The Ukrainians – Rooted Cosmopolitans.
Since 1990, Leeds folk-punk band The Ukrainians have performed a radical hybrid of Ukrainian sounds, fused with a highly charged post-punk urgency, that has crossed geographical, linguistic and political boundaries and continues to inspire and energize audiences around Europe in 2018. The Ukrainians have not so much reinvigorated a much-maligned musical tradition. but reinvented it entirely…
Founded by former Wedding Present guitarist Peter Solowka, the idea for the project initially came about through improvised jams of Ukrainian folk tunes during Wedding Present rehearsals. This serendipitously led to Solowka and the Wedding Present, billed as “The Ukrainians”, recording a session for John Peel’s radio show in the late 1980’s, due to the band’s lack of new material! The response of Peel’s listeners (and hardcore Wedding Present fans) was extremely enthusiastic – well beyond what the group had expected – leading to a string of raucous, vibrant folk-punk sessions under “The Ukrainians” moniker, which were released as a compilation in 1989. Joining the Wedding Present line-up for these ad-hoc collaborations were “Legendary” Len Liggins – a gifted linguist who had studied Slavonic languages at university, on vocals and violin – and Ukraine-born Roman Remeynes (who sadly passed away in 2014), on mandolin.
The Ukrainians was established as a band in its own right from 1990, with Solowka, Liggins and Reymenes forming the nucleus of the new act, alongside a shifting alliance of British-born and Ukrainian musicians and performers over the years. Since 1991’s eponymous debut LP, the Leeds-based band have released seven studio albums, a string of EPs and performed hundreds of adrenaline-charged gigs around Europe. Shchedryk (Щедрик) is the band’s most recent release, continuing the evolution of the group’s post-punk and Ukrainian folk hybrid. The EP features a raw, joyful rendition of Dunayu Dunayu (Дунаю Дунаю). Previously only available as a video clip on the group’s You Tube channel, Dunayu Dunayu is upbeat folk driven by a pounding bass line. The clip features guest vocalist Monika (who performed with the band from 2012-2014), the Krylati Ukrainian dance group (from down the road in Bradford!) and captures the band at their self-deprecating, energetic best!
The band’s Ukrainian and punk-pop hybrid emerged from Leeds, England and has gained a solid cult following across Britain, as well as enthusiastic audiences in Ukraine and neighbouring Poland. As a child, the group’s founder Peter Solowka (second-generation Ukrainian, born in England), was imbued with the music, culture and heritage of the country – the Ukrainian songs he grew up with as a kid were performed by a handful of musicians in local social clubs, part of a small but close-knit immigrant community where he grew up in north Manchester.
The Ukrainians’ critically-acclaimed 2009 “Diaspora” album explored the complex themes of migration, racism and transnational identities, whilst retaining the edge, humour and energy of their trademark sound. The album’s title track evokes the sense of displacement and isolation of Ukrainian immigrants and their foreign-born children – most certainly emotions that migrants of all cultural origins can identify with – set to a simultaneously upbeat, yet melancholy, melody.
This “Ukrainian-English” hybrid sound reflects the cultural “in-between-ness” of Salowka’s upbringing – simultaneously belonging to, and an outsider of, two cultures. The Ukrainians’ music originates in an urban, English context – as much a product of the north Manchester suburbs and Leeds post-punk scene as rural Ukraine – the offspring of provincial punk rebellion and the efforts of immigrant parents to forge bonds with their foreign-born children in strange environments…
Revolution in Dignity
In a 2013 interview for a John Peel retrospective, Solowka observed that the band’s choosing to sing in Ukrainian proved to be a “real eye-opener” for people the group encountered on their first visit to Ukraine in the early 1990’s – here were “foreigners” singing in a long-denigrated language, pushed to the margins of cultural life in the Soviet Union. Ukrainian audiences were confronted with their own traditions, articulated in a vital, assertive way that connected with a new generation looking to forge its own future beyond the cultural fetters of the Cold War.
In response to recent events in Ukraine, the band distributed tracks, more political in content, via social media. The forthright, harrowing Zrada? / Зрада? (“Betrayal?”), published on the group’s You Tube channel in 2014, defends the democratic aspirations of Ukraine’s people, in opposition to the country’s kleptocracy as well as Russian militarism in Crimea – a protracted political crisis on the fringes of the EU that has taken 10,000 lives and displaced some 1.7 million people.
So far in 2018, the band have released a new video, with a crowd-funded LP to be released this summer. The Ukrainians are also touring this year, performing at community social clubs and festivals around Britain and Europe.
Fusing Western and Eastern influences in a natural, unaffected and, more significantly, joyous way, the band transmit a genuine love for Ukrainian music – the soundtrack to Solowka’s childhood – and balance authenticity with the energy and urgency of punk. The band are a living experiment in “unity through diversity” and occupy a vital place in the global soundscape: насолоджуватися музикою – Мир вам усім*! nasolodzhuysya muzykoyu – myr vam usim!
*Enjoy the music…peace to you all!