Last updated on July 17, 2023
Editor’s Note: This article is a part of the Holos Project, a four-way partnership (ENGin, The Los Angeles Times Insider, Published Points of View, The Outspoken) established to empower the voices of Ukrainian students across the world through one-on-one journalism mentorship. This article was written by Pauline Pavlenko from Ukraine with the mentorship of Joshua Pak from the United States. “Holos” is the Ukrainian word for “Voice”.
In such hard times, the only things we hear about Ukraine are related to war, and it is unlikely to find any information about our culture and art. But it’s not widely known that Ukrainian music has profoundly influenced our society. These days, Ukrainian musicians, despite facing many challenges, continue to create and perform music that reflects our country’s culture, history, and current struggles.
Ukrainian music has become a powerful tool for expressing emotions and experiences, as well as providing a voice for those who have been affected by the conflict, serving as a unifying and comforting tool.
So I intend to introduce you to one of the biggest parts of Ukrainian culture-music. Originate folk music, traditional tunes, why it’s so widely popular, and how it has survived through sad and tragic periods of Ukraine’s history.
Apart from that, you’ll get to know what’s going on in the Ukrainian music industry nowadays, how it has changed in recent few years and the way music is cherished among Ukrainians.
Of course, you will discover some new artists and songs that might be a breath of fresh air in the world of music for you.
Folk music and historical information on Ukrainian music.
Ukrainian folk music retains great vitality these days. Ritual songs (calendar), historical songs, and ballads are the main types of folk songs. On Christmas, you can still hear families singing ‘Shchedryk’, and ‘Vesnyanki’ (Spring Songs) in March-April, and On Ivana Kupala (a kind of Ukrainian Midsommar), young girls singing ‘Kupalski’.
The tradition of lowering wreaths into the water on Ivana Kupala
What’s interesting is that Ukrainians, particularly in Eastern Ukraine, have fostered a peculiar style of singing – The White voice (Білий голос). This type of singing mostly exploits the chest register and is akin to controlled yelling or shouting.
Musicians who sang to their instrumental accompaniment played a huge role in Ukrainian folk music. They were often called kobzari (kobzar-singular) and accompanied their songs with the kobza or bandura – a multi-stringed plucked instrument. The repertoire of these itinerant musicians included the performance of dumy (sung epic poems), historical songs, and ballads.
Common traditional instruments include the kobza, bandura, turban, the cymbal; the sopilka, floyara, trembita, volynka (bagpipes); and the buben (frame drum), tulumbas (kettledrum).
Mykola Lysenko, who earned the title of “father of Ukrainian music,” spent several decades of his life collecting and rearranging Ukrainian folk songs, many of which he later incorporated into his original compositions. His choral works helped to forge a distinctly Ukrainian sound. Such as “Prayer for Ukraine,” which the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York performed on “Saturday Night Live”.
During the Soviet era, in the 1930s, the Stalinist regime carried out mass executions of bandura and kobza players throughout the country. At the end of the preceding decade, there were at least 300 bandurists registered in Ukraine. After 1936, there were four. Even the instrument itself was prohibited and confiscated. Destroying or stealing something Ukrainian- ethnocide was and still is a normal Russian practice. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to destroy the national spirit and love for the traditions of the Ukrainian people. It’s estimated that there are around 200,000 folk songs-Ukrainians who for sure love singing.
These are some popular Ukrainian folk songs:
1. Ой, у вишневому саду (In the Cherry Garden) – considered to be a family-domestic or love song, a girl sings about separation from her beloved because she had to go back home:
“Where did you wander all night?
Why untied braid,
Do you have a tear in your eye?”
“My braid is untied –
Because my friends untied me.
And a tear shines in the eyes,
Because I was saying goodbye to my beloved.”
2.‘Розпрягайте хлопці коней!’ (Unharness the Horses, Guys!)
An example of a dancing folk song with a rich accompaniment by various instruments. Originally sung by cossacks.
3. One of the most popular Christmas songs is an old Ukrainian folk song about the beginning of the New Year. Through attentive orchestration, Mykola Leontovych brought the sounds of the Ukrainian nation to a broader public. His most popular arrangement, “Shchedryk” (1912), is better known to Anglophone audiences as the “Carol of the Bells”.
4.“Несе Галя воду” (Halia Carries Water)
A song about a girl carrying water, and a boy who tries to charm her. Here’s the older version and the newer version sung by Khrystyna Soloviy.
