Folk Music Is Helping Ukrainians Make Sense of Their Recent History

Long trivialized under the Soviets, traditional forms of song have acquired new importance thanks to the war

Folk Music Is Helping Ukrainians Make Sense of Their Recent History
A girl plays the bandura during a concert for the Ukrainian army in 2023. (Les Kasyanov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

A string of global disasters has wiped out capitalism, philosophy and opera. In their wake, disoriented figures roam ruined churches and nuclear plants, trying to make sense of what remains. Traces of past centuries litter this postapocalyptic landscape — a giant bust of Vladimir Lenin, a shattered altarpiece — becoming cult-like objects for its human denizens. But can the survivors, cut adrift from civilization, recover these objects’ true meaning?

This is the premise of “Chornobyldorf,” a Ukrainian opera performed to rave reviews in New York, Berlin and Vienna. Blending Ukrainian folk music and costumes with an avant-garde aesthetic, “Chornobyldorf” urges audiences to reconsider the world’s worst nuclear disaster in view of Russia’s repeated attempts to subjugate Ukraine, building up to the full-scale assault over two years ago.

Its creators wanted to alter people’s perceptions of Chernobyl as a catastrophe suffered not by a nation but by the monolithic Soviet Union, showing it instead as “a tragedy caused by Russian colonial power on Ukrainian soil,” Illia Razumeiko, who co-wrote and co-directed the opera with Roman Hryhoriv, told New Lines.

For Razumeiko, there are clear parallels between his characters’ quest to understand the world before the calamities took place and ongoing efforts by Ukrainians to reclaim their national heritage following centuries of devastation and distortion by Moscow. “We are constantly in the process of surviving, trying to preserve pieces of our heritage at risk of being destroyed — by invaders, Soviet Communists and, right now, by Putinists,” Razumeiko told me over the phone from Warsaw’s main airport, where he and Hryhoriv were making their way to London to receive an award from the Royal Philharmonic Society.

President Vladimir Putin’s invasion has spurred an all-encompassing attempt by Ukrainians to rediscover their country’s history, language and culture after centuries of suppression and co-optation by Moscow. Music, particularly folk songs and instruments, is integral to these efforts as the country’s war-weary population turns to their grandparents’ rich lyrical traditions, from the haunting vocal harmonies of northern Ukraine to the sound of the klezmer clarinet.

“Great upheavals were needed for us to return to our roots,” said the singer and Ukrainian Army volunteer medic Anastasiia Shevchenko, who performs under the name STASIK.

The opera’s name, meaning “Chernobyl village” in German, combines the Ukrainian transliteration of the site of the disaster with Zwentendorf, an Austrian municipality where a nuclear station was built in the 1980s but never entered service due to popular opposition.

The reactor that exploded at Chernobyl in 1986 was designed in Russia before being installed, at Moscow’s behest, at the plant in Ukraine’s forested northern region of Polissya. The disaster, and subsequent attempts at a cover-up by the Communist leadership, have for decades been a source of trauma and rage among Ukrainians. Russia’s full-scale invasion brought with it a brief but terrifying occupation of the Chernobyl plant by the Kremlin’s troops, reopening these old wounds.

“Chornobyldorf” takes the audience to Polissya, showcasing its mesmerizing folk songs. The explosion uprooted dozens of Polissyan villages and, across the decades, their residents have dispersed and their culture faded into obscurity. Yet on both sides of the Atlantic, there is renewed interest in the many field recordings from the 1970s and early 1980s that showcase Polissya’s musical riches, and in Ukrainian folk music in general.

Polissya’s vocal tradition is rooted in polyphony: Even in simple village songs, many voice parts weave in and out of a central melody, creating beguiling and sometimes unusual harmonies. The raw but ringing delivery, powerful but hinting at a hidden hurt, is due to a special open-throat singing technique that Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans call the “white voice.”

Ukrainian musicians have periodically returned to the topic of Chernobyl. A cult Ukrainian rock band, Skryabin, scored a hit in 2000 with “Chernobyl Forever,” a song about the explosion’s lasting environmental impact. Yet it was only a decade later that sustained efforts were launched to recover the musical heritage that was also destroyed. That musical legacy has since provided new tools for Ukrainian musicians trying to reckon with their country’s tragic history.

