Refined yet raucous, ethnically rooted yet modern and globally connected, a runaway hit at festivals like Bonnaroo, the Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha performs in the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium on Wednesday, January 13, at 7 pm.
A striking and theatrical foursome in Ukrainian folk attire and tall wool hats, this hot folk-punk quartet brings audiences to their feet worldwide with a joyous, liberating and completely original mix of ancient Ukrainian melodies and indie rock, pop and world music.
“The creative quartet from Kiev, Ukraine make music that sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard, with strands of everything I’ve ever heard,” wrote NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert host Bob Boilen last April. “There are rhythms that sound West African and drone that feels as if it could have emanated from India or Australia. At times, DakhaBrakha is simply a rock band whose crazy homeland harmonies are filled with joy. All the while, they play tight-knit tunes featuring accordion, drums, reeds and shakers while wearing tall, Marge Simpson-looking wool hats that made me jealous.”
DakhaBrakha has played more than 300 concerts and has taken part in numerous international festivals in Ukraine, throughout Eastern and Western Europe, and China, Australia and North America. Fresh from lauded appearances on Prairie Home Companion and at Bonnaroo, the group is touring extensively in North America during fall 2015 and winter 2016.
Wrote Rolling Stone: “Ukrainian folkdrone Björkpunk quartet DakhaBrakha went into Bonnaroo as unknowns but ended up with one of the most receptive crowds of the weekend. They got cheers for mournful accordion and apocalyptic cello sawing. Animal noises and bird whistles and howls got the audience to return favor, turning the tent into a happy menagerie.”
Formed in 2004 as part of an experimental theater work, the group’s first gigs were in support of the Orange Revolution that gave its homeland initial hope of a bright independent future. Now as the country has been beset by Russian military incursions, including the annexation of Crimea, DakhaBrakha’s self-proclaimed “ethno-chaos” is especially compelling, for both domestic and international audiences.
“We just want people to know our culture exists,” said Marko Halanevych, DakhaBrakha’s one male. “We want people to know as much as possible about our corner of the world.”
Refined yet saucy, eerie yet earthy, traditional Ukrainian music features complex polyphonic singing with interlocking lines so tight the ears buzz, long and philosophical epics, humorous ditties, instrumental virtuosity and jaunty dance tunes. Ritual and ribaldry, urbane composition and rural celebration, Asian influences and Western harmony all combined to give contemporary musicians a true wealth of potential sources.
DakhaBrakha knows these sources well: the three female members—Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsibulska and Nina Garenetska—spent many summers traveling around Ukraine’s villages collecting songs and learning from elder women in remote areas. Like these village tradition-bearers, they have spent years singing together, a fact that resonates in the beautifully close, effortlessly blended sound of their voices. Halanevych grew up steeped in village life, and draws on his rural upbringing when contributing to the group.
DakhaBrakha crafts stunning new sonic worlds for these traditional songs, reinventing their heritage with a keen ear for contemporary resonances. With one foot in the urban avant-garde theater scene and one foot in the village life that nurtured and protected Ukraine’s cultural wealth, DakhaBrakha shows the full fury and sensuality of some of Eastern Europe’s most breathtaking folklore.
“DakhaBrakha’s sound…is an anarchistic reinterpretation of traditional Ukrainian folk songs blended with eclectic influences like Middle Eastern sounds and a touch of R&B,” wrote the Washington Post this past April. “The four musicians…play a variety of instruments, including cello, piano, bass drums and darbuka, accordions, jew’s harp and the didgeridoo. Even more impressive are the vocals: harmonies layered with riotous birdcalls, eerie whistles and wails, and Halanevych’s falsetto.”
“The beginning was pretty primitive,” recalls Halanevych. “We tried to find rhythms to match the melodies. We tried to shift the emphasis of these songs. We know our own material, our native music well, yet we wanted to get to know other cultures and music well. We started with the Indian tabla, then started to try other percussion instruments. But we didn’t incorporate them directly; we found our own sounds that helped us craft music.”
The composition principles of minimalism helped them a sound of maximum impact, minimum clutter, said Halanevych. “The methods of minimalism seemed to us to be very productive in our approach to folk. The atmospheric and dramatic pieces that started our work together were created by following that method.”
This mix of contemporary, cosmopolitan savvy and intimacy with local traditions and meanings cuts to the heart of DakhaBrakha’s bigger mission: To make the world aware of the new country but ancient nation that is Ukraine. “It’s important to show the world Ukraine, and to show Ukrainians that we don’t need to have an inferiority complex. That we’re not backward hicks, but progressive artists. There are a lot of wonderful, creative people here, people who are now striving for freedom, for a more civilized way of life, and are ready to stand up for it.”