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ONUKA: “Ukrainian culture is undergoing a Renaissance”

Nata Zhyzhchenko reveals the secret of combining electronic music with folklore and tells us about her refusal to tour in Russia
18 August, 2016 - 12:09

The currently popular band ONUKA uses Nata Zhyzhchenko as a “universal soldier,” as she sings, authors music and lyrics, and serves as the group’s chief ideologist. After their eponymous debut album ONUKA was released in 2014, the team grew popular quickly, and not just in Ukraine. The album is full of traditional Ukrainian sound motifs which are performed on sopilka, bandura, and trembita. All this fits well with electronic arrangement, the creation of which involved Yevhen Filatov of the band The Maneken, who is the husband of ONUKA’s soloist and the band’s sound producer. Their third mini-album, named Vidlik, was released in February this year. It creatively reinterpreted the Chornobyl accident, and its concert launch, which took place in April, was scheduled to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the disaster. The singer admits that she draws her creative ideas from history and likes to read a lot. One cannot help but respect her decision to switch to speaking Ukrainian and flat-out refuse to tour in Russia. It is these issues, as well as the prospects of the new Ukrainian music and her refusal to participate in the Eurovision, that The Day discussed with Zhyzhchenko.

Why did you decide to combine electronic music and folklore? What has the response of the Ukrainian audience been to this format?

“The thing is, my life is divided into two parts, and until age 15, I studied exclusively Ukrainian music as performed by numerous folk groups. My grandfather Oleksandr Shlionchyk was a master maker of Ukrainian folk instruments, he accustomed me to good Ukrainian music, and I studied folk music with him until I was 15. Later on, youthful maximalism engulfed me, sidelining the authority of parents and grandfather. My elder brother was the authority figure then, and he was fond of modern music, mostly of the electronic kind, like that produced by Pink Floyd and Depeche Mode, and I really wanted to be like my elder brother, I copied everything he listened to. Between 15 to 30 years, I went through an electronic era in my life, took part in the Kukla project, we worked with Moscow composer Artyom Kharchenko, performed with the band Tomato Jaws, which many ONUKA fans remember me for, but when Tomato Jaws disbanded, it was time to create a grown-up project. It was a difficult period in my life. And I said to myself: ‘You should do something valuable, or do nothing at all.’ So it was a combination of different kinds of music that I had learned. Thus, I combined the electronic sound with certain ethnic contexts. I did not want to do folk music in modern arrangement because it would be an anti-ONUKA. I wanted to play electronic music using Ukrainian folk instruments instead. And that was how our band came to be. The audience is friendly, maybe it is due to the time we are living in.”

I heard the view that the Ukrainian audience is too conservative. Is your creativity a way to refute this opinion?

“It depends on the audience. In my opinion, our youth is totally not conservative. Our 20-year-olds are knowledgeable, curious, and creative. Young people who I target are ready to experiment. They know the artists who are similar to them. So I would not call my young audience conservative. Speaking of the older generation, it seems to me it is lacking musical education. This is the generation that grew up on pop music and TV-standard compliant compositions. This audience is very difficult to work with, and I think they are too far gone, so to say. But there is hope still. At my concerts, I see the elderly and children besides youths. I think children just cannot be deceived. One cannot impose one’s musical tastes on them. When children go to concerts, it means that they like it. I have an entire collection of videos where little kids dance to the tunes of different songs, and this is the highest reward for me, the pleasure which you have to earn by keeping up the good work.”

Who is your principal critic?

“My chief critic is Filatov. He is part of the ONUKA project and is responsible for arranging these songs. What melody, content, and concept are to be used – it all has to be approved by him. This is the principal litmus test for me. The opinion of my mother is important as well. She is a pianist and taught me music as a child.”

You performed at festivals in Georgia, Belarus, and Poland. How is this music received by foreigners?