The singer Shevchenko has used a folk vocabulary to write about the Chernobyl disaster, as one of the participants in Sounds of Chernobyl — a 2020 project led by the Ukrainian curator and music producer Valeriy Korshunov. Her song “Ne vidvod ochei” (“Don’t Avert Your Eyes”), showcasing the white voice technique, likens the devastation of Polissya to the suffering of a spurned lover. It could be read as a lament for the ravaged earth, a call to environmental action or a warning against history repeating itself.

In 2011, the New York City-based Ensemble Hilka marked 25 years since the disaster by producing a record evoking “living culture from a lost world.” The “Chernobyl Songs Project” takes listeners through a Polissyan village’s seasonal rituals — from harvest and wedding songs to church carols and chants said to hasten the coming of spring, all captured by the folklorists who toured the region shortly before the accident. Many foreign listeners were first introduced to these spring songs by “Shum,” a song by the electrofolk band Go_A that was Ukraine’s 2021 Eurovision entry. A music video recorded before the contest pictures a forest near the Chernobyl plant, turning the song into a plea for the rebirth of life in the disaster zone.

Ukraine’s Polyphony Project, launched in 2014, has used some of the same folklorists’ recordings to showcase the breadth and beauty of the country’s polyphonic vocal tradition, including that of Polissya. Six years ago, the researchers published an interactive map of Ukraine that allows users to search for songs by region, theme and cultural function. Chants marking the summer solstice sit alongside chilling murder ballads and musings on unrequited love.

Elsewhere, a new generation of Ukrainian artists is using the “white voice” technique, folk instruments and traditional melodies to make sense of the Chernobyl disaster and ongoing war. Nata Zhyzhchenko of Onuka, a prominent Ukrainian band that blends folk with electronic elements, compared the occupation of the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the early days of the invasion to the script of a poor science fiction film.

For weeks, the world watched with bated breath as Russian troops dug trenches in contaminated soil, so toxic that even walking on it is discouraged. They also forced the plant’s remaining staff to work marathon shifts, making sure that spent fuel rods were continually cooled even as the plant lost its external power supply. The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog warned that Chernobyl’s brief occupation had brought the world to the brink of a potentially worse catastrophe at the plant.

“Fortunately, this land has been deoccupied, and I still hope that it will forgive humanity for a second time,” Zhyzhchenko told me.

Zhyzhchenko’s father was one of the “liquidators” dispatched to the plant to contain the disaster, including a fire that raged for weeks afterward. Throughout her career, she has spoken to Ukrainian media about the importance of learning from the catastrophe. Onuka’s songs have repeatedly returned to the topic — including on the band’s most recent album, “Room,” which Zhyzhchenko describes as a tribute to Ukrainian resilience in the face of Russian aggression.

The lead single, Peremoha (“Victory”), transforms a chorus of white voices into a droning, propulsive beat made for the dance floor. Elsewhere, on a track called 30 KM, a children’s rhyme morphs into a haunting meditation on Chernobyl, the war and the deep scars both have left in the Ukrainian landscape: “Where Pripyat, the Dnipro and the Desna are / A white angel is circling today. / He is saving forests and fields, / Telling people: “This is your land!” / Where Pripyat, the Dnipro and the Desna are, / Trouble never goes away.”

Onuka’s releases are wrapped in a sleek sci-fi aesthetic. On album covers, Zhyzhchenko appears in glistening metallic bodysuits that complement the asymmetric cut of her platinum-blond hair. But their music is far from cold and mechanical. Samplers and drum machines feature prominently, but so does the bandura, the lute-like instrument often mentioned as a symbol of Ukraine, and the sopilka, a folk flute that Zhyzhchenko described as her idea of the nation’s soul.

“It’s very loud and resonant, but also very lyrical and tender. I feel that Ukraine is exactly that — lyrical and strong at the same time,” she said.

Onuka’s sound also features the tsymbaly, or Ukrainian hammer dulcimer, and various wind instruments used by the Hutsuls, an ethnic minority living in parts of western Ukraine and northern Romania. Among these Hutsul instruments are the didyk, a clarinet-like pipe, and the trembita, a huge wooden trumpet used for signaling.

It’s not the only Ukrainian instrument that once served those wishing to spread news. Zhyzhchenko said that a century ago, the bandura was used “instead of a TV screen.” Bandura players, often blind, would travel from town to town singing dumas — long poems set to music that reflected on contemporary events, and were often mournful or irreverent. For that reason, bandurists suffered savage persecution during Soviet times: In 1932, on Stalin’s orders, all were summoned to a congress in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. Those who heeded the call were rounded up and executed on the city’s outskirts. Many others were banished or sentenced to hard labor.

