Sound and sovereignty in Ukraine

Left: Ruslana, 2004. Right: Jamala, 2016.

How terribly timely to read

  • Maria Sonevytsky, Wild music: sound and sovereignty in Ukraine (2019)
    (introduction here; she has posted a basic reading list on Twitter—her tweets are generally most instructive—and do follow her text by listening to the tracks, some of which I feature below).

The book illuminates the troubled modern history of Ukraine through particular aspects of its popular soundscape. While such urban representations are Sonevytsky’s main focus, she has cogent remarks on how they borrow from regional traditions. Each chapter adds fascinating new dimensions to the story.

Wild music cover

In the Preface she situates herself as a “halfie”, a Ukrainian American unable to pass fully as Ukrainian while doing fieldwork there, and sometimes even a target of “suspicion, derision, or hostility”. Her parents had fled Ukraine during World War Two, and on her first visit there in 1991, aged 10, she discovered that her image had been a mirage:

the real place was alien, full of real people with complex and disadvantaged lives. In it, I was a strange misfit speaking an archaic dialect imprinted with privilege and distance.

After graduating in 1991, while listening to “the cool new bands that were emerging seemingly everywhere”, she first encountered the ethnomusicologists based at the L’viv Conservatoire, going on to study the urban revival of village styles known as avtentyka, guided by the authoritative Yevhen Yefremov.

The study of pop music has become an important strand of ethnomusicology, with Eurovision a major theme (see also here and here). Sonevytsky’s theme is “loosely bookended […] by the two revolutions that coincided with Ukraine’s two most prominent spectacles of global pop visibility” in the 2004 and 2016 contests.

The Introduction opens with the 2004 Eurovision in Istanbul, where Ruslana won the contest with Wild dances, a song that soon became an emblem of the Orange Revolution:

While Ukraine itself is “liminal”, a “quintessential borderland”, Sonevytsky explores the stereotype of “Wildness” associated with the Hutsul people of the western highlands, and the “erotic auto-exoticism” of etno-muzyka—among many instances in the book where I’m reminded of China’s portrayal of its ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs. I’d also like to read what Sonevytsky might have to say about The Rite of Spring.

This book asserts that Wildness structures much of how Ukrainians today envision their horizons of possibility, and that wild music is a key vector through which citizens debate what Ukraine has been what it is today, and, even more urgently, what it ought to be.

Soon after the Maidan Revolution and the Russian takeover of Crimea, she attended a performance at a rural festival where a Crimean Tatar trio “wilded” the national anthem, with its “rather uninspiring (and in 2014, dispiritingly apropros) title ‘Ukraine is not dead yet’ ”, in a rendition “stripped of its pomp and revitalised with wild feeling”.

She ponders “sovereign imaginaries” and the instability of nation-states, observing Ukraine’s multi-ethnic and multi-national population. She notes that since Independence in 1991, “the Ukrainian state has repeatedly proven its untrustworthiness, incompetence, and disregard for its non-elite subjects. […] Many Ukrainians across socio-economic categories suffer from revolutionary fatigue, having lived through many cycles of social collapse, revolutionary hope, and eventual disappointment.”

Sonevytsky notes that

This generation tends to reject the creeping nationalism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but they also do not fully embrace faltering models of European statehood. They are suspicious of voracious capitalism and understand the dangerous precedents of “actually existing socialism”.

Chapter One pursues Ruslana’s “transformation from a marginal figure of post-Soviet Ukrainian estrada to a global etno-pop star, and then to a political activist with ambitions to transform state policy and redefine Ukrainian futurity.” Ruslana first came to fame in 2002 with Znaiu Ya (“I know”), referencing tropes of Hutsul culture:

As Sonevytsky notes,

The project depicted a community based on qualities of essentialized Wildness but exclusive of other groups prevalent in Western Ukraine, many of whom also endure histories of objectification (this includes Jews, Roma, Poles, Armenians, and others).

This led to Ruslana releasing an album for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and representing Ukraine at the 2004 Eurovision contest. From the press materials:

Here we see wild and sexy, hot and dangerous, mystic and knowledgeable about all the secrets of Carpathian mol’far (shamans) mountain Amazonkas. Fur and leather, dangerous games and unique meditations all of this charms and entertains you, gives shimmering in the heart.

Such representations commonly use folk instruments as symbolic props, such as trembita long horn, tsymbaly hammered dulcimer, and the drymba jews harp of the mol’far shaman.

