America’s famous itinerant beat poet and philosopher Jack Kerouac once said, “The only truth is music”. I know well what he meant. Words and pictures can be used and abused to create a false picture of life and reality, but music cuts straight through to the raw emotions that our inner selves are made of. Music does not lie.
If you are of Ukrainian descent, as I am, then music is unquestionably a fundamental part of your life experience. I would take it as far as to surmise that in the Ukrainian genome, there are specific chromosome sequences that are dedicated toward the love of music. A typical Ukrainian’s life is lived to a background musical score that plays a large part in defining that individual’s history, cultural identity, character and basic outlook on life.
I was reminded of this while attending the annual Ukrainian New Year’s Eve festivities this past weekend, better known as “Malanka”. Central to these, of course, is the “Zabava” or dance. Playing at this particular “Zabava” was one of Canada’s best known and beloved Ukrainian dance bands, Zirka. Whenever I feel the need to indulge in my “Ukrainian-ness”, Zirka’s music is what I usually turn to.
The Zirka band, however, is but one of the many musical influences that have provided the background accompaniment to my life. Canada has been blessed with a wealth of Ukrainian bands, choirs, musicians and singers that have enriched my cultural experiences beyond measure.
My earliest exposure to Ukrainian music was naturally through my mother. She loved to sing and as an immigrant, she brought with her a rich trove of folk songs that she used to sing, particularly at get-togethers with friends and family. There were songs for every occasion – Christmas “kolyady” and “shchedrivky”, springtime “hayivky”, heroic odes to historical Kozak warriors, rousing patriotic songs of the Ukrainian underground, uplifting church music and the comical and sometimes bawdy “kolomeykas”.
The Ukrainian “hromada” in the small mining town of Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec where I was raised, had their own community hall with a resident choir, which though modest by professional standards, made up for it with spirit and enthusiasm. Every now and then the larger and more talented choir from Sudbury under the direction of the distinguished Pani Rohatyn would visit and stage a performance that left us in awe.
Into my teens and early adulthood, I was exposed to the wide variety of native Ukrainian Canadian musical talent, ranging from the songs of Micky and Bunny (real names – Modest and Oryssia) who introduced pop Canadian elements to Ukrainian folk music, the country and western Ukrainian fusion offerings of Al Cherny, and the D-Drifters-5 who added the rock and roll element to the Ukrainian repertoire. They were succeeded by a whole raft of Canadian born Ukrainian dance bands such as Rushnychok, Ron Cahute and Burya, Dunai, Cheremosh and many others. The popularity of the Canadian Ukrainian dance music genre continues strong today with bands like Zirka, the Kubasonics, Tut i Tam, Khudy a Motsni, the Lemon Bucket Orchestra and many others.
Ukrainian music in Canada has not just been restricted to folk or pop. There have also been many exponents of the more classical forms. Winnipeg’s Koshets Choir under the masterful direction of Walter Klymkiw gave us classical choral music of exceptional power and excellence, as have Edmonton’s Dnipro choir, and Toronto’s Boyan and Vesnivka choirs. Composer Zenoby Lawryshyn created orchestral pieces and film scores of exceptional beauty. Many Canadian Ukrainians have gone on to create successful musical careers beyond the confines of the Ukrainian community. Such well known names as Julliete (Sysak), Randy Bachman, Luba, Rick Danko, Joanne Kolomyec, Chantal Kreviazuk and Theresa Sokyrka amongst others quickly come to mind.
Over the past several decades since Ukraine became independent, we have also been introduced to a veritable explosion of popular music being created in Ukraine. Political freedom and independence fostered an impressive rebirth of musical creativity that expanded the form and nature of Ukrainian music to new horizons, fusing traditional forms with rock, rap, hip-hop and heavy metal, as well as creating whole new forms that cannot be pigeonholed into existing musical genres. The music of Dakhabrakha or Ot Vinta are a good example of this. Ukrainian pop stars and groups such as Ruslana, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, Oleh Skrypka, Ani Lorak, Taras Chubay, Jamala, Okean Elzy, Mandry, Mad Heads, Skryabin and Haydamaky are as well known in Canada as in Ukraine.
My life has always been accompanied by a Ukrainian musical soundtrack, and that continues today. Whether I am driving, entertaining friends on my back deck, or just “chilling” as my kids would say, there is usually some familiar and well-loved piece of Ukrainian music playing in the background. That is and will always continue to be part of me.