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Ukrainian artists fight back
By Bill Forman
May 9, 2022

ukranian artist vera lytovchenko
Vera Lytovchenko

Recently, the musicologist Maria Sonevytsky gave an online lecture called “Understanding the War on Ukraine Through Its Musical Culture.” A UC Berkeley professor who has performed with several bands of her own, and also produced a 2015 album for Smithsonian Folkways called “The Chornobyl Songs Project,” analyzed four songs by Ukrainian musicians that have become all too timely over the past three weeks.

Among them is “1944,” an almost painfully haunting ballad by the Ukrainian singer-songwriter Susana Jamaladinova, who performs and records under the name Jamala. Seemingly against all odds, it won the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, a distinction historically reserved for up-and-coming pop acts like ABBA (“Waterloo”), Sandi Shaw (“Puppet on a String”), Olivia Newton-John (“Long Live Love”), and Katrina & The Waves (“Love Shine a Light”). Consider, for instance, its opening lines:

When strangers are coming They come to your house They kill you all and say “We’re not guilty Not guilty.”

While many at the time interpreted the song as a criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Eurovision would afterward insist that neither its title nor lyrics contained “political speech” and therefore did not break the competition’s rules.

Actually, Jamala wrote “1944” about the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Josef Stalin. Her great-grandmother had, in fact, been sent to Central Asia along with her five young children, one of whom died along the way.

Now, as history repeats itself once more, Ukrainian musicians are responding to the current Russian invasion in whatever ways they can. Some have been forced into exile, others have taken up arms.

In the latter camp is Andriy Khlyvnyuk, the frontman of a popular Ukrainian band called Boombox, who canceled the group’s U.S. tour in order to answer the call of duty. “Musicians are peacemakers,” Khlyvnyuk told Euronews, “[but] now it’s not time for playing guitars. It’s time to take the rifles.”

Khlyvnyuk has uploaded an Instagram video of himself in full Ukrainian army uniform, standing outside a church singing an a cappella version of “The Red Viburnum in the Meadow.” A folk song that dates back more than a century, it references the flowers widows would plant after their husbands did not come back from war.

A few days after the Instagram post, South African electronica artist The Kiffness, who specializes in collaborations with “interesting people and animals from around the world,” received permission from Khlyvnyuk to take the song and add vocal, rhythm and instrumental tracks. Their “Ukrainian Folk Song ARMY REMIX” has since gotten more than 2 million YouTube views, with royalties going to Ukrainian relief efforts.

And then there’s concert violinist and professor Vera Lytovchenko. Together with her father and 10 displaced neighbors, she has spent the last several weeks living in an underground bomb shelter in Kharkiv, the city that one Zelenskyy advisor recently described as “the Stalingrad of the 21st century.”

To take their minds off the bombing, Lytovchenko began playing recitals for her shelter-mates, drawing upon a repertoire that ranged from Vivaldi’s “Violin Sonata in D Major” to a Russian folk song that was the favorite of her grandmother, who withstood the same occupation that Jamaladinova sang about in “1944.”

After a week, she began posting videos of her performances online for friends and relatives. Those videos have since gone viral on social media, which at the time was the last thing on the musician’s mind.

“My aunt is near Kyiv and I’m afraid for her,” she told the Associated Press during a March 9 Skype interview. “My friends are in different cities all over Ukraine, and I’m trying to keep a connection with them. I text them several times a day to know if they’re alive.”

In a poignant video posted that same day, Lytovchenko thanked those who’ve sent her messages of support. “Sorry if I can’t answer to everyone,” she says, apologizing for her English, “but I see all your messages and reactions, and it makes me stay strong and know that my life is not in vain.”

For people who have been asking how they can help, Lytovchenko says she does not need money herself, but will instead establish a fund to help support the Kharkiv musicians and teachers who’ve fared less well. “I know that I can’t rebuild all the city, and I can’t help everyone,” she said, “but I can do something.”

Other Ukrainian musicians have been trying to get their messages out through Spotify and Apple Music, both of which had been taking a page from the Eurovision playbook when it came to mixing music and politics.

In a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, the female folk quartet DakhaBrakha, indie-pop artist Ivan Dorn and singer-songwriter Max Barskih — who together have well over a million YouTube followers — urged the American business executive to waive his company’s policy so that they can change their cover art to messages protesting the invasion of their country.

Apple has since done so. But Spotify, the world’s largest digital music service, has so far turned a deaf ear.

Spotify does, however, continue to stream a catalog of nearly 100 albums by The Red Army Choir, including their newly released “We Are the ARMY OF THE PEOPLE.” Spotify has also played host to “Kyiv Killas,” “WW3 Type Beat: Songs To Bomb Ukraine To” and other anti-Ukrainian playlists.

But more positively themed collections can also be found on Spotify. One of them is, which launched in December with more than 100 Ukrainian artists divided into six playlists with names like “If You Feel Inspired,” “If You Feel Blue” and “If You Feel Christmas.” After the Soviet invasion began, two new playlists were added: “If You Feel Brave” and “If You Feel Love.”

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