“Ukrainian music is met with great success abroad! There is genuine interest in Ukrainian music everywhere. Of course, it is very nice experience, but it heightens our responsibility as well. The message coming from musicians is very cool already, and you need to outdo them. The Ukrainian art has set a high bar to clear. When we perform in Ukraine in front of our audience, it is one thing. When we arrive abroad, however, we have to win the vast majority of the audience as if it was our first time. This is like a test each time. Foreigners are curious about our Ukrainian instruments and their particular sound surely serves its purpose. This summer, we are going to Poland and Belarus, and plan to tour the US and Canada this fall. We try to keep our tours as geographically diverse as possible, because it is the only way to keep developing. You cannot develop while staying in Ukraine, for everything gets preserved as it is, and it is impossible to perform in all cities, for it reduces the waiting effect. Therefore, it is the only way to self-improvement. By the way, this is also a kind of aptitude test, because it is much more difficult to stand out at the global level, so it serves as a special high-difficulty task. It is a rather complicated path for a Ukrainian performer, and it is organizationally difficult to be present in that media space.”

We know that you refused to tour in Russia. Explain your motives, please.

“We went once to Krasnodar, a few years ago. It was our first and last time. After that, we were to have a great tour of Russia, including concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but the subsequent events piled up and made me rethink a lot of things. I am not ready to go to Russia with concerts at the moment. I think we will go there with concerts at some point, but only when things improve. If art will serve its educational, therapeutic function again, it would be fine. I have a large audience in Russia, already have many offers to give concerts there, but, unfortunately, it is not possible. It is so from the personal point of view as well as the music one. But I hope that the positive changes will take place in this world, and I try to use my art to achieve this as soon as possible.”

But you know, of course, that many Ukrainian musicians do perform in Russia, and they do not see the issue of moral choice as a priority...

“I think it is a personal decision for each musician. And it is a personal responsibility issue as well. The only thing I do not like is when people take refuge in silence. If you do something, you have to answer for it or explain. When people can justify their position, I have only respect for them.”

We know that you support the Ukrainian military, but you have given no concerts in eastern Ukraine that we have heard of.

“Unfortunately, we cannot give any concerts there yet. This is impossible from a purely technical point of view. We have a huge number of costumes and instruments. To just play the guitar would not be the true ONUKA, this is not a realistic option. As for support, we help victims of the anti-terrorist operation, also recorded a disc where every major band chose one song and thereby supported the soldiers with the proceeds. We recorded the song ‘The Fog Rolls in over the Valley,’ and it came out completely unlike ONUKA’s other productions, but with an interesting interpretation. I do not know what has happened with this project, so I may not put this song online. In my opinion, the worst of all is to engage in charity and publicize it. This is hypocritical. One has to do a good deed in silence, and only then it is credited to one in heaven. Screaming about it is double hypocrisy.”

By the way, you said in an interview that you had completely switched to Ukrainian. What was the most convincing reason that made you do it?

“My explanation is simple: I like the Ukrainian language very much. After all, I speak it better, more grammatically. I read most books in Ukrainian, I attended a Ukrainian-medium school and my college teachers also taught in Ukrainian. Unfortunately, I never spoke Ukrainian at home, because I came from a Russian-speaking family and have a Russian-speaking husband and friends. However, when I speak Russian, I do it at a very primitive level, using filler words. Russian does not reflect my inner world, does not show my true thoughts. This is a very difficult task for me because I am surrounded by Russian-speaking people, including my fellow musicians. But I am coming to this gradually. I almost always speak Ukrainian with strangers. I do not want to send any political signals to anyone. I am just very sorry that such a beautiful language languishes in the periphery. Still, I believe and know for sure that it will not disappear. It is too strong to remain only memory.”

Petro Poroshenko signed a law that sets a 35 percent quota for Ukrainian-language songs in broadcasting. The purpose of the law is to guarantee that each broadcaster uses national audiovisual product for at least 50 percent of the time. Can this law, in your opinion, be an effective tool? Does the quality Ukrainian music need quotas?

