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The Quietus , September 29th, 2015 16:16

Ahead of their performance at Village Underground, we caught up with band member, multi-instrumentalist, folklore graduate and actress at Dakh, Iryna Kovalenko to talk the art of receiving and giving

Conceived in 2004 at DAKH, the Kiev Centre for Contemporary Art by avant-garde theatre director Vladyslav Troitskyi, DakhaBraka’s intentions were to rejuvenate dying Ukranian folk music traditions. The quartet quickly gained a young enthusiastic audience in their hometown and throughout the country. But it was a performance at Womad Australia in 2011 which really put them on the world stage.

The band describe their sound as “ethno chaos” which explains in their approach to making music. The group travel across the Ukraine, listening and playing with traditional artists then they stop rigour mortis by applying their own defibrillation of energy. Specially For You is a particularly fine example of this.

I saw you at Womad last year and I was blown away by your style and energy. For me, your songs have their own sound but it also made me think of many different world influences… is the "giving and taking" of your name a reference to taking traditional sounds and clashing with modern music to give back something new?

IK: It was one of the ideas, also the name "gave and take" describes the energy between the us and the audience. But, yes, that energy also exists between new and old as well.

The last studio album Light, to my ears, sounded a lot more worldly-wise than your first album (Yahudky) is this the case or is it closer to the sound that you've always wanted to produce?

Iryna Kovalenko: Yahudky was our first studio album and we had very limited ways to produce it, especially with the instruments that we used. We just tried to feel our own way with music and find something new. It's a kind of development, because there are lots of influences and modern sounds on this new album. Our good friend who produced it, is a great musician so we tried to make a really different sound. With the first album we had lots of dramatic sounds but it couldn’t really be listened to in a car. We wanted people to be able to listen to it, without being frightened and causing an accident! There are still still lots of influences and sounds on Light but the recording is great.

It was our dream to create Ukrainian Blues music for the whole country. There is a real difference in style across different regions of the Ukraine. We want to create a full musical map of the Ukraine with our songs.

What are the main features of Ukrainian music?

IK: Ukrainian music is different in different parts of the country. It's as varied as the geography - whether it's seaside and mountainside, for example. The main feature is the Ukranian polyphonic tradition especially with women's voices - we use this way of singing very much in our songs. But Russia, for example, does not have this type of singing so much, this is a very special thing for the Ukraine. In Russia, they sing with one voice but with Ukrainian we sing in several voices.

What was the Ukrainian response when you first started doing your own versions of these traditional songs?

IK: When we started 11 years ago what we were doing was really something new, old music wasn't very popular. We were really one of the first groups to play Ukrainian folk this way. Now it's more popular and also world music has become really popular in the Ukraine. Now we're successful because it's something genuine - not like pop music which is the same in every country. This music is special and people are ready to listen to it.

Was their any criticism of what you were doing from the older generation?

IK: In the West people of all ages come to see us but in the Ukraine it's more of a younger audience. We had a journalist friend of ours come to see us in the Ukraine and she was really surprised with how young our audience were. Now it's slightly different, but when we started the older generation were unsure of our authenticity. We think they were worried that if we didn't do it the right way that we were spoiling the music. Those people were more like scientists [music anthropologists] and they wanted to preserve and control the music. We tried to change them and give them new life. Most of them have changed their minds now, and many people try and put their own style into traditional music.

So is the music you give, taken in a different way as you travel across the world?

IK: It's amazing that we're accepted everywhere from Australia to China, from Russia to Canada - people have opened their hearts and feel the music, even if they don't understand what we're we're singing about. We really try to adapt our setlist and performance in each venue that we play, there's always a small detail or peculiarity according to our audience. There's always a part of improvisation in our music and with each other.

Is there a particular gig that stands out where you had a fantastic performance and crowd?

IK: This question is very often asked and we don't know what to say as we always feel very, very lucky and we try and remind ourselves that each gig is very special. All I ever remember is very happy people. Womad was very special, there was only a small crowd of Ukrainians when we went on stage but it was a full tent when we left because people were wandering by and being amazed by the sound. It was really great.

Where felt the strangest?

IK: I remember one gig that we played in South Korea. And we had some problems with the the delivery of our costumes, so we played concert without our hats! That was when we realised that we really need them because they give us additional energy. We've decided now that when you wear the costume you are “DakhaBrakha” when you're not, you're not.

What do you think it is about your music that blurs geographical borders?

IK: When music is good it’s good - it’s not about politics, or language. We try to share our opinions and culture with people. The main thing with music is that it's energy, they [the audience] feel the energy and they understand our emotions even without any words. Even the to a Ukrainian audience the songs are not always understandable - they may understand the general plot but not all the detail.

Are the songs that are passed down folk stories or are they about themes and feelings such as love and loss?

IK: They're about many different feelings, sometimes they can be about celebrations such as a Christmas, funeral and wedding songs. But yes there are also lyrical songs about love and everyday life from times when they didn't have internet. They did all their "life acts" accompanied by these songs, they used to sing all the time for every occasion. Now, people don't use them and these songs are dying. So we try to save them in this way, imbue real life in the, to make them acceptable to our generation. It's also very difficult to reproduce the songs authentically, it requires a highly specialised skill, almost like classical music. We do music like we feel it and people understand it.

How was Karpatskyi Rap created is one of you a hip-hop fan?

IK: It was recorded in Carpathian mountains where they have this special song form, the style is very rhythmical. The song is a really funny story about a woman trying to find a husband and going around 100 different people and no-one is suitable. One isn't rich enough, another has a difficult mother and in the end they can't choose one. With the rhythm and humour, it made sense to turn it into a rap - not really hip hop but our hip hop. We like gangster rap and we do play a little bit with that element, especially when we perform it live.

I really enjoyed the video does that it tell the tale or did the artist animate a different story?

IK: With video it's really complicated because we don't like to see a pitch that is just a visual version of the lyrics - you always want to leave some space for the imagination. Also, a lot of what we sing about is difficult to film and you might be able to put it on television. It's quite hard to get our music played on the radio and we have the same problem with video. We are always open to an artistic vision and a lot of young people want to do a video for us, so we ask them them to write a storyboard and see whether it will fit with one of our songs. We use film in our performances too and there is often a theatrical part to that - we often have video behind us. It's more of a performance than a concert. The oldest live videos that were recorded try to bottle this performance especially the most beautiful ones. We have big screens behind us when we perform live and there’s video has been made especially for the song… it’s very important to use videos when performing live to show importance of the tradition.

This goes back to you theatre roots when you were doing DAKH. do you still make your stage production and performance as extravagant as you can - or is this harder when you have the restrictions of touring?

IK: It's a bit heavy to bring all of this stuff, now we try to it fairly light. The main thing is to have our drums - we don't play them like usual musicians so if we rent them they may get damaged. Also the cello we use has a specific tuning so it's also difficult to rent. Yesterday our accordion was broken during a flight from one part of US to another, so now we think maybe we shouldn't take an accordion with us. It's really heavy and fragile, because of flights we're worried about our instruments all the time. That said, it's good to take the cases with us then we can put presents for our families in them

Finally, do you have any special plans for Village Underground performance?

IK: We always try to do something special in each venue. But not sure until soundcheck what special thing we will do. We need to understand the feel of the place and how the audience will react.

DakhaBrakha play Village Underground on 1st October, £14 advance tickets are still available