What can the Norient reader find at Off, a three day long feast for lovers of alternative music, that takes place every year in Katowice in Southern Poland? John Wizards and DakhaBrakha, both of who have a bit twisted relations with popular music traditions of the places they’re from. Maybe it’s because they’ve taken them on tour.
Off in Katowice has always had a reputation of being the festival for sophisticated types (or phonies, or hipsters, depends on who is reporting) since its inception in 2006. Not the festival with the biggest international acts (for which there is Open’er in Gdynia), nor for psychoactive substance aided partying until noon (see Audioriver in Płock), nor for electronica, drones, and the discussion and debate of concepts (see Unsound in Cracow).
At Off 2014 (1-3 August) it didn’t pose much of a problem, amongst all the indie rock, progressive pop, singer-songwriters, «Pitchfork metal» (as a great emerging Polish black metal band, Thaw, described their genre), improvising academics, ethnic fusions and outright techno to find something well-suited to the Norient reader: John Wizards and DakhaBrakha.
What these two bands I interviewed have in common, is the effect geography has had how they are perceived by their respective audiences. In the case of DakhaBrakha, the group has made a conscious decision to expose their place of origin, whereas for John Wizards it is rather a result of the way in which they have been presented in European festival booklets.
Both acts enjoy greater popularity abroad than at home, although they quote different reasons for that – whereas DakhaBrakha disconnects from the popular styles that reign on the Ukrainian music scene, John Wizards get to grips with South African contemporary dance genres and try and take them further.
They both come from places in which, until recently, folklore was abused – whether imposed on the population, as in the Soviet Union, or banned in South Africa under Apartheid. Their respective audiences are therefore being presented with music traditions that are not quite their own, not only geographically, but also in terms of social standing. Whereas at home both groups have been in some way accused of spoiling the traditions of the music they play, their international audience is used to importing and accommodating different forms of cultural ambassadorship – which both DakhaBrakha and John Wizards deliver handsomely.
At DakhaBrakha’s performance the crowd was bigger and screamed louder than perhaps any other this year at the Experimental Stage. After their performance, I spoke with Marko Halanevych from the band and Iryna Gorban, their manager and interpreter.
[Jacek Szczepanek]: What does the word «ethno» mean to you?
[Marko Halanevych]: Our music is not just ethno, it’s «ethno chaos», a mixture of different styles, genres, cultures. But the background is of course Ukrainian. The manner of singing is Ukrainian polyphony. That’s why it’s a part of our lives. The girls, they’re professional folklorists. They have no choice – they studied collective singing and ethno music since childhood and continued at university. That’s the only stuff they can sing. Me, I know ethno from a different angle – from my family. My grandma and grandpa, they all sang. So I do a home style folklore. They all come from Kyiv, I am from the Vinnytsia region.
[JS]: What does it mean to be professionally trained in folklore?
[MH]: Your main task is to try to find all these old songs and try to record and save them and try to start to sing in this manner. But we take another way, we try to give new a life to these songs.
[JS]: Do professional folklorists make music or just gather it?
[MH]: It’s not necessary to be a musician to do this or to sing like this – the main purpose is gathering, archiving and saving – scientific research. Of course not all Ukrainian folklorists like what we do, because we spoiled the Ukrainian tradition a little bit.
[JS]: What school produces professional folklorists?
[Iryna Gorban]: Children join folklore groups to sing and dance and play traditional instruments like bandura. And then there is the university division – what is «ethnomusicology» in Europe is «folklorist» in our country.
[JS]: Was folklore/ethno important for you at the age of 15?
[MH]: It was a family thing, very intimate. I didn’t imagine it as my future profession.
[JS]: What is your relationship with the Ukrainian music scene like?
[MH]: We don’t care much about fitting in the popular music scene. Of course we want to share music with more people, but it’s not too important – we’d rather do what we like. The TV and radio stations have special measures, but we don’t want to make our music according to these measures. For instance, we don’t want to cut 6 minute pieces to 3 minutes. The Internet is sufficient for us, we do a lot of concerts anyway. Now we have no time for concerts in Ukraine. We don’t feel too much like we’re on a mission. We don’t aim to change everything, kill all the pop stars so that only DakhaBrakha remains. People should have the choice to listen to what they like – there should be democracy.
[JS]: What do 15-year-olds in Ukrainian villages listen to?
[IG]: Pop music, some kind of pop-hip-hop. Not a real hip-hop, nothing underground and serious, like, for instance, in Poland some 10 years ago. The lyrics are mostly in Russian, and the music has elements of RnB – like Rihanna in a Ukrainian way, in a bad Ukrainian way.
[JS]: Why have you decided to flow with the stream of «World Music»?
[MH]: In the beginning it’s necessary to explain to people what it is you’re doing. And we are closer to world music than any other style. We are sometimes tagged pop, minimalist, or trip hop, but it’s not of greater importance for us.
[JS]: How do you feel at events such as WOMEX, within the world of «World Music»?
[MH]: It’s a great possibility to be accepted by a large number of professionals and we appreciate their feedback. But we don’t encapsulate ourselves in these circles – we like the festival scene, too. Sometimes we are the only «ethno» act in the line-up. It’s not a problem for us.
[JS]: What is the difference between how your work is received in Western and Eastern Europe?
[MH]: During the last 2 years we didn’t have much opportunity to play in Eastern Europe, but rather in the US, Canada and Western Europe. We played in Poland a year ago, so it’s been a long time, but because of the events of this year the Polish audience became somewhat closer to us energetically. Sure we meet a lot of people who accept and support us in Western Europe, but we can’t even imagine that it could be so enthusiastic and emotionally warm like it was today. We have started to miss it a bit, because of this Western European temperament. People in Poland, Czech Republic – around here – are much more open.