“I think that all these laws are just so much bureaucracy, and nobody can force somebody to write a song if it is not on one’s mind. Those who enjoy Ukrainian music, they are already seeking it and listening to it. On the other hand, this can backfire. Perhaps it will get someone thinking they should write at least one song in Ukrainian. I disagree with those thinking it will have no effect. Some progress will occur. Recall the mandatory Ukrainian language dubbing of movies. I like the new wave of Ukrainian music I see, which creates songs in Ukrainian. This is our music, and it is of really high quality. Moreover, we see a reincarnation of Ukrainian music. These changes take time. They may not be rushed, because it can only spoil things. We will see how this law will be implemented. Only time will show. In my opinion, if we have Ukrainian bands, but with hard-to-enjoy content, it will not benefit Ukrainian culture.”

The last two years have seen a sort of shift in Ukrainian music. A lot of bands are being created who write Ukrainian lyrics and tour Europe. In your opinion, is this the permanent revival of Ukrainian music, or a temporary phenomenon?

“This shift is impossible to miss. Number of artists is growing daily, like mushrooms after a rain, this is a kind of fountain of living inspiration, and these young performers are very amazing. I understand that the competition is so strong already that no established performer may take it easy. Young artists are literally close on our heels. I get this feeling from every release, every new video. It is very comforting. I am honored to be among these young musicians. Every day, I wonder, experience joy, and think how cool this time is for a creator! These events feed our inspiration. They tell us that this is no time to stop.”

Do you plan to use any global historical themes in your work?

“There are certain ideas. But they have to do with the humanity’s shared issues. I will not reveal all the cards, because these ideas are only taking shape in my head. It will be documented and released with the next album or mini-album. I had a dream to work at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, I tried to do everything to make it happen. As it turned out, to work there, one must undergo a serious medical check-up and then take tests, and I have no time for it. I was lucky to get to Slavutych two weeks ago, and I had daily hands-on tours of the power plant. It gave me a very deep insight into the issue of the accident, it brought a unity with the people I do not see in everyday life. Those were the days when I commuted daily by suburban train to the station, and I felt a part of the Ukrainian people, an ordinary citizen then. For the first two days after my return, I could not talk about it, did not communicate with my friends.

“I learned about the tragedy in a different way, from a different perspective there. I found the file of my father, who worked at the station in 1986, learned of his radiation dose and made a copy of the documents, it being a kind of gift to him from the station. After 30 years, I found all these old records, made by hand. It was a flash of history, which seems to be over for me now, but at the same time, it has only deepened. It encourages thinking on the issue of life devaluation that is going on now and was going on before. These problems never cease to excite me, I see them as eternal.”

You released mini-album Vidlik, dealing with Chornobyl issues. Do you intend to continue developing this topic after the visit to the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone?

“This theme is very easy to overemphasize. This might just become uninteresting. When you talk about something for a long time, it ceases to surprise. I plan to release a video which will show my trip there. It will reveal a lot of the tragedy’s unseen consequences, but I focused on human relations.”

According to your observations, how does the world perceive this tragedy, in particular as reinterpreted by the ONUKA band?

“I was on two missions, both contained (and concealed) in Vidlik. The first one aimed to materialize my desires, to show my gratitude, to put my memories in a tangible medium. The second mission was to educate people on this issue. Since most of my audience are 20-year-olds, many of them did not know about this crash or heard only very superficial reports. Many wrote that it was our album that got them interested in this topic. I think that full immersion in this subject can leave one with it forever, with no other interests. But if you forget something, it will surely repeat. We have to think about the disaster not only on the day of remembrance and not only through posters, this is the only way to preserve memory, and to once again make people pray for these heroes. Every time I sing this song, I pray. I honor their heroism in this way.”

One often sees Ukrainian TV being lukewarm about supporting Ukrainian culture. More generally, how do our media respond to promising new bands?

“I am very lucky that the project ONUKA has been given much attention. I didn’t expect this. I was noticed by various radio stations as a new phenomenon in which they were interested. I had good media support, even though we did not expect such a response. However, I do not see modern channels M1 and M2 as media at all. They are just a cesspit. These channels kill people’s desires to think, to create. They once tried to create a lot of projects, but now there is nothing. I think it would be better to impose quota for high-quality music on TV channels including M1 and M2.”

We have dozens of musical shows on various TV channels, what do you think about them?