Despite Ruslana’s involvement with ethnomusicologists in L’viv, such glossy exoticism was soon debated, not least by the Hutsuls themselves. Some of the discussion revolved around the archetype of “femininity”.

In 2005 Sonevytsky visited the Carpathian highlands, source of Ruslana’s inspiration, with a feeling of “naïve expectance”, such as many fieldworkers will have experienced, reaching the village of Kosmach where the Znaiu Ya video had largely been filmed (for a less glamorous Chinese scholarly  romanticization of Daoist ritual, cf. Debunking “living fossils”).

Familiar with the long history of Hutsul romanticization by L’viv urbanites, and as someone who thinks of herself as allergic to exoticizing rhetoric, I nonetheless briefly entertained the possibility that maybe, somehow, this would be “the place”, as the press release boasted, “where you find true Ukrainian exotics!”.

It soon transpired that the locals were underwhelmed by Ruslana’s repackaging of their culture (cf. the exploitation of Tibetan culture by a Han Chinese singer in Sister drum). This was not the kind of celebrity that the Hutsuls would have envisaged. Sonevytsky joined in a wedding procession, with guests “in festive, but not folkloric attire”, far from the portrayals of the media. Consulting authorities like the patriarch of the Tafiychuk family, she found considerable resentment of the Hutsuls’ “wild” image, along with some more nuanced views weighing their heightened profile and the stimulation of tourism against the price of “disgrace and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes”. Yet others took the hype in their stride. Wild dances

provoked anxious discourse among Hutsuls about whether Ukraine could be taken seriously as a “European” state if it portrayed itself as a cradle of ancient, primitive expressive culture. Wild dances represented an obstacle on the path to Ukraine’s integration into the European Union.

Given the Hutsuls’ “hybrid identities as a borderland people whose culture is fused from Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Roma, and other elements”, Sonevytsky notes the irony of their adoption as emblems of “authentic” Ukrainian ethno-nationalism. (Note also Sergei Parajanov‘s 1964 film Shadows of forgotten ancestors, a fantastical drama based on Hutsul culture.)

Many urban intellectuals, too, bemoaned “the fact that Ukraine’s most visible post-Soviet cultural export to date came ensconced in leather and metal”. They recycled the sonorous slang term sharovarshchyna, the banal caricaturing of folk culture propounded by the former Soviet regime (cf. Kundera’s The joke)—although Sonevytsky, citing the work of Ana Hofman on Slovenian and Serbian state ensembles of the socialist era, offers the caveat that it wasn’t a monolithic style, and didn’t deprive musicians of agency.

As Ruslana’s focus shifted away from ethnic culture, her progression to “eco-activism rooted in a civically minded pragmatic patriotism“ is illustrated in the futuristic Wild energy (2008), addressing the need to oppose both female trafficking and Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy imports:

In Chapter Two Sonevytsky reflects on the “freak cabaret” of the Dakh daughters, “Spice Girls with Molotov cocktails”, or “Pussy Riot—with good music”. Like many musicians, they set out by disavowing politics—Sonevytsky unpacks the various strands in the bourgeois ideal of artistic autonomy with thoughtful references (to which I might add the work of Christopher Small and Bruno Nettl), compounded in former Soviet states by antipathy towards the politicization of music. The Dakh daughters were only spurred to take up the cause with the Maidan Revolution in 2013, a performance that Sonevytsky analyses with typical insight.

Again, their mash-up of symbols (Indigenous femininity, revolutionary feminism, Hutsul rurality, experimental theatre) prompted opposing reactions, from “hipster rebellion” to”neofascist agitation”. And again, they sought “an articulation of Ukraine’s future as not either Western or Russian, but as something else”. One band member described the revolution as attempting to escape the “lack of joy” present in both “the puritanism of the west and repressiveness of the east”.

Dakh daughters

The band’s seven trained actors and musicians were managed by the influential impresario Vlad Troitsky. The Maidan performance of Hannusya was based on the lament of an elderly Hutsul woman, becoming a metaphor for survival.

In a section titled “On feminist fascists”, Sonevytsky introduces the topic of gender studies in Ukraine. She paid several visits to another celebrated partisan baba in the village of Kryvorivnia, and explains how the terms “fascism” and “neo-Nazism” (currently being touted by Putin) are a glib recurring slur. The Dakh daughters now subverted the notion of the World-War-Two Banderivka nationalist resistance to Soviet occupation (also with its base in western Ukraine).

