DakhaBrakha

From Ukraine, DakhaBrakha Revisits Pro-Soviet Film ‘Earth’ With New Score

Aug 15, 2016

Just because a film is a game-changing masterpiece doesn’t mean its legacy is uncomplicated. Think of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 white supremacist epic The Birth of a Nation, which both glorified the role of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction and introduced a panoply of new narrative devices to cinema. Or Leni Riefenstahlturning Hitler into a God-like figure descending from the clouds in her documentary Triumph of the Will, glorifying the Nazi’s 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg.

Just because a film is a game-changing masterpiece doesn’t mean its legacy is uncomplicated. Think of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 white supremacist epic The Birth of a Nation, which both glorified the role of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction and introduced a panoply of new narrative devices to cinema. Or Leni Riefenstahlturning Hitler into a God-like figure descending from the clouds in her documentary Triumph of the Will, glorifying the Nazi’s 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg.

Created to celebrate Stalin’s collectivization project, which pushed Ukrainian peasants off their land into huge communal farms, Alexander Dovzhenko’s classic 1930 silent film Earth isn’t quite as notorious. But this landmark of Soviet cinema, the third of the director’s seminal “Ukraine trilogy,” inhabits unsettled ground where propaganda and art contest for meaning. DakhaBrakha, the amazing Ukrainian ensemble that reverently reinvents hair-raising polyphonic Ukrainian folk songs, perform an original live score for Earth on Friday, Aug. 19, at the SFJAZZ Center. The quartet also perform at 3pm on Sunday, Aug. 14 at San Jose Jazz’sSummer Fest.

Commissioned to create the new score by the national film archive, Kiev’s National Oleksandr Dovzhenko Centre, DakhaBrakha tackled the film’s difficult legacy head on. Viewed today, it’s impossible not to think of a way of life about to be erased, a reality evoked by their percussion-driven incantations.

 

“Of course it’s controversial,” says DakhaBrakha multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Marko Halanevych, speaking through an interpreter over the phone. “The film was created to show the great Soviet way of life, but we know all the events in the next year. It’s very complicated to divide the art and the moment. The film is a masterpiece created by a genius. But we know the history now and in our music we tried to see and feel this like modern people.”

The history is known in Ukraine as the Holodomor. The famine inflicted on the Ukrainian countryside, which had been the breadbasket of the Russian Empire, left millions dead. Historians still argue over whether the campaign should becharacterized as genocide, but the death toll ranks among the 20th century’s worst atrocities, a reality covered up at the time by the Soviet state and its Western champions (like Walter Duranty, the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Timeswho infamously earned a Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches denying that millions were dying from starvation).

 

 

DakhaBrakha first gained attention in North America about three years ago with an astounding sound and outfits out of some fantastical peasant celebration. Wearing towering black fur hats and white wedding dresses, the group’s three women — Olena Tsybulska, Irnya Kovalenko and Nina Harenetsha — looked almost as striking as they sounded with their keening vocals and multi-instrumental arsenal (including cello, hurdy gurdy, piano and sundry percussion implements). Having founded the group in 2004, they were quickly joined by Halanevych on vocals, tabla, didgeridoo, accordion, and trombone.

 

When DakhaBrakha perform the score for Earth, the group wears more sedate, dark outfits so as not to compete with the film. And they recently traded in the wedding dresses for new costumes by Ukrainian designer Olga Navrotska, inspired by their animated video for “Karpatsky Rap,” drawn by Sashko Danylenko.

While ostensibly a celebration of collectivization, Earth powerfully evokes the love of the land and the vitality of the Ukrainian countryside. Dovzhenko’s ability to capture the humanity of the “kulaks” — peasants with some means who were demonized by the Soviet state — led to Earth being censured shortly after its release. For DakhaBrakha’s Halanevych, Dovzhenko “described the life and remarkable personality of these villagers so well that his genius succeeded and his propaganda failed. The vision was so powerful, you see these great people with great faces, and can feel them even now.”

Working together to create the score, DakhaBrakha combined existing repertoire and new arrangements, which like all of their music stems from “a traditional source recorded in a Ukrainian village,” Halanevych says. “Some songs are changed very much with unusual arrangements, and some not so much.”

The band’s international success means that they spend about 70 percent of their time on the road these days. But their thoughts are never far from home, where a Russian-backed insurrection in eastern Ukraine continues to destabilize the country, to say nothing of the occupation of Crimea. At the end of DakhaBrakha’s concerts, they often plead for audiences to pay attention to the fate of their nation.

“Every day we read about people getting killed,” Halanevych says. “It’s really important to have support from civilized countries. Everybody wants to stop the war, to stop Putin and Russia, so we can develop the country and democracy.”

 

By 
AUGUST 12, 2016

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