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Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha delivers an urgent message to U.S. audiences

The Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha.
Vitaliy Vorobyov
Courtesy of the artists
The Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha.

The Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha calls itself "ethno-chaos." Over the past decade, this Ukrainian-folk-meets-punk group has brought their music to audiences around the world. They recently kicked off a U.S. tour — just weeks after Russia invaded their country.

For years, DakhaBrakha has called themselves "ambassadors of free Ukraine." Their shows have been punctuated with cries of "Stop Putin!" and "No war!" Now, they hear those demands reflected and amplified around the world.

This quartet's name means "give/take" in old Ukrainian — and that's exactly what they do. Cabaret, jazz, rock and hip-hop are all part of the band's DNA. But they also explore all kinds of old Ukrainian folk styles, fed through the prism of the 21st century.

Marko Halanevych, the group's only male musician, usually does the public talking; the other three musicians, Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsybulska, and Nina Garenetska, let the music speak for them. During our conversation, the band's manager, Iryna Gorban, interpreted for us. At the forefront of everyone's minds was the fact that this tour was happening amid so much violence and heartache at home.

"Well, of course, it's a big pain and it's a big tragedy for our country, and we feel it every moment," Halanevych says. "A lot of people in Ukraine and around the world, they tell us it's our best possibility to be useful and helpful, is to be on stage and to show people our culture, music and to tell our story and to tell the story of our country."

The band has a highly honed sense of showmanship — DakhaBrakha was born at an experimental theater in Kyiv, as was their sister group, Dakh Daughters. When DakhaBrakha first hit the international scene about a decade ago, they wore unforgettable tall, angular hats and rich costumes that evoked an array of Ukrainian ethnic styles. Their music was fierce, exuberant and understitched with humor. They were playful.

But for this current tour, the group had to take on a far more serious and urgent tone. The projected backdrops include videos of ravaged Ukraine. The comments from the stage are all about their country's plight. And there are collections at the door for a charity that aids Ukraine. Halanevych says the band hopes their audiences understand the need for that shift.

"Usually we of course had fun onstage and we have this humor, but not in this program with every minute, people dying in your country," he notes. "So it's really impossible to to feel this joy of music. So that's why it's really complicated to find this balance between art and political expression. But we try to do it."

Part of the Russian propaganda message has been that Ukraine doesn't exist as an independent nation, with its own culture, history, and language.

But that is a big part of the reason for DakhaBrakha's existence. Maria Sonevytsky is an ethnomusicologist who teaches at Bard College in New York. She has written about DakhaBrakha extensively.

"I think one of the most powerful things that DakhaBrakha can offer is that they show both that there is a very rich past in Ukraine, and they show this by bringing together a diversity of musical practices from different regions of Ukraine, from different ethnic groups within Ukraine," Sonevytsky says. "And they fuse them together in a beautiful way that also suggests a future for Ukraine. It gives the lie to Putin's propaganda that Ukraine has no culture or history of its own."

"In fact," Sonevytsky continues, "what we see in DakhaBrakha's artistry is a deeply heterogeneous and complex history, the inheritance of multiple imperial experiences, the long history of attempts for Ukrainian sovereignty, and they blend together these kind of fractured pasts into a beautiful whole that is not simple, and it can't be simply reduced down to a story of one nation that is occupied by one people, but instead suggests a vibrant, if imperfect, democracy."

Despite DakhaBrakha's ambivalence about touring under such complicated circumstances, Sonevytsky says that it's still a channel for Americans to make a personal and emotional connection with Ukraine.

"No Ukrainian musician that I know would say that their songs are going to stand up against a nuclear bomb. Nobody's delusional enough to say anything like that," she says. "But if we're fighting against what may be an attempted genocide, the entire erasure of Ukraine, then I think keeping this culture in the front of our minds, learning more about it, listening, is essential."

As it turns out, the band had no reason to worry about the American audience's response. At the end of a recent show, the audience stood — and some sang along — as the band sang the Ukrainian national anthem.

With that goal of connecting audiences to Ukraine, DakhaBrakha continues its U.S. tour this month and into May.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.