Chapter Three examines the interesting failure of avtentyka singers on the reality TV competition Holos Kraïny (Voice of the Nation). Rather than merely bemoaning the banality of such shows, Sonevytsky perceives the failure as “an act of refusal of the limited musical forms that dominate Ukrainian media and an assertion of the ungovernability of Ukrainian rural expression”.

The young singer Oleksiz Zajets came from a rural background, going on to study with the influential Kyiv pedagogue Yevhen Yefremov. In the first edition of the show in 2011, Zajets disrupted the rules of the game through the strident timbre and volume of his voice. As the show’s host commented, “He wasn’t just born two hundred years too late, but two thousand years”. While the “coaches”, including Ruslana, concurred that his voice was outstanding, praising its “depth and wisdom”, they couldn’t find a way to corset it into the pop-dominated format of the show.

Of course, defining the term avtentyka is elusive. By contrast with the “fakelore” of sharovarshchyna, it may refer both to local singers in the countryside thought to be uncontaminated by colonial encounter and Soviet cultural policy, and to the urban performers and scholars who seek to emulate their style. Sonevytsky illustrates the latter with vignettes of her own studies in Manhattan with Yevhen Yefremov, who meticulously trained students in the technique and variational creativity of rural singing, seeking to remove traces of the choreographed Soviet choral style. Despite the limitations of what ethnomusicologists might regard as a crucial shift of context from rural life to the classroom,

Students do not learn an ür version of a song. Though field recordings are a kind of wellspring for avtentyka singers—many of whom were trained as ethnomusicologists in the late and post-Soviet era—contemporary avtentyka singers do not seek to simply recreate those field recordings. In fact, multiple field recordings of the same song are reference when possible to inform an interpretation. […]

So instead of perfecting the art of imitation, students are taught how to creatively utilise the conventions that govern these traditional songs in order to replicate them in as “authentic” a manner as possible, in part by exerting their own agency as singers.

I note Yefremov’s teaching with envy, since while the collection of folk-song has long been popular in China, the scholars there rarely take part in singing themselves, either in the field or after their return (cf. Participant observation, and Speaking from the heart).

Fieldworkers like Yefremov paid particular attention to calendrical ritual songs, absent from collections during the Soviet era—here, remarkably, Chinese fieldworkers have done well, having been diligent in collecting ritual music, both during the first fifteen years after the 1949 revolution (e.g. under Yang Yinliu) and since the 1980s’ reforms (e.g. the great Anthology).

Most of the rural voices that Ukrainian fieldworkers found were female:

Due to wars, famines (such as the 1932–33 Holodomor), and various Soviet social engineering projects that decimated the male population of Ukrainian citizens during the mid-20th century, women have been the primary subjects of post-World War Two Ukrainian ethnomusicological enquiry since they tend to constitute the vast majority of surviving village elders.

This is very clear from the Tree website and the Polyphony project.

Appearing in the second season of the TV show was Suzanna Karpenko, a Kyiv-based aventyka singer. Her background was similar to that of Zajets, but the show portrayed them very differently:

If Zajets was depicted as a quintessential rural bumpkin with a “natural voice” that is simply too rich to include in the competition, then Karpenko was portrayed as a scholar, whose intellectual investments in “real folklore” (that is, avtentyka) were rewarded when she was chosen to advance in the competition despite the melismatic gestures, huks [swooping cries], and timbral quality that made her voice and style largely incompatible with the pop songs she was asked to sing in later rounds. Tellingly, though they circulate in the same milieu of urban avtentyka singers in Kyiv, Karpenko was assimilated into the programme as an urban folklorist (where “folklore” became the operative term appended to her vocal style), whereas Zajets was depicted as either an idiot savant or a shaman; in either case, he was the unknowable, somewhat comic, rural other. […] The contestant who is portrayed as and embodies “real authenticity” is destined to failure, while the singer who is depicted as an urban expert—someone who has domesticated the village style—is at least permitted to compete.

Karpenko is a member of the ensemble Bozhychi, which she joined after leaving the influential Drevo (“Tree”) group, and also takes part in the Polyphony project. She was encouraged to take part in the show on learning that Oleh Skrypka (veteran of Soviet-era Ukrainian punk, and later a champion of etno-muzyka) would be among the coaches. Though she advanced in the competition, her non-pop timbre and rural stylistic flourishes led to her elimination.

