Tales From The Road

DakhaBrakha: From Kiev to San Diego

by Beston BarnettMay 2016


DakhaBrakha is an avant garde folk music quartet from the Ukraine that is making its San Diego debut as part of ArtPower’s “Global” series at UCSD. The music of this one-man/three-woman ensemble is acoustic, droning, dramatic, and distinctly eerie. Traditional vocal melodies are made to float uneasily over hand percussion, cello, and accordion, like wind over rough water. The women wear white lace wedding dresses, ropes of colored beads, and great looming hats of black lambswool. They punctuate their melancholy chanting with sudden yips and bird calls, like naturalists traversing the Carpathian Mountains. The overall effect–entirely purposeful–is of dispatches received from some ghost-haunted village on the other side of the world.

Listen to their NPR Tiny Desk concert on YouTube and see for yourself if I’m exaggerating.

It is an unfortunate truism of the current climate in “world music” promotion–at least in the States–that all hot new groups must be described as surprising fusions of local and global. As if every wandering shepherd in Mongolia hasn’t been listening to gangster rap for 20 years now. It’s assumed that the audience believes the performers of traditional musics have been cloistered in yurts somewhere since World War I and will be astounded–again!–to hear that said performers use the internet just like you and me.

The deeper truth is that all music, all throughout human history, caveman to Bieber, has been some kind of fusion of new and old. Still, the myth of authenticity lives on.

So, what has DakhaBrakha been listening to from their yurt in the Ukraine? There’s West African, Brazilian, and Arabic rhythms here, though in the main it’s the same 4/4 stuff western audiences all seem to demand. How else will we bob our heads? With the prevalence of the cello, it’s hard not to hear Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble sawing away from a neighboring yurt (which I mean as a compliment). The group’s arrangements are very cool, too, very theatrical; there are long minimalist passages of modal accordion and pizzicato cello, which clearly draw on Steve Reich (the band members admit as much), but they’re broken up by rousing outbursts from someone’s uncle’s drunken country wedding. Listen carefully and you may hear that the weird cousin at the wedding has gotten his hands on a didgeridoo from somewhere.

Whether you can identify these influences is completely irrelevant. Think of them as the lighting or the set design: the main act, center stage, is the singing of the three women. Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsibulska, and Nina Garenetska weave in and out, threading together entrancing harmonies like the very Sirens of Homer. (In this analogy, Marko Halanevych, the other member of the ensemble, is Odysseus tied to the mast, calling out, urging them on.) And though there has no doubt been considerable tinkering with the arrangements, these sung melodies are the most traditional Ukrainian element of their music, rooted in villages, in parties and rites of passage.

The singing style, unique to Eastern Europe, is opaque, tangled, and overwhelming. One imagines vocal cords fraying. Committing journalistic suicide, I quote these three wonderful sentences from the Wikipedia article on Ukrainian folk music:

Ukrainians have fostered a peculiar style of singing, which they call “bilyj holos” (literally  “white voice”). The vocal range is restrictive and in a lower tessitura. This type of singing primarily exploits the chest register and is akin to controlled screaming.

DakhaBrakha are serious students of “white voice.” According to their website, Kovalenko is a professor of folklore and Tsibulska is using any free time backstage to put the finishing touches on her doctoral dissertation about Eastern Ukrainian wedding songs. The hallmark of this traditional singing–apart from its kinship with controlled screaming–is the back and forth between unison and very close diaphony: from singing the same note to singing two notes a step or even only a half step apart. Stretched out in long passages, the effect is spine-tingling, like fingernails on a blackboard, but in a good way.

I first heard this kind of women’s close diaphony singing–the white voice–when the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir came to the U.S. in the late ’80s. (Also called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, they later became known for their epic contribution to the Xena: Warrior Princess theme music.) They were awe-inspiring, some two dozen big lung’ed women in ethnic garb who just absolutely belted it out. There is no American equivalent to this full-throated, almost minatory female voice. One thinks of Sister Rosetta Tharpe or maybe Joan Jett, but their voices contain more warmth, more subtlety. They’re not scary enough. I’ve heard women’s choruses in condomble–the Brazilian variant of voodoo, in which women sing and whirl themselves into ecstatic possession–that came close.

