It didn’t take long after arriving in Ukraine to see how intrinsic the spirit of music was to the people of Ukraine. I was out for a walk with my friend when I passed under the main thoroughfare in Maidan area of Kyiv and saw a singing duo with a bandura, the national instrument of Ukraine. I tuned in and listened to them weave the vocal melodies with the beautiful layers of sounds coming from the stringed instrument. I took a quick video capture but it would be the next day I came back and recorded them playing a well known song written by Taras Petrinenko, Ukraina. It would be just one of my first yet lasting impressions of this fantastic country.
Music, my first language, is a vehicle for reaching other people. For most of my life I have been able to communicate quickly with people from all sorts of backgrounds via music. Ukrainian music is vast even upon first appearance and first impressions last a lifetime. Seeing Svitlana Verbeshuk playing the bandura was a great start.
After a day of wandering Kyiv, I saw a duo playing violin and guitar and was captivated by the melodic and rhythmic power of Freuman and Galaydyuk. The melodies were fusion of traditional and jazz. I knew I had to get to know these two fellows. I didn’t have to ask, “do you have Instagram?” because the musicians already had their tip jar out with their account posted in easy to read text. This, I found, would be the pattern as I traveled around the country.
Busking, the job of street performance, is a very old tradition in human history and widely found across the globe. But in Ukraine, it is as common as coffee. You don’t have to look far to find someone who has taken their talents to the street corner and found a place to set up a tip jar and a chance to turn their love of entertainment into a profession for the tourists and locals alike.
And while the art of making music in the street may be a common factor for Ukraine, there was a war going on by February 2022 and it was in that context that I met a violinist from Bucha named Yaroslav Borovskyi. His family was displaced to the west and now he made his income via tips in the park in Lviv. While playing to a backing track, Yaroslav spends hours playing for tips to a passing audience of Ukrainian internally displaced people who still drop small amounts of money in his violin case.
Like many other musicians from the east, Yaroslav was just one of the many street musicians who regularly hit the street with case open to collect tips from passersby as he plays covers of popular songs mixed with traditional songs that express the Ukrainian spirit. And like the other musicians, even when there are air-raid alarms, the music doesn’t stop.
The national instrument of Ukraine is the bandura (Бандура). It is a combination instrument that mixes aspects of the lute with a fixed pitched multistring zither. It has been a part of Ukrainian culture for at least 600 years with a history of lute instruments dating back well beyond 1500 years.
The instrument was so associated with Ukrainian identity that a long history from the tsars to Stalin have sought to eliminate the bandurists from the world. (list of persecuted bandurists)
The first instrument I saw performed in Kyiv, is widely available to experience around the country but in Lviv, where it is safest for now, there are many artists who are performing for the people who are displaced, for the incoming visitors and for those who hide in the bunkers to avoid bombs.
I have seen several soloists and a few ensembles performing around Lviv including Svyatoslav Hrytsak who was performing at a corner not far from Rynok, the UNESCO heritage center of Lviv. His voice and playing had all the qualities of a bard and brought timeless emotion to the ear.
You can also enjoy the quartet of bandurists. In this clip, we hear the song Chervona Kalyna, a song that has become an anthem of resilience. The group also performs in this area of Lviv not far from Rynok. Their voices weave so well with the strings in their hands.
In a great interview with journalist Philip Ittner, we were fortunate to see Arsem perform an original composition for bandura in the bomb shelter below Lviv. His astounding prowess on the instrument was hypnotic.
He conveyed a story through sounds. He had been studying for 6 years and now he had to share this beneath the structures above because of the invasion by Russia.
The strings ring with voices of all the bandurists who were murdered a century ago.
The sounds of String Mockingbird can be heard nearly daily in Lviv. Whether they are just blocks from the Rynok center or standing strong in front of the Lviv Opera House, this trio brings you a great performance. The ensemble features Pavlo Krip on electric upright bass, Bogdan Khmara on violin, and Nikita Kozhukhar on drums. Each musician has a solid command of their instrument. The crowd listens as they play songs of Ukrainian pride or contemporary pop songs from Cranberries or U2.