Sonevytsky asks:

Is the failure of these singers to win merely an example of the triumph of cosmopolitan pop in the marketplace—and are we left with a bitter Adornian culture industry critique of homogenization? […] Is their participation just a cynical move on the part of television producers to add dramatic fodder by introducing these folklore revivalists as nostalgic oddities or rural buffoons?

The reader may be tempted to answer these questions with a simple Yes. But Sonevytsky observes when the avtentyka voice emerges from the “cloistered contexts” of the academy (and from the village?) to participate in the TV spectacle, “it is disruptive, introducing a heterogeneous notion of etnos into the constrained sovereign imaginaries available…” Still, for all her theorising on the “politics of refusal”, in the end avtentyka singers appear only rarely, and they certainly can’t progress far in the show. As she concedes, failure is still failure.

Again I’m reminded of similar shows in China, where there’s also a lasting hangover from the fakelore of the high state-socialist era, and yuanshengtai 原生态 (“original”, “unspoiled”) folk voices are sidelined, despite the best efforts of pundits like Tian Qing (for examples of the style, listen to the folk-song CDs in this post). See also Critiques of artistic competition.

Chapter Four turns to the Crimean Tatars, covering Radio Meydan, the soundscape of marshrutki microtransit buses, and Jamala’s Eurovision triumph in 2016. If Hutsul music relates to European folk cultures further west, the Sunni Muslim, Turkic-language Tatars of the Crimea lead us towards the East—glib polarities that Sonevytsky resists, along with many other Ukrainians.

On the forced deportation to Central Asia (mainly Uzbekistan) in 1944, here’s the movie Haytarma (Akhtem Seitablaiev, 2013):

Some 200,000 Crimean Tatars returned to the peninsula in the late 1980s—where they continued to suffer discrimination in the fields of civic, religious, and land rights. Radio Meydan began broadcasting from Simferopol in 2005, soon becoming a key expression of Crimean Tatar identity, while deferring to the authority of the post Soviet Ukrainian state. Sonevytsky describes the power of such community radio stations. As “tensions between the Indigenous population, the predominantly pro-Russian public, and the weak Ukrainian state simmered below the surface of everyday interactions”, Radio Meydan was variously interpreted as “Orientalist menace or strategic exoticism”. Despite its ambition to serve as a forum (meydan) for diversity, as Sonevytsky discovered on the marshrutki buses in 2008–2009, it soon became an “aural battleground of rival sovereign imaginaries”.

After some time the station also provided a launchpad for a new generation of pop musicians exploring the wider market for an amorphous “Eastern music”, within which distinctive Crimean Tatar sounds often lost their identity. The first Crimean Tatar hip-hop DJ to emerge was DJ Bebek, with his 2004 album Deportacia; he went on to create the iconic jingle for Radio Meydan.

The station was outlawed soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. With Russian-backed radio there now offering its own take on Crimean Tatar music, independent performers and broadcasters migrated both online and to Kyiv.

Sonevytsky ends the chapter with a brief section on the Crimean Tatar singer Jamala, whose 2016 Eurovision victory in Stockholm is fresher in the memory than that of Ruslana twelve years earlier. Her song 1944 won despite Russian complaints regarding its political overtones. Here it is In performance:

and in the official video:

As Sonevytsky comments,

Such aural assertions of cultural sovereignty in an international forum such as Eurovision act as a generative refusal to consent to the annexation. […] Through musical sounds coded as Eastern music, Crimean Tatars continue to contest their liminality, harnessing the representational force of such wild music to amplify their political claims within the shifting terrain of post-Soviet geopolitics.

Jamala is also the subject of a useful recent Twitter thread by Jennifer Carroll.

Chapter Five, “Ethno-chaos: provincialising Russia through Ukrainian world music”, discusses the Kyiv-based quartet DakhaBrakha, sister group to the Dakh daughters—both groups were by promoted by Vlad Troitsky. Their international career on the world music scene was launched at WOMAD in 2011. Again, they were closely involved in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, revising etno-muzyka into the slogan “ethno-chaos” and “refusing national mythologies of continuity and coherence”.

DakhaBrakha

The three women singers had all taken part in fieldtrips to collect rural songs, but the group’s inspirations were diverse. As Sonevytsky observes, the wide-ranging and sometimes indiscriminate incorporation of “disembodied sound markers” is standard practice in “world music”.