We’ve been mining the unique melodies and forms of Eastern Europe for centuries. Czech composer Antonín Dvořák used so many Ukrainian motifs in his work that his word for them–“Dumky,” Ukrainian for “thoughts”–became the formal term for a passage of classical music invoking thoughtful or melancholic folkloric elements. Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky wouldn’t be the same without them. “Jingle Bells” is actually a Ukrainian folk song, though I’m certain it’s unrecognizable when sung in white voice. And, supposedly, Ira Gershwin penned “Summertime” after hearing Oleksander Koshetz and the Ukrainian National Chorus perform “Oi Khodyt Son Kolo Vikon” (“A Dream Passes by the Window”) in New York City in 1929. I don’t believe it, but who knows? I found a version of this fateful lullaby performed by the Sokalsky Sisters Trio (bless you, YouTube), and it is beautiful beyond words. I’ve listened to it practically 15 times while writing this.

The Soviet era had a strange effect on Ukrainian music. Religious chorales were severely restricted, but village music, seen as the voice of the proletariat, was elevated to national importance. Thus, bands proliferated with names like the Transcarpathian People’s Orchestra and the State Ukrainian SSR Bandura Players Capella. Much of their recorded music falls on modern ears like a soundtrack to Soviet Looney Tunes. The approved lyrics from this period–propagandist drivel about class struggle and the Workers’ Party–are now universally reviled in Ukraine, but the music and the traditional instruments it was played on survived.

DakhaBrakha incorporate a variety of folk instruments into their act: the garmoshka, the bugay, the zgaleyka, and a shrill oboe-like device that I think is called a surma. Between these, the outlandish costumes and Garenetska’s colorfully painted cello, they bring a kind of “ethno-chaos” (their word, not mine) to the stage, meant to beguile audiences that don’t necessarily understand the words. Their theatrical bent is no surprise: DakhaBrakha actually began as a byproduct of a theater company. They were working actors before they were working musicians.

The “DAKH” Contemporary Art Center is a clearing house for all things bohemian in Kiev. Theater, art, music, and literature come together under the stewardship of Vladyslav Troitskyi, who organized DakhaBrakha as a kind of musical ambassador for the Ukraine avant garde in 2004. They still perform there regularly, as actors, as DakhaBrakha, and sometimes as part of the Dakh Daughters Band–a larger seven-woman/15-instrument ensemble. The band is also involved in a Ukrainian version of Macbeth: I’d love to hear Kovalenko, Tsibulska, and Garenetska as the three witches!

(I couldn’t help noticing that the “DAKH” also hosts an annual GogolFest, dedicated to famed author Nikolai Gogol–Russian or Ukrainian depending on who you talk to–who wrote such lovely short stories as “Diary of a Madman,” “Viy,” and, perfection itself, “The Nose.” If you don’t know them, translations are very much available at your local library.)

Troitskyi’s plan seems to have worked. DakhaBrakha are as busy and as global as a band can get. In the last year they’ve toured Europe, North America, and Australia almost constantly, driving attendees at music festivals into frenzies of ethno-chaotic rapture. Their show on May 11 will no doubt be fairly tame, but if you’d like to see them enveloped in a cloud of colorful bandanas, girls with hula-hoops, ethno-chaotic rapture, and dope smoke, you can also catch their act two days later at the Joshua Tree Music Festival.

What does “DakhaBrakha” mean? It’s old Ukrainian, apparently, and it means “give and take.” A fine metaphor for musical acculturation, for the artistic process, for the economics of the touring band, for anything at all.

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, May 11, 8pm, Price Center Ballroom, ArtPower on the UCSD Campus; Friday, May 13, 6:30pm, Joshua Tree Music Festival

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