When Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared in a recorded video before the tuxedoed glitterati gathered in Las Vegas for the Grammy Awards ceremony in April, he spoke of how the brutality Russia had inflicted upon Ukraine brought something else with it: silence. The silence of dead soldiers and civilians; the silence of abandoned, destroyed cities. “The war doesn’t let us choose who survives and who stays in eternal silence,” he declared. The antidote? “Fill the silence with your music. Fill it today to tell our story.”
Ukraine’s own artists are doing just that. Since Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24, their music has penetrated the horrors of the war with soulfulness and defiance. Nina Garenetska, the singer and cellist in Ukraine’s renowned DakhaBrakha group calls it the “energy of resistance.” For years, DakhaBrakha’s three musicians have performed with traditional instruments, wearing indigenous Ukrainian costumes, and singing old folkloric songs they had recorded in villages around the country. Now, that has assumed far greater meaning, posing a direct challenge to Russia’s narrative that Ukraine has no culture of its own. “This is our inspiration. Our roots,” says 38-year-old Garenetska. “It gives us strength in this fight.”
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The inspiration has found its way into every corner of Ukraine, despite night-time curfews and air-raid sirens. The theaters and cafés are shut. But in Kyiv, a new amphitheater has been created in the archways of its metro stations, deep underground. There, people gathered for a concert in April by Ukraine’s hugely popular artist and member of parliament Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. On May 8, U2’s Bono and The Edge ventured to Kyiv to perform in the metro station.
Those concerts have offered their audiences moments of respite—and a shared community coming together in the fight for Ukraine.
Creating the music has not been easy, however. DakhaBrakha’s musicians anxiously scrolled their phones for messages from home before going on stage in Paris in March. And others say playing music can seem jarringly at odds with the grim reality around them.
“In the first few days of war it was very hard for me to play music, because it is a time when people are dying, kids are dying, and music was always a form of entertainment for me,” says Dmytro Mazuriak, wind instrumentalist for the Kyiv-based group Kazka. Shortly after the war began, he fled Kyiv for a village in western Ukraine, where he heard women singing while they were stitching camouflage nets for soldiers on the frontline. He says it made him realize that he needed to play music. “I understood that we are a nation that cannot live without singing,” he says.
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Music brought Mazuriak a kind of solace, too. After collecting sleeping bags, gloves, and other items for the platoon in which his brother was fighting, his brother called to say he had been wounded in a missile strike, and that all but four of the 30 men in his unit were dead.
In March, Kazka recorded its new wartime song, “I Am Not Okay,” remotely, with Mazuriak still in the relative safety of western Ukraine, and lead vocalist Oleksandra (Sasha) Zaritska in her temporary refuge in New York; guitarist Mykita Budash, who also recorded the song from western Ukraine, later returned home to Kyiv. From there, he showed us his blacked-out apartment and the empty streets outside his window, visible proof of a country under attack.
“It is very tough,” Budash says. “We will manage this with a psychologist in the future for sure.”
For now, music will fill the metro stations, and the factories where civilians make protective equipment. “Right now, music can express something other than words,” Zaritska says. “Because there are no words that can express what is happening.”