Dakha Brakha is an exciting Ukrainian ethnic music band that consists of three girls - Iryna, Olena, and Nina – and frontman Marko. They’re a project of Kyiv’s innovative Dakh Contemporary Art Centre,directed by the local theatre stand-out Vlad Troitsky, who’s also the man who organised the popular Gogolfest cultural event for the last two years.
I met up with the band at the Dakh Theatre, which is under renovation at the moment. The space is filled with the requisite ethnic props, which you’d expect from an organisation that does cutting-edge riffs on Ukrainian culture, but what impressed me was how small the place is. Dakh and Dakha Brakha are becoming big not only in Ukraine but abroad, so I expected something more. The name Dakha Brakha is rooted in an old Ukrainian phrase that means give and take.
“Our director Vlad Troitsky made the decision,” explains Marko, a tenor who hails originally from the provinces and the only male in this ‘ethno-chaos’ band. “We decided to create a new style of music that consists mainly of our native Ukrainian folk motifs, with some African-styles added in. We also combine Arab, Bulgarian and Hungarian ideas. Dakha Brakha collects the components of its repertoire during our expeditions. We go out to villages, pitch our tents and visit local babushkas and ask them to sing their folk songs. We record them and use them in our compositions.”
The band has been around for four years now – their birthday is on Trinity Day. “We’ve got a diverse audience,” says Olena, who like Nina is a classic folk soprano (Iryna is an alto). “When we played the Sheshory Festival we saw goths, hippies and punks jumping around during our performance.” Even so, Dakha Brakha is still somewhat of a cult phenomenon, appealing to a discerning audience of knowledgable fans who like their aggressive sound, which involves a lot of ritualistic tribal rhythms and frenzied, sometimes caterwauling, vocals. The band is a rarity on Ukrainian music TV and radio: the girls don’t perform naked, they don’t sing sugary pop, and you won’t read about their scandals (or see pictures from their vacations) on tabloid websites. “There’s no folk market to land us wide TV rotation,” Iryna says. “We’ve got no PR manager and no marketing manager. Money isn’t our top priority.” Marko adds: “We’ve made a video, but getting it played is very expensive.”
Not only does the band not perform naked, but they perform in native Ukrainian dress, as befitting their faith in Ukrainian culture, which they believe has enormous potential that should be explored and retained. “Experience says that you can make anything popular, even singers with no voices and worthless music,” Marko says. “We don’t fit the format. Our girls stay dressed.”
“Certainly PR is always good for bands, but we believe that it’s our intelligence that will make us successful,” Iryna says. “We understand that we’re popular purely with our fans,” says Marko, who studied folk culture before becoming a performer. “Mass media sets its own laws and accepts only bands that make money. But still, we’re giving it our best.”
Back From Cannes
The girls, all Kyivites, started off together in the child vocal group Yavoryna, then joined the Kralytsya company when they were all students at Kyiv’s Institute of Culture. “One day we were invited to Dakh Theatre for one of the art evenings,” Olena says, “And we sang a song there.” They caught the ear of Troitsky and the rest is local musical history.
Recently the group visited the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Ukrainian delegation to that glittering event. “We opened up at the Ukrainian party, and the Ukrainian programme was presented first at the festival,” Marko says. “Kateryna Yushchenko was there, along with loads of Ukrainian politicians. We opened up the Molodist Festival last year and the organiser contacted Vlad Troitsky and asked us to perform in Cannes. Obviously, we didn’t hesitate.”
Marko continues, “Foreigners came up to us and congratulated us. They told us they’d never seen a performance like that before. We were very proud of ourselves.” The band has also played in London at the Centre for Contemporary Art as well as in Hungary, Georgia and Germany. “In Germany people jumped around like madmen when we played,” Iryna says. “We were surprised, because we’d heard Germans are usually very restrained.”
As for their next destination, it seems clear that this ethnic band would like to get back in touch with its music’s rural roots.“We’re tired of the concrete of Kyiv and we miss purely Ukrainian things like land, folksongs and fires,” says Iryna. What’s Dakha Brakha’s ultimate aspiration? “Eurovision,” jokes Marko before the band all says at once,
“We want to be heard and understood.”