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Ukrainian theatrical rock band DakhaBrakha a hit at APAP

The Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) 2014 showcase listings called DakhaBrakha “subversive Ukrainian punk-folk,” prompting a chuckle from the world music quartet’s vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (darbuka goblet drum, tabla drum, Australian didjeridoo, accordion, trombone) Marko Halanevych.

DakhaBrakha perform at APAP.
Jim Bessman

“We’ve been called ‘psychedelic folk,’ too,” he said, by way of his interpreter, the group’s manager Iryna Gorban. She, too, laughed at other DakhaBrakha comparisons with New York “gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello—which is led by Ukrainian Eugene Hütz—and Sigur Rós.

“Marko gets compared with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke all the time!” she added.

DakhaBrakha, whose bio chooses “urban chaos” to describe the band’s sound, was doing soundcheck Monday afternoon at Le Poussin Rouge, where they would do one final showcase (having done three brief APAP sets at the Hilton Hotel over the weekend) in New York before heading out on a small U.S. tour, stopping in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Phoenix and Minneapolis.

The group’s name means “give/take” in the old Ukrainian language. Halanevych, Iryna Kovalenko (vocals, African djembe goblet drum, bass drums, accordion, percussion, the cylindrical Ukrainian bugay friction drum, zgaleyka pipes and piano), Olena Tsibulska (vocals, bass drum, percussion, Russian garmoshka accordion) and Nina Garenetska (vocals, cello, bass drum) came together in 2004 at the Kiev Center of Contemporary Art “DAKH,” one of the first independent non-commercial theaters in Ukraine.

“Of course we perform traditional Ukrainian folk music,” said Halanevych, “mainly in the voices.”

He noted that Kovalenko, Tsibulska and Garenetska have been singing 20 years together, since childhood.

“It’s a peculiarity of singing, polyphonics, that is Ukrainian,” explained Gorban, adding that the songs are mostly traditional, though uniquely arranged by the group.

To Western ears, it has a relation to the intriguing a cappella singing of the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, famed for its Grammy-winning album Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices) and the group’s three-piece offshoot Trio Bulgarka. Fans of Sergei Parajanov’s classic 1964 film Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors may also recognize the sound, since Ukrainian folk music makes up much of its score.

Otherwise, DakhaBrakha “mixes with different instruments, genres, cultures,” said Halanevych, who performed an original song in English at the Hilton, “Specially For You.” “We feel the music, and produce how we feel.”

Specifically, the group employs traditional Indian, Arabic, African, Russian and Australian instrumentation, in addition to Ukrainian.

“All these things appear by accident,” insists Halanevych. “We studied Bulgarian folklore in the university, so some pieces have Bulgarian singing. Others have different percussion instruments, like the Arabian darbuka.”

Gorban cited the use of “different small things” in achieving sounds resembling bird calls and wind effects,” as well as various accordions (“a universal instrument”), including a small children’s toy accordion.

As for traditional Ukrainian instruments, she said that they were left at home on this trip. And while the cello is also not specific to Ukraine, Garenetska’s tuning is “not typical” of Western performance, she added.

Not typical, either, are the group’s costumes, distinguished at the Hilton by the girls’ towering Cossack hats.

“Some of it is kind of traditional, like our music,” said Halanevych. “But we’re part of a private theater, and our director mixes different cultures, so we have different types of costumes.”

Such garb would not usually be found on the streets of Kiev, Gorban agreed, but she thought that on this day in particular—the Jan. 13 folk holiday of Malanka—Ukrainians might indeed be seen in more traditional dress out of national pride.

DakhaBrakha has performed extensively internationally, at festivals throughout Europe and Australia, and made their U.S. debut in September—though they’ve played Canada several times. Gorban expects the group to return here this summer, based on APAP crowd response.

“I don’t know if we have any offers yet,” she said of the arts presenters in the audiences, “but we saw a lot of faces smiling all the time, so we think it was a success.”

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