The Ukrainian Musicians Standing Up to Russia Through Song

When Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared in a recorded video before the tuxedoed glitterati gathered in Las Vegas for the Grammy Awards ceremony in April, he spoke of how the brutality Russia had inflicted upon Ukraine brought something else with it: silence. The silence of fallen soldiers and civilians, the silence of abandoned, demolished cities. “The war doesn’t let us choose who survives and who stays in eternal silence,” he declared. What is the antidote to this? “Fill the silence with your music. Fill it today to tell our story.”

Ukraine’s own artists are doing just that. The music of Ukraine’s own artists has not only survived the horrors and war, but also transcended them. Nina Garenetska, the singer and cellist in Ukraine’s renowned DakhaBrakha group calls it the “energy of resistance.” For years, DakhaBrakha’s three musicians have performed with traditional instruments, wearing indigenous Ukrainian costumes, and singing old folkloric songs they had recorded in villages around the country. Now, that has assumed far greater meaning, posing a direct challenge to Russia’s narrative that Ukraine has no culture of its own. “This is our inspiration. Our roots,” says 38-year-old Garenetska. “It gives us strength in this fight.”

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In spite of night-time curfews, air raid sirens, the inspiration found its way into all corners of Ukraine. The theaters and cafés are shut. In Kyiv however, an amphitheater is being built beneath the metro station archways. People gathered there for an April concert. Ukraine’s hugely popular artist and member of parliament Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. On May 8, U2’s Bono and The Edge ventured to Kyiv to perform in the metro station.

Those concerts have offered their audiences moments of respite—and a shared community coming together in the fight for Ukraine.

It was difficult, but it is possible. DakhaBrakha’s musicians anxiously scrolled their phones for messages from home before going on stage in Paris in March. Others say that music can be jarringly incongruent with their grim realities.

“In the first few days of war it was very hard for me to play music, because it is a time when people are dying, kids are dying, and music was always a form of entertainment for me,” says Dmytro Mazuriak, wind instrumentalist for the Kyiv-based group Kazka. After the war started, Mazuriak fled Kyiv to a western Ukrainian village where he saw women singing and making camouflagenets for the soldiers fighting on the frontline. It made him realise that music was his passion. “I understood that we are a nation that cannot live without singing,” he says.

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Mazuriak also found solace through music. His brother, who had collected sleeping bags and gloves for his brother’s platoon, called Mazuriak to inform him that he was wounded by a missile strike and that only four of his 30 fellow soldiers were still alive.

In March, Kazka recorded its new wartime song, “I Am Not Okay,” remotely, with Mazuriak still in the relative safety of western Ukraine, and lead vocalist Oleksandra (Sasha) Zaritska in her temporary refuge in New York; guitarist Mykita Budash, who also recorded the song from western Ukraine, later returned home to Kyiv. He showed us the evidence of an under-attack country by showing us his empty apartment and streets from his window.

“It is very tough,” Budash says. “We will manage this with a psychologist in the future for sure.”

At the moment, music fills the stations of metros and in factories used to make protection equipment for civilians. “Right now, music can express something other than words,” Zaritska says. “Because there are no words that can express what is happening.”

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