What Kiev Sounds Like

A selection of must-hear music from central Ukraine.

By / April 2012

Music follows politics, or is it the other way around? Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the music scene in Kiev, the sprawling capital of Ukraine, has witnessed a cross-pollination of classical and traditional folk music with sounds from the West that were formerly banned or, at best, watered down. Interest in native composers such as Leyontovich (“Carol of the Bells”) remains high — the National Opera House of Ukraine and the Kiev Conservatory offer near-free admission to young people — while dance music, underground rock, punk, and reggae emanates from venues like Art Club 44 and Cinema Club.

Kiev also boasts a bumper crop of open-air festivals each year, including the electronica themed Global Gathering and also the D Major Festival, in which disabled young classical musicians play alongside professional composers, singers, and instrumentalists. If anything connects these disparate musical strands, perhaps it is a sense of pride in the pre-communist past, a restlessness over the present, and a curiosity, albeit as measured as the flow of the nearby Dnieper River, as to which way the future of this bastion of East European culture will veer.

 

1. Marakesh: “Ne Lyubov”

Formed in 2006, Marakesh boasts a polished alt-rock sound that takes cues from British bands like the Cure and New Order. Although this style has become somewhat overwrought in recent years, Marakesh does a good job of capturing the essential qualities of what makes the genre so indefatigable. Staccato guitars and simple drums give way to a synth-laced chorus that sticks with the listener. The band recently landed a spot on the soundtrack for the popular Grand Theft Auto video game series, as well as an opening gig for British alt-rockers Placebo.

Ne Lyubov

 

2. Roman Miroshinichenko: “Temptation”

The flighty, jazz-fusion/Spanish guitar sound that Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin so successfully pioneered in the 70s has been carried on with no less excellence by Roman Miroshinichenko, a guitar virtuoso in his own right. Demonstrating his proficiency with impossibly quick modal runs and compelling chord changes and shifting rhythms, Roman’s work is fiery enough to excite the air guitarist in all of us, but relaxing enough to trigger daydreams about riding horseback across Mallorca. This particular song was praised by fellow guitar great Larry Coryell.

 

3. Singleton: “If I’m Falling”

Singleton was baptized in the trickle of 90s rock that reached Eastern Europe in the early part of the last decade. “If I’m Falling,” with its winsome yet wanting mix of angst and grace, gives a nod to the Cranberries and the Jezabels, rock bands with strong female leads and soaring guitar arpeggios. Until Singleton finds a way to more clearly differentiate its sound, I’m plenty content to listen to the band’s tremulant guitars and vocalist Alina’s lovelorn declarations (“I’m so small and useless”).

If I’m Falling

 

4. Zavoloka: “We drank water on vehement shore of a bright life”

The title of this track alone should give you an indication of Zavoloka’s unconventionality. It’s no surprise that this maven of electronica, who also happens to be an accomplished graphic artist, is in thick with the Aphex Twins. Richard D. James himself used Zavoloka’s art as backdrop to his concerts in the UK and Denmark. Zavoloka’s brand of electronic music is flush with bleeping and twitching synths. The result is a dusty, middle school science video sound that produces a surprising amount of emotional resonance, bordering on the ethereal.

 

5. Valentin Silvestrov: “Winter Evening”

Winter is a season for drawing near to what is warm. But in Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s “Winter Evening,” no such possibility exists. The piano here is cold personified; Sergey Yakovenko’s baritone is the meaning of melancholy. Silvestrov (born 1937) remains one of Ukraine’s greatest composers, famous for resisting Soviet compositional strictures in the 70s, during which time he privately composed his most famous collection, “Silent Songs.” If you can get past the bleakness of it all, “Winter Evening” is a gorgeous exploration of the depth and distance that a few minor chords can evoke.

 

6. Mandry: “Legenda Pro Ivanka Ta Odarku”

Known for their political activism, Mandry is one of the most popular bands in all of Ukraine, mostly for producing music that draws heavily on traditional folk styles while incorporating elements of rock, blues, ska, punk, and reggae. The result is an unusual polyphony. The vocals are half shout, half yodel. You’ve never heard an accordion rollick like this. Mandry’s value, more than technical prowess or songcraft, is the perpetuation of Ukrainian folk to a new generation of hearers.

Legenda Pro Ivanka Ta Odarku

 

7. Gaitana: “Be My Guest”

Singer Ruslana won the Eurovision Song Contest contest in 2004, but Ukraine is hungry for another victor. To that end, the half-Ukranian, half-Congolese singer Gaitana has released “Be My Guest,” a guileless Euro-pop anthem that could bring the Eurovision trophy back to Kiev. A woman of striking beauty, Gaitana has the talent to match her figure, composing all of her lyrics and music herself, and often singing in Ukrainian, English, and Russian. Music fiends outside of Europe have already taken notice of Gaitana. In 2009, she performed at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.

 

David Wilezol is a radio producer, writer, and hobbyist musician who lives in Washington DC.

 

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