5. Plyve Kacha po Tysyni (A Duck Floats Along the River Tysyn), a mournful song, widely used to commemorate the victims of the Revolution of Dignity (2014) and the Russo-Ukrainian war. This a Lemko song, (Lemkos are an ethnic group inhabiting the Carpathian Rus’, an ethnographic region in the Carpathian Mountains and foothills spanning Ukraine, Slovakia, and Poland), rearranged by the Ukrainian band Pikkardiyska Tertsiya
Melody of Ukrainian language
There’s a huge misconception that the Ukrainian language sounds harsh to foreigners like other Slavic languages. But apparently, it doesn’t apply to the Ukrainian language. It’s considered to be one of the most melodic languages along with French, Italian, Spanish, and Persian.
Ukrainian phonetics consist of softer consonants than other members of the Proto-Slavic language group. As an example, the sound /g/ is very close to /h/.
The language itself is often called “melodic” and ”solov’yina” (like a nightingale)
Melody of a language includes enhancing the expressiveness of the language as a result of achieving a harmonious selection of sounds in the text. This can be achieved by sound repetitions, assonances, the rhythmicity of speech, as well as the avoidance of sounds and their combinations that are difficult to pronounce in a phrase. In a speech (folk poetry, which most preserves the foundation of the Ukrainian language), vowels are 45-46%. It’s clear that Ukrainian speech is rich in vowels and is close to Italian in that.
On the contrary, the Ukrainian language avoids overlapping vowels. The sounds in words and sentences are organized so that they are easy to pronounce and legible to the listener. That’s why in our language there is such a phenomenon as prepositional consonants. For example, there’s a word in Russian ‘who’ (an ear), and in Ukrainian, it’s “vuho’.
Also, harmonic assimilation plays an important role. This is a special type of regressive assimilation of vowels in syllables when the previous vowel is more or less assimilated to the next vowel. For example, ‘e’ changes to ‘y’ and ‘o’ to ‘u’. It makes transitions between sounds smoother.
All these are one of the most important conditions for melodious speech. Those nuances make the sound mellow to an ear and lose obvious roughness. Sometimes people say it was specifically designed for singing rather than speaking.
Modern music; how Ukrainian music has changed over recent years. How the war has affected the music
There is no doubt that Ukrainian music has significantly changed over recent years, especially since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022. Russian songs quickly disappeared from Ukrainian charts after the start of the war. For example, just a year ago the number of top songs on the charts was 50% (basically every second song is Russian, or Russian language), now the number has notably diminished-only 18%. Now listening to everything Ukrainian has become trendy and popularized, which wasn’t so before.
Nowadays, modern Ukrainian music has different tendencies. One of them is modern folk: folk-rock, and electro-folk. What’s interesting is that it’s one of the favorite genres of Ukrainian listeners. In the 1990s and especially after 2014, a new wave of bands experimenting with folk emerged. They use real folk songs and rearrange them, or compose entirely new songs using rare Ukrainian instruments.
Another comparably new genre is so-called ‘war music’. The war became a prominent topic to sing about in times of losing loved ones and having to flee home. Lots of artists touch on this topic in their songs, because it’s something that concerns everybody these days. They reflect their feelings, which helps Ukrainians brighten up these days. The main goal is to support Ukrainians in their fight for independence, speak up to the world, and also let their emotions out during these hard times.
Following the new trend of supporting Ukrainian music and the desire of people to finally get to know more about our music industry. Lots of new young artists declared themselves. Moreover, they introduce new genres, like R&B, that weren’t popular among Ukrainian artists beforehand.
Here’s a list of Ukrainian music worth listening to:
- Okean Elzy
The Ukrainian rock band, created in 1994 in Lviv, is considered one of the greatest music bands in Eastern Europe. The band usually makes Indie-rock, Indie-pop, and art rock songs. Group earned great success thanks to touching lyrics and the unusual, powerful, and raspy voice of lead vocalist Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. O.E. has released 9 albums since 1998 and still doesn’t lose its popularity. Therefore, different generations, starting with teenagers and ending with elderly people, sing along to their most popular ballads.
Starting with their most streamed and even viral “Обійми (Obiymy)”.
Continuing with not less emotional and meaningful “Не твоя війна (Ne tvoya vijna)”, ‘Без бою (Bez boyu)”, “На лінії вогню (Na liniji vognu)”.