Here’s Carpathian rap from DakhaBrakha’s 2010 album Light—a bricolage of Hutsul, central Ukrainian rural, Soviet-era, and “global” material, elements which Sonevytsky analyses in turn:

Again, Ukrainian ethnomusicologists were underwhelmed by the foreign enthusiasm for DakhaBrakha’s “authentic” vocal style. The band give a subsidiary role to the accordion (cf. Accordion crimes), archetype of the Soviet socialist soundscape, using it in a functional rather than “elevated” way—a process that Sonevytsky regards as subversive.

Next she discusses Sagir Boyu (from The road, 2016), another gesture of solidarity with the Crimean Tatars—a joyous wedding song reworked as “a pensive and ultimately frenetic lament”:

Sonevytsky offers further reflections on the world music business. She is wary of sounding too celebratory. First, “it would be disingenuous to consider the members of DakhaBrakha as ‘subalterns’, given their origins in the eminently literate and urbane world of Ukrainian experimental theatre”. And their success comes within a world music industry governed by Euro-American capitalism. Still, she finds their path constructive, “an aesthetics of transformation, a product of Ukrainian modernity on its own terms—not filtered through the gaze of neighbouring states and entities”.

The Conclusion, “Dreamland: becoming acoustic citizens”, written in 2018, opens with Oleh Skrypka’s Dreamland summer festival outside Kyiv in 2015, still resolutely featuring a Crimean Area. Sonevytsky proposes the idea of “acoustic—rather than musical—citizenship”. She notes moments of tension at the festival. Reflecting on “revolutionary fatigue”, she asks “What comes next?”. Since publication, the answer seems at once appallingly predictable and (this week, at least, in that Putin’s invasion has given new life to Ukrainian and wider solidarity) somewhat optimistic.

Bingo

By way of the Russian war of disinformation, Sonevytsky returns to Jamala’s song 1944, which

reveals the politics of Eurovision to itself, exposing how rhetorics of international friendship mask the violent unresolved histories and ongoing conflicts between competitor states.

Since Jamala fled the invasion, she has been raising awareness by performing the song:

* * *

Sonevytsky sometimes steps back to interrogate her own partiality. With her focus on the niche of etno-muzyka and the cultures of Hutsuls and Crimean Tatars, she doesn’t attempt to cover the most commercially successful music such as estrada (I think of research on Chinese pop, where studies have been dominated by “alternative” bands—with the noble exception of Andrew Jones’s Like a knife). And she reminds us that the majority of Ukrainian citizens do not consume or engage in any way with etno-muzyka. Her focus, as well as her status as a Ukrainian American, hardly leaves space for her to consider pro-Russian viewpoints. Also, committed to the project of decolonising ethnomusicology, she deliberately downplays nationalism in music. Nor, I might add, does her remit cover the glut of young urban-based “roots” bands from west Ukraine and the wider Carpathian region, less political and less internationally hyped—for some of these, try the forgottengalicia website (cf. this page on the useful euromaidanpress site).

The book’s origin as a PhD thesis is revealed in its theoretical vocabulary, which some readers may find somewhat dense (and which I have cited only sparingly here); but, blending politics with soundscape most perceptively, Wild music richly deserves to be part of reading lists on the modern history of Ukraine.

Many of my interlocutors […] point out the potential futility of any music to do anything. I do not dispute that music has little power against bombs, or BUK missiles. But I do assert that the study of music cannot be consigned only to our study of “the good life” since it is so prominently enmeshed in systems of capital, and therefore in the operations of power, and—importantly—because it also holds the affective power to captivate imaginations, move bodies, and support political actions. The politics and aesthetics of wild music allow us to investigate how the good life is imagined in dark times.

It was almost inevitable that Ukraine would win Eurovision this year, with the “rap lullaby” Stefania by the Kalush orchestra.

Anyway, now everything will be different.

* * *

Here I boldly essayed a medley of more traditional soundscapes from Ukraine. See also William Noll on the fate of blind minstrels in Ukraine, with links to several sites; Folk traditions of Poland; and Musical cultures of east Europe, not least Retuning culture.

Broadening the theme, Music and conflict (ed. John O’Connell and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, 2010) has sections on music in war, music across boundaries, music after displacement, music and ideology, music in application, and music as conflict, with case studies from many regions of the world.
Among topics covered on this blog, I think of Afghanistan; the war of the Chinese state against the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and its own people (e.g. China: commemorating trauma, and Guo Yuhua); the genocide of First Nation peoples; Mali; and indeed Bach, haunted by the trauma of the Thirty Years War (Bach—and Daoist ritual, under “Ears, eyes, minds, bodies”).

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