Marko Halanevych from the influential Ukrainian experimental folk band DakhaBrakha is interviewed by Gigwise in Rio De Janeiro
I head up to their hotel. It’s a short walk inland from the beautiful beaches of Barra, Rio De Janeiro, and a few miles from the massive Rock In Rio festival site. I am greeted at first by the sound a DJ in the lobby playing nu-metal and grunge. Then a fair-haired woman with bunches named Iryna Gorban. Band manager Gorban then leads me to Marko Halanevych, who is dressed down, wearing a flatcap – something completely different to his usual uniquely embroidered stage attire – and we find a space, away from the lobby cacophony, and strike up a conversation. Gorban translates to bridge the language gap between Halanevych and I, and adds insight towards the end of the conversation.
I am thrilled to be in their company because though it's not a vintage surrounding – the band are on the Asia stage at Rock In Rio and part of a broader theme – I found their splicing of Ukrainian folk music with a plethora of other structures and atmospheres completely arresting; a musical journey well worth taking. I’d been vying to see them live for months after hearing great things from within the industry, and reading about the Dakh theatre and their visionary founder Vlad Troitskyi. With five albums currently under their belt – some conceptual, some performance-based, and others easy listening – the band are on the verge of a follow up, and keen to chat about their experience recording. But beforehand we traverse topics of how revolution inspires music, their intricate musical style, how they formed, and much more. So without further ado, here’s Halanevych, as translated by Gorban:
Gigwise: Hi, nice to meet you both. I was in Kyiv recently. Great scene. I did an article about new Ukrainian music. I didn’t put you in the list - you’re well established.
Marko Halanevych: Yeah, we’re veterans.
GW: Speaking of which, I’m interested in your perspective on Ukrainian new music because you’ve been going 15 years as a band. How different was the music scene then to what it is now?
MH: The number of bands has risen, and so has the quality. For me, personally, a new wave of Ukrainian music happened after the 2014 Revolution of Honour [ousting of the elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych]. People feel this new spirit and energy in them; they feel power and self-confidence. And for the first time people felt it became possible - and were proud to - succeed in the arts in Ukraine without feeling the need to get big in Russia first. It’s a really big energy, and it’s everywhere in Kyiv: music, art, theatre, cinema, bars, restaurants and so on.
GW: Your comment there on different arts is significant. After all, you’re not just a music group?
MH: At present, DakhaBrakha is mostly about music. But DakhaBrakha was born in theatre. And we are active and embedded in the arts scene. We are part of GogolFEST – the biggest contemporary arts festival in Ukraine.
GW: Good stuff – I was reading that the band has an unusual cello tuning. Does that play a big role in the sound? What was the incentive behind seeking it out?
MH: It happened accidentally really because in DakhaBrakha there are no professional musicians. We found a cello in Dakh theatre [an avant garde theatre in the capital Kyiv where the band was founded] and Nina [Garenetska] tried to play it and tune it how it was comfortable for her to play. We understood after playing that it’s not correct but we’re really used to it and we like it and so we keep it.
GW: I must ask you about common misconceptions in the media about DakhaBrakha because the narrative is that there’s this higher education behind it. I think it’s because the vocals are very accomplished and people assume that there’s a classical training behind it. But it’s not true?
Marko: It’s partly true. The girls [Nina Garenetska, Olena Tsybulska, Iryna Kovalenko, Oleksandra Harbuzova] are professional singers and started singing together in an ensemble in childhood, so they’ve collaborated for over 25 years, and it’s why they are sounding like one body. They only picked up instruments 15 years ago when DakhaBrakha appeared.
GW: It’s punk rock.
MH: Yes, exactly. Finally! (laughs) It’s very naive, minimalist. It’s not virtuoso.
GW: You just reminded me, I was reading in another interview about classical minimalism interacting with Ukrainian folk. What do you mean by that?
MH: In the beginning Vlad [Troitskyi], who created DhakaBrakha, was involved with classical minimalism and these different ethnic approaches. And 15 years ago he just gave us music to listen to and we really listened a lot: Michael Neumann, early Philip Glass. And we really tried to absorb this principal when writing music. It’s only the feeling of this; it’s not like we use them directly. It’s not like we use the structure of classical minimalism. Instead we use this atmosphere, this conceptual idea, and the style of playing instruments. Classical minimalism is approachable for people of our musical ability.
GW: So the other element Vlad gave when he was giving you music was his taste in Carpathian music and old folk songs?
MH: Well, not exactly. The girls are professional ethnomusicologists so they know different parts of Ukraine (folk from different parts of Ukraine is really different). So they’re really professional in this and singing and they know this material. So, we have this basic thing: Ukrainian folk, but they only know well the Ukrainian part of folkore. Vlad, then, suggested we do an experiment with folklore and make our view of music wider. He gave us the best examples of different kinds of music from his taste: classical, world music, whatever. He also wanted to experiment by putting authentic Ukrainian folk songs in different rhythms, atmosphere and sounds which are not usual for Ukrainian music. That’s why at the beginning even it was a bit artificial: you put Ukrainian songs to some African rhythms!? It’s not our rhythms. But then we felt it started to work, it was really compatible. Plus, it’s a new way of conserving this Ukrainian authentic music: putting it in some unusual circumstances; mixing everything. And we think we give new life to these old songs. I mean, they may be somewhere in archives or some professional people really listen to it. But in general it’s not widespread. People aren’t singing folk in cities. It’s not a common things for Ukrainian families to play in the evenings. But our approach means people can hear Ukraine all over the world. And it opens Ukraine for Ukrainians. Young people can really feel it and understand it.
GW: A consequence of the music is it brings people together and unites Ukraine which was being ruptured, I remember Vlad, your creator, said in an interview. Can you claim those things?