BESKD – The Traditional Sounds of Ukraine
This is music that keeps me passionate about exploration. It will never become the music of the past alone. Ihor Matselyukh and his wife perform on accordion and violin near Rynok square and are frequently part of traditional celebrations. I additionally saw them lead a larger folks music ensemble for Easter festivities. Ihor and I talk about the importance of Ukrainian music and culture and how vital it is that the war comes to an end and the peaceful life of Ukraine must resume.
I saw this group get ready to set up along the plaza and knew from before they belted out the first notes, it would be a set I would enjoy but I still underestimated the umph I would feel when Force Minor dropped it on us. Students from Lviv, they had a vibe and feel that was infectious from the start. Loaded with youthful zest, yet timeless soul, these young musicians had exactly what it takes to get the onlookers to stop, throw money in the case and even start dancing.
Kostia and Markiian Lukyniuk and Adrian Savchuk
With Ukrainian flags as capes, these two brothers on violin were joined by Adi Sax (Adrian Savchuk) on sax to entertain the audience outside of Grand Cafe in Rynok square. They know how to charm the audience. Their music chops match their performance energy and the crowd returns the joy with a big round of applause before the local officers shut down the performance. But don’t worry, just two hours later they were blocks away at the Lviv Opera House with another crowd eager to see their energy in motion.
While instrumentalists are very active in Ukraine, the busking culture is loaded with singers who play daily and draw sizable audiences around the cities. Sarat Kiso is an incredible performer who shows us how it is done with his command of the guitar, his looping equipment as he layers vocals, guitar parts and puts on a great show that keeps the audience captivated from start to finish.
She has a depth of spirit beyond her years. Dasha sings with power that should bring her a very successful music career. Whether singing Billie Ellish or Skryabin, she has full control over her performance. When she isn’t performing as the main act, she quickly shuffles over to the cajon to accompany her friends with solid rhythms.
Roman is a fantastic singing performer who plays in Lviv around the shops near Rynok square, in front of the Opera House, or down Liberty Avenue (проспект Свободи or prospekt Svobody) plaza. His vocal power and guitar accompaniment is solid.
You just don’t get better than Vladimir Bandaras, a real blues musician who entertains with an arsenal of tunes that stretch from Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan to AC/DC. I first heard him playing Thunderstruck by AC/DC and couldn’t believe it. Then I saw him playing slide on his small guitar and his amp outside the shops near downtown. He had a soul that was all too familiar to me as a southern lad who grew up listening to the real deal blues masters. I told him, “from Texas to you, you have the real soul of a bluesman”.
MENS CHOIR SINGS NATIONAL ANTHEM
If there is one thing I have enjoyed most in Ukraine, I will never run out of moments to be surprised. While I was on my way to meet a friend for coffee and discuss serious issues, I saw this mens choir wrapping up what appeared to be a fairly impromptu performance in Rynok square. To cap off their appearance, they sang the Ukrainian National Anthem.
TRADITIONAL UKRAINIAN CHOIR
While documenting easter celebrations in Lviv, a group of young singers converged outside to perform several selections of traditional music. Accompanied by percussionists, the ensemble’s vocals tied the past to the present and reminded us what Ukraine offers in the area of culture and identity. The young people played and danced in the area around the church as the group filled the space with layers of voices that will remain timeless.
The Sacred Sounds of Bells
THE SOUND OF BELLS IN LVIV
I was out for my afternoon scouting and told my friends I had to stop and make my way over to the church because I knew at 6pm, the bells would ring in the evening. I stood there recording when a jovial man stepped up and tried to tell me something about the bells. I had trouble at first knowing what his intentions were until the phrase, “I work the bells” came through. Petro, the kind hearted man, then invited me to come document the bells. What I didn’t know at the time, I would be part of the event. It a volunteer driven program to keep the authentic tradition alive and well. Local members of the community come to the church and together produce the greatest sound you can hear. Dyakuyu, Petro!