their songs will play a big part.
A Brief History of Ukrainian Music
This region has an incredibly rich and diverse past that is well preserved by many both inside and outside of the country. There really is too much to cover in one blog post so I will do my best to give an overview and then take a quick look at the pop scene. I found some great resources so I encourage you to click on the references.
The first reference is where I gained most of material: Ukrainianpeople.us which has an amazingly succinct explanation of the traditional songs be they ritual laments, work songs or other social and ethnically based melodies including the instruments that are used.
From what I understand, structurally speaking the music is based on two main principles. One being melismatic, relating to one syllable being sung with different notes and the other is heterophonic, meaning several voices singing in the same style with each having a slight variation. These characteristics are also heard to some degree in Western Folk music. If you click the links here is brief example of melismatic singing and here is a very good explanation of heterophonic in YouTube video.
The “Shchedryk” (Bountiful Everything) is based on traditional melodies and was arranged and composed by Mykola Leontovych in 1916. As designed it quickly became a traditional New Year’s Eve song. For the much of the Western world we recognize this melody as “Carol of the Bells”. Written in English by the Ukrainian American composer Peter Wilhousky, the song has a different meaning and arrangement. As a testmate to the influence of the culture here in Canada, it’s common knowledge that many Ukrainians observe the Orthodox New Year date of January 14. Growing up I had friends that kept the family Christmas tree up until that date, and the long standing Ukrainian Center in London, ON is now actively taking donations and sending them by air.
The music of the Ukraine represents the fabric of everyday life. They have songs for just about everything. Incantations for healing, laments for the dead and songs that represent the harvest, the seasons and summer holidays. For example the end of Summer and the Kupalo Festival with ritual songs of love, feasts and plentiful harvests. The Wedding songs are sung as a guided tour or narration through the ceremonies. The Vechornyzi are winter evening work songs and the word has a dual meaning for young people’s evening gatherings. Dance is a very important part of not only the music but everyday life. The kolomiyka or Kolomya is a blend of song, instrumentation and dance. If you don’t know the name of the hopak, you will recognize this lively and acrobatic dance when you see it.
While many of the traditional instruments have a shared history, there are many woodwind pieces such as the Sopilka, Frilka, Tylynka with a long history from various regions of the Ukraine. The bandura is something of a cross between a lute and a harp and the kozba (also the name of a Ukrainian Rock band in the 1970’s) is a stringed type of lute with a history dating back to 6th Century Ukraine. The rebec fiddle dates back to the middle ages and in the last 200 years there is the tsymbaly, which is a type of dulcimer as well as the accordion adopted from Hungary. The buben comes in the form of a tambourine and some are more drum like and can be played with a stick.
Ukrainian Pop Music
While I don’t understand a word of Ukrainian I can still enjoy listening to the music. The language lends itself to flowing lyrics and vocal runs due in part to the softer consonants. The artists of Ukraine have incorporated some of the traditional sounds and instruments with newer technology. This gives the music a hybrid sound that is truly unique.
While searching songs on Youtube I see that that well known groups, including Kazka has placed a message on most of their songs about the current conflict, and to be honest the english translation is a bit ambiguous. I am not sure whether they are asking us to stop watching their videos or they calling for a STOP to the invasion, the later makes more sense but you can check it out yourself.
Here is a Youtube link for Kazka, one without the message attached. The group were cut after the 5th episode of the X-Factor but have gone on to great success and have released three albums since 2017. The Rock band The Hardkiss was the runner up for the National Selection for Ukraines entry into Eurovision in 2016. Since then they have had great success releasing three more albums after their initial one in 2014. Here is a link to their 2021 single “Сестра“.
The band Onuka is a great example of the fusion of the traditional with the modern. Here is one of their earlier songs from 2016, “Svitanok“. Then there is a band called Okean Elzy that has been around since 1994. It was formed by four young men in Lviv, and the lead singer became a member of Parliament. Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is currently very active in reporting events as they unfold during the invasion. Listening to this song from six years ago will truly break your heart, “Not Your War” (Не твоя війна). Svyatoslav’s twitter feed is alive with 1.7 million followers and he appears to be in real time on the streets of the cities of the Ukraine. You can follow him at @s_vakarchuk.
Bless the hearts of the brave people of Ukraine so they may all sing again.
Here are some ways you can help:
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress
London Ukrainian Centre Facebook Page
Canadian Red Cross Ukraine Support
International Committee of the Red Cross Ukraine
4 thoughts on “Ukrainian Music”
Your post is very much appreciated, I am sure any support in any form is welcomed by those who have been invaded.
You’re welcome David I have you and your Ukrainian family very much in my thoughts. I have taken up your call for financial support and I will update my post with some actionable links. Keep well.
What an interesting blog this month Randy! Also, a great way to bring some attention to the wonderful people of the Ukraine during such a terrible time.
Thanks Darren, always appreciate your support!