Ukrainian Village Voices: Preserving Traditional Music in Modern Wartime
А ви, мої рідні, знайомі і близькі,
Приходьте мене навіщать.
Червону калину на моїй могилі
Своїми сльозьми поливать.
And you, my relations, acquaintances, and close ones,
Do come and visit me.
The red kalyna that is upon my grave,
Water her with your tears.
This piece is “Oy, Bozhe miy mylyy,” a folk tune from the Trembachiv village of the Luhansk Oblast, or province, of Ukraine. It was one of many pieces in the repertoire of Ukrainian Village Voices performed at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Through Ukrainian Village Voices, it is evident how folk songs traditionally sung in village settings take on new meanings as they are performed in response to Russia’s current war in Ukraine.
“Oy, Bozhe miy mylyy” (“Oh, my dear God”) is a somber song, described by music director Joanna Mieleszko as a “people’s prayer” or a “secular prayer.” Its expression of grief and longing for connection with loved ones may be timeless, but the song prompts additional reflections today, as this region has been partially occupied by Russian forces since 2014. As nearly 550 days of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine approaches, the group chose to perform this song as a way of preserving the musical traditions with roots from an occupied region currently facing war.
From the music’s roots in Ukrainian villages to a revival in New York City, audiences from around the country experienced Ukrainian folksong firsthand at the Folklife Festival.
Ukrainian Village Voices, a music group based in New York City, performed at this year’s Festival as part of the Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. program. Today, New York City is home to about 150,000 Ukrainians, with many living in East Village’s Little Ukraine. Dressed in traditional embroidered costumes, the performers shared with audiences the rich tradition of polyphonic singing and instrumental music that is commonly heard in Ukrainian village settings. Polyphonic singing features two or more concurrent melodies in a piece. In Ukrainian village singing, the performers also use a specific vocal technique and often depend on the chest register to create a powerful and open sound that resembles shouting.
The repertoire of Ukrainian Village Voices represents different regions of the country and includes wedding songs, ritual songs, lyrical songs, and music of seasonal celebrations. Much of their repertoire includes songs that were recorded by ethnomusicologists and performed by culture bearers in Ukrainian villages in oblasts that include Sumy, Chernihiv, Poltava, and Kyiv.
The group performed in several venues at the Festival, tailoring their repertoire to the Crossroads Stage, the Garden, and the Thresholds tent. They performed “Oy Bozhe miy mylyy”” in the latter space. Thresholds was a smaller, welcoming area on the National Mall where musicians sang and mourned the loss of innocent lives in a more relaxed and informal setting. Here, it was a special opportunity for the group to perform this song in an intimate circle rather than in a traditional performance setting with a stage and seated audience.
On the larger Crossroads Stage, they sang a cappella arrangements and performed energetic instrumental pieces on the accordion, violin, tambourine, and sopilka, a Ukrainian woodwind instrument. Prior to each song, members of the group explained its meaning and cultural significance, enriching the experience for non-Ukrainian audiences. They ended most of their performances on the Crossroads Stage with a humorous song titled “Our Mother Was at the Bazaar.”
A main highlight of the Festival, Mieleszko described, was meeting so many musicians and artists from diverse backgrounds. “You so rarely find yourself in a space with Ukrainian folk singers and musicians from Mountain View, Arkansas, and Kazakh crafters and instrumentalists,” she said. “You don’t find yourself every day in a space where you all get to be in the same room, and so this Festival sort of did that.”
In addition to their beautiful and moving repertoire, Ukrainian Village Voices is unique because of the diversity of its members, who hail from Ukrainian and other backgrounds. One of the main requirements to join the group is simply to have a desire to learn Ukrainian village singing. Many members do not come from Ukrainian heritage, nor do they speak the language.
“We are fundamentally an American group,” Mieleszko explained. “The [group] is an awesome mixture of people who are compelled by the music. There’s always going to be a certain Americanness that comes through in how we do it. Not in a negative sense, not in a way that erases the traditions. They are a living tradition, and I think that’s an important consideration.”
Mieleszko explained that with the musical output of the group, they “understand the music’s foundation, but want to build upon it, too. As an American group, I hope this is what we do. We are not only honoring the conventions and traditions, but we are also keeping it alive and adding our own influence to it in a positive way.”
The group demonstrates music’s role in bringing people from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds together. When musical traditions from around the world are reintroduced in the United States, they are transformed into practices that are learned, performed, and enjoyed by anyone who wishes to explore that tradition. The music that is performed and shared by Ukrainian Village Voices exhibit the extent to which loss is a universal experience that can resonate with anyone, while also raising awareness of the current war and highlighting the distinctive expression of mourning through song in Ukraine.
Lilia Yaralian is an intern for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival program Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. She is a graduate of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and is currently pursuing her MA in ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland, College Park.