MH: It’s true. Ukraine is a post-colonial country and we face a lot of challenges. Most people think Ukrainian is something secondary, not so developed – they think it’s not a village, farmer language. So there’s a big process of change, to embrace and celebrate our rich culture and language and one of the quickest way to feel this is with music. We try to show people in Ukraine that it can be modern, it can be successful, because we play in Glastonbury or WOMAD, or whatever.
GW: Well it’s definitely doing well. I’d like to go back to what you saying about picking up the cello in the club. How did you find yourself there and how did you find the girls?
MH: The girls were in their last years as musicologists at University and thinking what to do next. They were open to different experiments and they tried to find themselves. And Vlad Troitskyi, who was director of one of the first private theatres in Kyiv, he just – one of their friends just brought them to this theatre just to meet Vlad. Vlad said, ‘Maybe we could try something together’, because he had different experiments with different bands and usually these bands were these ethnic bands so they really wanted to sing ethnic music, they didn’t want to spoil it somehow. But, to their benefit, the girls were open and wanted to try. I was an actor in this theatre and a professional Ukrainian philologist – not a professional actor or musician.
GW: Why did Vlad suggest that you were the one to work with the girls?
MH: It’s a hard question. I asked him several times and he can't answer. I was an actor and maintenance guy at the theatre. Why Vlad decided it’s good idea for me!? Nobody knows. I think even Vlad doesn’t understand how it happens. He just feels this.
GW: I was listening through some of your back catalogue, and the record that stood out to me is Yahudky , is that an important album?
MH: It was a long time ago, I don’t remember. It’s one of the first and the first three albums more dark, atmospheric and dramatic because most of this music was written especially for theatre performances. And then we saw people were frightened to listen to it driving the car so then we tried to do something suitable for that [Light, 2014].
GW: Your latest album, The Road . How does that differ?
MH: The Road was dramatic because it was created at the time war over Crimea began between Ukraine and Russia. We tried to do write several time, during that time but didn’t have any inspiration. For others, revolution in your country and city is an inspiration; for us it the opposite. Then Vlad suggested we use songs from the different parts of Ukraine and unite Ukraine in our album.
GW: Before coming to Rio, I saw on social media that you checked into a beautiful looking studio in the Brazilian countryside. What did you record and is there new music coming?
MH: One of our agents knew we had some time before Rock In Rio spare and knew the studio in the mountains and we decided to go for it. We always recorded in Ukraine where there’s plenty of distractions. You can’t concentrate only on recording and now it’s time for us to create new material for a new album and we had a week in this ranch to record it. Great hospitality, very calm, very nice place, gave us inspiration and we had a fun time.
GW: Did you complete anything?
MH: We recorded all the songs we planned to record, now we're mixing in Ukraine.
GW: Great. Is there anything that connects this material?
MH: This album will not be conceptual. We are touring a lot in the U.S.A so American music has become a big influence. Blues, soul in our Dakha style.
GW: So there’s no limits?
MH: If we listen to something interesting we try to absorb it. Of course we have some limits because we don’t use electronic instruments, but, who knows, in several years we might. For us it’s interesting to produce all this music without electronic sound, not to use samples but to do it by hand.
GW: Thinking back to the Ukrainian scene briefly, a lot of industry eyes are on the East at present. There was a panel at a showcase festival recently referring to the east as a 'hot new market’. I personally think this is down to there being a lot of unique, mixture music. What do you think the cause of that is? Is that a generational shift with music being a lot more accessible post-Communism?
MH: Of course it helps to open boundaries and the internet's allowed us to check any music, any festival in any spot of the world. For example in 90s you would never see some avant-garde music on TV. You would need to find it from people who would bring it from abroad. People would make social relations according to music.
Iryna Gorban: On the other hand, there’s been a slow uptake due to a limited industry in our country. Moscow was tastemaker for years and only very recently is it possible to be a popular musician in Ukraine but not popular in Moscow. Even now, all big music offices are in Moscow. Only Deezer have their own representative in Ukraine which is separate from Russia and Belarus. There is no real industry for making concerts, for producing ticket, for advertising. It’s still not easy for big, big artists. But for artists of our level it’s possible not to go to Russia, not to be on TV, radio and still get people to concerts.
GW: Do you think there’s more structure now?
IG: More institutions have appeared who are finding how to get funding, etc, from those who are interested in Ukrainian art.
GW: But you built it up from scratch?
IG: DakhaBrakha is the example for a lot Ukrainian musicians that it’s possible. A lot of people say, 'If you play there, so can we. If you can do that independently without a label or investors then so can we'. But, you know, it’s been very gradual process. A lot of people found out about DakhaBrakha five years ago - even in Ukraine - but we worked for this maybe 10 years, so, for us it’s not like in one day we became popular and famous. In Ukraine it was big news that Beckham used our music for his new cosmetic. For Ukraine it was like, 'Oh, it’s possible'.
GW: You were on the soundtrack for Fargo as well. Was that a big moment?
IG: Yes, Ukrainians are big fans. We were picked but at first we didn’t know which episode. They just sent the synopsis and we said, 'OK'. It didn’t look like it would be killing or something. Then we saw the episodes and it was connected with Russian Cossacks. It was about mafia and some people in Ukraine say, ‘Of course, Ukrainian music… it’s only it’s only for Russian mafia’. So they can never understand if it’s Ukrainian or Russian. Some Ukrainian people said this synch sucked as a consequence. But generally it’s OK. For people in this huge industry can notice a small band from Ukraine and use their music [it's great]. Lots of people think we met him [Beckham] somewhere and had a drink and after this he uses the music. But no just some people watching some Tiny Desk, KEXP, BBC.
GW: Well glad to see it go so well, thanks guys.
MH and IG: You’re welcome.