Zhyzhchenko also pointed out that “insurgent songs,” defying the early 20th-century Bolshevik regime, abound in the Ukrainian musical tradition.

“How interesting that almost 100 years have passed, and history is repeating itself. We are fighting the same Soviet imperial evil again,” she said.

Possibly the most famous of these, “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow,” gained millions of new listeners in the first weeks of the full-scale war. First came a viral video that showed the Ukrainian singer Andriy Klyvnyuk performing the 1914 pro-independence anthem in front of Kyiv’s St. Sophia Cathedral, sporting military fatigues and a rifle. The song, referencing bright red berries common in Ukrainian folklore, called kalyna or viburnum, was banned under Soviet rule, and soon became a symbol of resistance to Moscow. Its chanted lyrics proclaim: “Marching forward, our fellow volunteers, into a bloody fray / To free our Ukrainian brothers from Moscow’s shackles, / But we will raise that red viburnum! / And, hey-hey, we shall cheer up our glorious Ukraine!”

The performance by Khlyvnyuk, who had cut short a U.S. tour to join Ukraine’s military reserve, was then featured in a charity single by the British rock band Pink Floyd that captivated audiences worldwide. That single’s title, “Hey Hey Rise Up,” references a line from the original song that calls on Ukrainians to rebel against the Soviets.

Zakhar Davydenko, who runs a weekly folk music show on Ukrainian public radio, said dozens of songs penned by 18th-century Cossacks in the Black Sea steppes and across Ukraine point to a constant danger of Russian aggression. “In some ways, folk music has always been like a newspaper — listen carefully, and you’ll realize what has made Ukrainians into the people they are today. These songs are like history books,” he said.

Davydenko can think of many reasons why folk is increasingly popular in Ukraine, both with listeners and with a new generation of musicians. Some have been purely pragmatic, at least at first. In June 2016, more than two years after Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution forced out a Russia-friendly president who tried to scupper an association agreement with the EU, Kyiv imposed gradually rising language quotas for radio playlists. To begin with, the rules stipulated that at least a quarter of songs played each day should be in Ukrainian. (Other countries have imposed similar rules: France enforced a 40% language quota from 1994 to 2016 to stop English-language songs from dominating the airwaves. The quota has since been reduced to 35%.) For comparison, one 2012 survey by the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper found that only 3.4% of songs played on prime-time radio were in Ukrainian.

A trained ethnomusicologist, Davydenko is also waging a campaign against sharovarshchyna — stereotypical, often belittling depictions of Ukrainian folk culture promoted by Soviet-era dance troupes and singers. The name comes from “sharovary” — the loose red britches supposedly worn by Ukrainian Cossacks in the early modern period. (The garment, along with a broader romanticized vision of Cossack life, was popularized by Ukrainian ethnographers in the late 19th century.)

Sharovary was also the name of a show that Davydenko hosted before the full-scale war. He said his aim was to introduce listeners to authentic Ukrainian folk culture, far removed from the acrobatic stage dances and often crude demeanor of these Soviet-era groups.

According to Maria Sonevytsky, an ethnomusicologist at the University of California, Berkeley, these state-sanctioned constructs have fed on ideas of Ukrainian culture as “wild,” both provincial and exotic, as opposed to the “high arts” emanating from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Sonevytsky and others argue that these practices helped project an idea of Russian culture as universal and civilizing, while those of other Soviet nations were viewed through a purely “folkloric” lens — part lovably quaint, part barbaric and wholly in need of Russian tutelage.

Now, new folk bands are steadily emerging out of the RYS Project, an initiative that puts on traditional music classes in Kyiv and organizes “music camps” in villages across Ukraine. Davydenko himself is a violinist in one of these bands.

He admitted that friends sometimes ask him whether he could send them some joyful Ukrainian folk songs for a change. (He insisted that they do exist.) But the main cause of joy he talked about was seeing people of all ages join impromptu street parties in Kyiv, where professional folk musicians teach them the steps of a traditional dance — something he said now happens regularly. That, and seeing an audience raucously applaud a choir of elderly village women from Chernihiv, in northern Ukraine, during a folk festival in the capital.

“I’d love people to realize that we’re still having parties in the middle of the war! That we are still alive here,” he said.

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