“We were guests at the X Factor, and they invited foreign guests for each final week. Still, they invited good Ukrainian youth bands as well. And it was very wise. This is a good opportunity to show Ukrainian music to a large audience. I am very grateful for it. Even the selection of the Eurovision has done much more than the Eurovision competition itself. We discovered for the public PUR:PUR, BSB, SunSay, and many other performers. I was glad to see all my friends in prime time on TV, and I did not even know for whom to vote. But regarding format projects, I do not believe that they were created for the development of music, they are more like shows. This is a situation where people who are good singers, very talented and singing better than our stars, they have to play out some scenario, they are taught to be excessively emotional and anguished. In a sense, it is like a circus. These shows teach people to sing the same way, even though it is completely different talents that enter them. In short, it is not really music, but rather a factory. Among the finalists of the show, I have not noticed anyone who would become a musician with their own repertoire. It is one thing to copy manners and emotions, but real music is different. It involves much more genuine emotion as well.”

In September, they will begin accepting applications for the national selection of the Eurovision. You did not apply past year. Do you intend to do it this year?

“I will not apply, that is for sure, because I believe that this is not my format. I competed enough as a child, thank you. Contests are absolutely not for me, I am a different type of musician. I am totally not self-confident, and I am not sure that I have the right to assume such a huge responsibility. And if I do not believe in myself, how can the audience believe me? Also, this is absolutely not my audience. I would be happy to perform as a guest, but as a competitor – no. Jamala deserved her victory that brought us this competition. She is so fine a singer that to surpass her in vocal terms is the hardest task for all contestants. Me and Filatov were kind of ‘gray eminences’ when watching the contestants of the Eurovision, because he arranged songs for three performers. Many thanks to all those who came up with this format for the national selection of the Eurovision.”

Is it true that you do not have a TV at home?

“No, I do not. For me, it is an idiot box. I think that such deliberate rejection of the TV is already a thing. This trend is very popular among young people, and members of my circle are even somewhat ashamed to watch TV, or at least to admit it. My parents watch TV, worry about every news report, care about various show characters. I argued a lot with my mother about it. My grandmother watches TV too, but she has no alternative, what else could she do? When she sees me on TV, it is the greatest moment of happiness for her, because all the neighbors phone her and say they just saw me. For her, this is proof that I have achieved something. But for me, it is absolutely nothing. It is much more important how many people came to my concert and whether they tuned it to my rhythms and music.

“When you have internet access, you can choose anything. When I compare how my generation was at 20 and contemporary 20-year-olds, they are very different people now. This generation is more inspired, enlightened, it wants something, desires, knows. I am proud of modern youth and believe it will bring about a good Ukrainian future. It is so clean and nice for the most part. Of course, some youths are low-lifes, but we have to live with it. I think we are seeing a new world being born, regarding their human and artistic qualities alike. I think the world will change focus, but it will not happen as fast as we would like. My belief finds daily confirmation in ordinary events, steps, ordinary people whom I meet.”

For many young musicians, you are a role model. Who is your inspiration in Ukrainian musical art?

“I respect The Hardkiss band. I admire Yulia Sanina, who represents the new generation. And if we get a new breath, it will change the moldy-old approaches. Out of electronic music performers, I like Ivan Dorn, I listen to him in the car and we are friends. It is a great luck when a charismatic person appears at the right juncture and at the right time, and he does for Ukrainian music much more than anyone could imagine. DakhaBrakha enjoys my unconditional love. This is the band that goes on very fruitful tours, and this ‘channel’ does a lot for Ukraine. I consider it an honor to sometimes share the stage with them. Also, communicating with them is like touching the beauty. I can list many performers, especially young ones.

“You know, every time I hear my Russian friends saying ‘You Ukrainians are at it again! You have overtaken us again!’ I am really glad. This view has prevailed in Russia for seven years now due to the Boombox and Okean Elzy... New Ukrainian music towers over Russian one. The cultural renaissance is the only fitting name for it, I believe. I am very lucky to create in this musical space.”

Photo courtesy of the band ONUKA

By Vadym LUBCHAK, The Day, Anna HOLISHEVSKA, Den’s Summer School of Journalism 2016
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