by Orysia Paszczak Tracz

Hearing voices

...well, not so much hearing as listening to them. I'm getting old (or, my sons would say, what do you mean "getting," mamo?!). I'm from a much earlier generation, when melody and quality of voice mattered to a singer and to the listener. Ukrainians are blessed with both, the songs being unbelievably beautiful, and the singers - practically anyone who opens his/her mouth - having amazing voices.

Then there is the polyphony. Non-Ukrainians cannot figure out how we can sing like that, with no director, in such beautiful multi-part harmony. At one wedding when the guests rose to sing "Mnohaya Lita" the non-Ukrainians at our table actually asked where the conductor was. I could not figure out what they meant. "Well, how did you all sing like that, if you did not have a conductor?" We just did, and do.

Now to the voices I have been listening to. There is a wealth of performers with exceptional voices, both in Ukraine and in North America - too many to list. While so many sing beautifully, there are a few who, to me, are outstanding. There is a special quality to each of their voices, that something extra that makes you listen more, and remember their particular voice.

Vasyl Zhdankin sang his heart out at the first Chervona Ruta Festival in Chernivtsi and was the laureate, winning the highest award. At times, his deep strong voice seemed to be an entity apart from the singer. Standing there in his white homespun linen shirt and pants from the Podillia region of Ukraine playing his kobza, Mr. Zhdankin was from another time and place. His Kozak songs, and contemporary ones that sounded old, were steeped in history and emotion. He truly was a bard, a kobzar. Regrettably, Mr. Zhdankin doesn't seem to be performing any more. What a loss to us all.

Vasyl Nechepa is a kobzar-lirnyk from the Chernihiv region. He plays the diatonic kobza, and the chromatic lira (a type of hurdy-gurdy that old blind men played and sang in accompaniment to). Both of his instruments were made specifically for him. Mr. Nechepa has an unbelievable baritone. The timbre of the voice has a clarity, a sharpness, that makes the presentation of each song special.

On his eponymous album, released in Ukraine on December 15, 2000 (the date the Chornobyl nuclear plant was closed), many of the songs are composed. But they sound as traditional and old as the folk songs and the dumy accompanying them. The new songs cover bitter topics of Chornobyl, Afghanistan and the state of present-day Ukraine. In its last line, one heartbreaking song, "Dochekalas Maty Syna" (about the mother awaiting her son from battle), packs a punch you do not expect. Mr. Nechepa's voice magically recreates the world of Oleksander Dovzhenko's childhood in a segment of "Materynski Pisni" (mother's songs, from Dovzhenko's own mother). This is truly a gem of a medley.

I just wish whoever prepared the album notes knew the proper transliteration from Ukrainian. The Ukrainian language does have the letter "H," and does not need to transliterate in the Russian style, using "G" unnecessarily. It's maddening to read "Oy, Girka Kalyna," or "Ty Plachesh, Gospody," or "Na Gorbochku Sydzhu." This plague affects much English-language material from Ukraine.

You just know Oksana Bilozir loves to sing. Her voice has a special catch, a delightful something extra in her lovely soprano. From her early work with Vatra, to her solo concerts and albums, to her collaboration with other singers, she has performed a wealth of ritual, traditional and contemporary songs. As she matured in her career, there is even more depth and emotion in her singing.

Then there is Victor Morozov, that Renaissance man of Ukrainian songs and letters. His smoky baritone is definitely in a class all its own. Not only does he sing beautifully, he conveys the emotion of the songs so definitely. I first heard him (and Mr. Zhdankin) when the Ne Zhurys ensemble performed in Winnipeg on October 31, 1989. What a sensation this was, and how brave they were, performing songs banned by the regime.

Mr. Morozov was one of the co-founders of Ne Zhurys, a cabaret-style musical group that mixed political satire with song. Their patriotic, protest and satirical lyrics had a definite effect in Ukraine and throughout the world. [My article about their performance in Winnipeg appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly on November 12, 1989.]

It would be worthwhile to re-release Mr. Morozov's song "Viddayte Movu" (Give Us Back Our Language) for today's Ukrainian population. Maybe it will awaken some lost souls in the onslaught of the new Russification. In his songs about Chornobyl, the pollution tragedy in Chernivtsi, and so many other horrors of Ukrainian life under the Soviets, his rich baritone conveys the bitterness, the seething cold anger, the patriotism of a Ukrainian hurting for his land. At the same time, his love songs are as gentle as they could be.

Mr. Morozov's two albums of folk and ritual songs with Ms. Bilozir are true gems. Their voices blend beautifully, and they understand what they are singing about. He also sings in "Pisni z-za grat" [Songs from Behind the Prison Bars], an engrossing collection of freedom-fighting songs. Again, his voice so eloquently conveys all the emotions of patriotism, love and loss.

And Nina Matvienko is at the head of them all. If ever there was an artist who bared her soul through her voice, it is Nina. She understands, she feels, she emotes the lyrics and their background in every note and with her whole being. When there are songs in which a few characters speak, she becomes a one-woman theatrical cast, changing voice and character with each verse and line.

In "Holos u dolyni" (The Sound in the Valley), about the Tatars attacking and taking away an old woman from a village, she becomes the old woman, the Tatar and his wife. In another song, "Oy, posiyu khmeliu" [I Will Sow Some Hops], where a brother invites his wealthy and his poor sisters to a dinner, Ms. Matviyenko conveys to us the haughtiness and the painful hurt and bitterness of the respective sisters. She has been a rock, an immovable force for Ukrainian patriotism during those times when it was dangerous and not politically correct to sing particular songs, and to be a true Ukrainian. In my article about her in The Weekly (January 15, 1989), I called her the "Contemporary Berehynia" (based on the ancient pre-Christian protectress).

These outstanding singers and personalities are so much more than fine voices. Their character and depth, their knowledge and patriotism come through their songs. May we hear their voices for a long time.

Copyright The Ukrainian Weekly, April 18, 2004, No. 16, Vol. LXXII

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