Julia Lasica on the joy and power of singing folk songs together
One of the things I’m most excited to do when I return to Ukraine every year for the summer is to gather with my family and sing. Wherever we find ourselves, whether at the lake we like to swim in, at my grandmother’s house in leafy Bucha or at another relative’s house in Kyiv, the evening will always end up with us singing together.
In Ukraine, there is a very strong tradition of folk singing. The Russians did attempt to suppress it in the USSR, like with anything else Ukrainian, shaming the traditional ways as backward, and censoring any songs whose topics were too independently minded.
But the practices and songs remained safe inside Ukrainian villages, away from the pressures of central control. There, they were passed down as they had been from generation to generation for hundreds of years, sung around kitchen tables and in the fields, hardly registered by the rest of the population.
That is until the Soviet Union collapsed. Then, members of my family, along with hundreds of other artists and musicians from around Ukraine, began to rediscover what had been purposefully pushed from national consciousness: authentic, ancient Ukrainian song.
It is most often polyphonic in nature. There are songs with more than four parts, both male and female. Singers weave their voices together in complicated melodies, projecting out from within the chest. There is nothing of the crafted sound produced by opera or contemporary pop singers, but rather a deceptively simple sound in which the voice retains its speaking textures and tones.
There is also a tradition of solos sung with kobzas (the Ukrainian version of the lyre) by itinerant bards, known as kobzars. However, this tradition suffered terribly when a massacre of the vast majority of kobzars was carried out in 1930 on Stalin’s orders.
I can imagine that the singing style takes some getting used to and is different to what most people have heard before. But listening to it and joining in myself since I was a child, it feels like it’s an opportunity for my soul, not just my voice, to sing.
It’s the subject matter of the songs, however, that makes them so captivating. The songs can be generally divided into five groups: those about the cycles of the seasons and traditional patterns of pre-industrialised life; those about love, mostly tragic; celebratory, communal songs about social life; religious songs like carols and Easter songs; and of course, the songs recording Ukrainian history in epic poems and giving voice to the fight for independence from the 17th century onwards.
Because several of my relatives actively collected folk songs, delving into ethnography, travelling to learn from those who were born into the tradition, our family gatherings were full of songs that had been rediscovered and were not often heard elsewhere.
One that we always start our family evenings off with tells the story of friends and family gathered in a cherry orchard, drinking honey-horilka (a Ukrainian spirit) together. The song explains what they’re drinking for and turns into a call for the same: many, many years of life for all those gathered, for those singing, for the hosts, for Ukraine, and even (!) for those not drinking. Cheers! It ends with everyone noisily bringing their glasses together before knocking them back.
Then we move onto more plaintive and thoughtful songs. One of my favourites that I keep bringing my family back to is the story of a little bird. We sing from her perspective, narrating how she flies over fields, swooping over the long wild grass, looking for her beloved, the eagle. As she searches, she describes how much he loves her and how well they are matched: like the moon to the star, the mist to the valley, the kozak, the traditional Ukrainian fighter, to the girl.
Another one we sing describes a kozak wandering by the river Dnipro. It tells how he has been in captivity for 200 years and relates his words as he calls on his fate, personified, to climb out of the water and free him. But she can’t, she replies with our voice, because she too is weighed down by Moscow’s chains. The song deplores the alliance created between Ukraine and Moscow in 1654 that led to Ukrainian subjugation, and ends with the wind addressing the kozak to fight his enemies. This song was banned outright right up until 1991.
As varied as the subject matters are, there’s always something that strikes me each time we sing together. We each have our own vocal place, falling into a different line of melody or harmony. But in each song, we are given the opportunity as a group to enter into a different perspective: to put on the wings of a bird, rise up freely into the sky, to wish prosperity for our friends and family, or to take on the conversations and thoughts of our ancestors. We’re able to think through a problem, put words to an emotion, pray, relive a history that touches us all, together, as we sing.
And never has that been more firmly needed than in moments like now.
As in so many times before in her history, Ukraine and her people are battling for the country’s very survival. But as we do so, we have somewhere to turn. These songs, passed down by Ukrainians who have felt the pain that we feel now, share with us the lessons they learnt, passing on the inherited strength and bravery, reminding us of what we are fighting for.
It’s no wonder that the songs are even surfacing in the music of contemporary bands, like Dakha Brakha and Go_A, both of whom were at Glastonbury this year. One rallying song from the 17th century was even covered by Pink Floyd after a rendition of it went viral.
If you want to listen to some real authentic Ukrainian folk music, it can even be heard at the Idler Festival this year. Warszawa Wschodnia (also known as the East Warsaw Ensemble) will be performing in the Orchard on Sunday 10 July. Among them is my aunt, Joanna Gorska, who has brought many songs to our big family gatherings.
My uncle, Taras Shumeyko, who is also part of the group, can’t be there unfortunately because of the mandate preventing men between the ages of 18-70 leaving Ukraine. But, when asked in a recent interview about his music what he wants most for Ukraine, he replied: “HIMARS – that will really help the musical scene flourish.”
Warszawa Wschodnia are playing the Idler Festival on Sunday 10 July. For tickets and info, click here.
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