Engaging “Все буде добре (Vse bude dobre)” and “Я так хочу(Ya tak hochu)”. And probably one of the audience’s biggest favorites-poignant “Na nebi”.
Folktronica band formed in 2012, earned the right to represent Ukraine in Eurovision Song Contest 2020 with the song “Solovey ”. But then due to the pandemic, they had to perform in 2021, with their hit ‘SHUM’. ‘SHUM’ is an old pagan song, sung to awaken the spring spirit. A music video filmed in Chernobyl in a post-apocalyptic style, in contrast to the hope and spring embodiment song shows how life can be returned even in places like this. Undoubtedly, the band combines folk and electro sound successfully and is exciting for the audience. What makes their music special and indeed refreshing is that the main vocalist Kateryna Pavlenko uses a special vocal technique called ‘white voice’, which she was taught by her grandmother, and of course a bewitching sound of sopilka (flute).
Dmytro Monatyk (his real name) is a talented dancer, singer, and writer of the best Ukrainian dance songs. I bet almost every Ukrainian has danced to his hit “Кружит” (Spinning). His songs stand out among others due to the lively and hustling sound and energy he radiates himself! His career MONATIK started as a dancer and choreographer, so he is the definition of dynamism when he enters the dancefloor. His music videos are usually something really beautiful and engaging, thanks to his friend, a popular music video director Tanu Muiño. Some of his best tracks include: “LOVE IT ритм”, “Вихідний”, “То, от чего без ума”. In my opinion, one of his best and underrated works is an inspiring song “Мріяти не шкідливо” (Dreaming isn’t damaging). Besides, the musical ‘RHYTHM’ he created is genuinely applaudable!
Quartet ‘Dakha Brakha’:Marko Galanevych, Olena Tsybulska, Iryna Kovalenko, Nina Garenetska.
Other remarkable artists and bands: famous abroad folk group Dakha Brakha, an indie-pop band notable for their alluring lyricism Odyn v Kanoe, a stunning singer with rich vocals Tina Karol, band ‘ Onuka’, which found a very successful and appropriate way to combine folk and tranquil folk, YUKO, mesmerizing woman and also very professional singer Jamala, unique rock and pop group The Hardkiss with Julia Sanina as a main vocalist, Alina Pash, Khrystyna Soloviy, Kalush Orchestra.
The playlist of great songs to listen to if you’d like to get to know the mentioned earlier and other artists: https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL3xyEHbeIpMfCOCD0TeS2w1PXeAC-pzh2&feature=share
How playing Ukrainian music has changed or helped your life?
For sure, Ukrainians have always been big fans of their culture, especially music, as a crucial part of it. First, we hear traditional lullabies from our mothers and with time we get to know more and more songs and poems in kindergarten and school.
However, the Western and Russian music industries were more influential and predominant. It was more popular and accepted by society to listen to foreign music instead of our own. Modern Ukrainian songs were rare guests even in my playlists.
This had significantly changed since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Ukrainian people and youth started to appreciate Ukrainian music much more. For now, Ukrainian artists occupy nearly 15% of my playlists, which is a huge increase. I opened myself to a bunch of new talented and extraordinary artists that I regret not listening to before.
Music is a kind of salvation and an escape from the evil things going on outside. It has the power to restore us during our lowest. Since the war began those functions were utterly important. Lots of Ukrainian artists express their emotions and share their feelings in this very known way to help people with surviving these hard times.
I can surely say that there is something especially magical in the Ukrainian language songs. I, as a polyglot and a person who listens to songs in different languages, never experienced anything similar. Maybe you’ll never feel other languages(even if you are fluent in them), as your mother tongue. Maybe, there is something ethereal in the way Ukrainians write lyrics and their emotional recall in the heart.
Ukrainian culture is indeed very rich and most surely music is a huge part of it.
This article covers a tiny part of the music of Ukraine and was made to show others how unique it is and show something interesting about the culture of the country you hear in the news every day. Though facing many obstacles, including censorship, limited funding, and physical danger, Ukrainian musicians have continued to create and perform music that reflects the heart and soul of their country. They have provided a voice for the voiceless and a source of comfort for those who have suffered. Music serves as a beacon of hope in our country—a symbol of national pride and unity. It brings our people together to stand for our country Ukrainians cherish their music and culture, which can be confirmed by the number of old songs that are still being sung and continue to pass from generation to generation. This trait of appreciating your culture and origins is definitely something people can learn from Ukrainians.