In an ideal world, Dakhabrakha would be just another ethno-fusion band, although an exceptionally skilled, photogenic, and exciting one. Like other recent visitors to Vancouver—South Korea’s Geomungo Factory, Mongolia’s Hanggai, and Israeli singer Ravid Kahalani’s Yemen Blues project come to mind—the Ukrainian quartet has built its music on a deep and detailed appreciation of traditional culture but is willing to stretch those roots in many surprising directions.
As those of us who follow the geopolitical situation know, however, we do not live in an ideal world. As a result of that, the members of Dakhabrakha now find themselves serving as spokespersons for a country under siege, menaced by its much larger neighbour, Russia. It’s not a role they’re entirely happy with.
“We are not a political band,” says singer and multi-instrumentalist Marko Halanevych, speaking from a Minnesota tour stop with the help of road manager Iryna Gorban’s translation. “But we recognize that we’re part of the situation, part of this war and the struggle of Ukraine.”
Dakhabrakha began as an art project, he explains: the troupe formed specifically to accompany theatrical productions, including Ukrainian-language adaptations of Shakespeare, at the Kyiv Center of Contemporary Art. The three women in the group—multi-instrumentalist Iryna Kovalenko, percussionist Olena Tsibulska, and cellist Nina Garenetska—are all accomplished singers, capable of emulating a village choir one moment and a flock of banshees the next. The group’s recordings manage the difficult feat of sounding both distinctively Ukrainian and utterly unhinged, like a folkloric ensemble with Tom Waits as artistic director.
That impression, Halanevych says, isn’t entirely divorced from the truth. “Most of our music is based on songs collected in villages by professional folklorists,” he explains. “We can change melodies, music, rhythms, but not the lyrics or the messages of the songs. Sometimes even Ukrainians can’t understand properly what they’re about, ’cause they’re in some kind of dialect and they’re a thousand years old.”
The modern elements, he adds, come from the simple fact that Dakhabrakha’s musicians are urban Ukrainians, exposed like everyone else to English pop hits, American dance music, African rhythms, and the deep pulse of Jamaican dub.
“It was important for us to open new ways of writing Ukrainian music, to create new myths about Ukraine for Ukrainians and for other people around the world,” Halanevych says. “That’s why we mix Ukrainian folk with different genres, with different styles, with different instruments. We’re trying to give new life to our folkloric roots, but it’s not authentic music. We’re creating a kind of contemporary music, and in this way we can show that Ukraine is a part of the big world-music culture—and not only music. It’s part of the world. Before this situation right now, when Ukraine is of course in all the news and all newspapers, Ukraine was like an unknown country. That’s why we wanted to show a part of our roots—to show and share our roots and our culture with other people.”
Cultural exchange is built into the band’s name: in old Ukrainian, dakhabrakha means “give and take”, and Halanevych stresses that the war in his homeland is a struggle between Iron Curtain nationalism and a more cosmopolitan world-view.
“It’s a war between the future and the past,” he says. “Putin and his cronies, they want to renew the Russian empire and go back to totalitarian times. But Ukrainians, we don’t want to live in the past. We want to go further into an open and democratic type of society.
“Now is a really important moment, and not only with the destiny of Ukraine on the map,” he continues. “If the world community gives Russia the opportunity to spread its big influence over Ukraine again, some other countries will be next. We’re on the edge of a world war, so we really hope for the support of world society. We’ve described our wish and our willingness to be part of world society, and now we’re ready for the help and support of the different big countries that can help us in this struggle against Russia. We want to stop totalitarianism and unfreedom in our country, and we want to really start a new life.”
Dakhabrakha plays the Rio Theatre on Sunday (August 31).