Ukrainian Polesia: Zalav’ja

After spending three nights in Perebrody, we were off to our second destination, Zalav’ja. Upon arrival, our instructions were to find a particular store and ask for Galja. This Galja would take care of everything. And she did.

Galja turned out to be a somewhat hung-over, but incredibly energetic businesswoman who runs a successful store/bar and hosts most of the visiting folklore enthusiasts. As soon as we arrived, she handed us two plastic cups of steaming instant coffee and started gathering all the singing women. All her phone conversations went something like this: “Does your head hurt? ‘Cause mine does…Drop the mushrooms and get yourself over here fast…Two girls from Canada! No joke!” And then she would pass the phone to me to convince whoever it was that I was in fact real and not just an excuse to have another drink-or-ten together.

While the women were gathering, we were sent to one of the neighbors’ to fill our stomachs and get warm. As soon as lunch was on the table, a jar of samohon (home-made vodka) appeared and so the day of plenty began.

Already feeling a little tipsy, we marched back to the store/bar where the rest of the crowd was gathering with a supply of food and alcohol sufficient for a western wedding. There were some women in their seventies, who still sing the old way, as well as their children, who sing loudly and with a lot of enthusiasm. The sound was absolutely deafening. My ears were ringing within minutes. The singers laughed at bawdy jokes told by the particularly feisty 70-year-old, Antonina, and shed bitter tears at their favorite sorrowful tunes. Our table was like a black hole that would suck in anyone who came too close. People entering the store to make purchases would join the party for a few songs and as many drinks, and the crowd grew steadily.

Zalav’ja – Oj na stavu na stavochku (“Ой на ставу на ставочку”)

A very long and sorrowful song that had people crying. Also note our very first male singer, the one-armed Ivan, in the bass. Galja, performing the highest voice, sings in parallel octaves with him.

Zalav’ja – Pryletila halka (“Прилетіла галка”)

This humorous song caused some debate. The villagers were reluctant to sing it at first because one of the words, which repeats often, apparently sounds like a swear word. They didn’t want to make a bad impression on Canadian audiences. But after reassurances that most Canadians don’t speak Ukrainian anyway, they sang it with gusto. Antonina astonished us with her virtuoso whistling skills.

Several hours later, when the singing session transitioned to drunken debauchery, Galja’s mother quietly untangled us from the jolly crowd and took us home. After heating up their little house to an oven-like temperature, the 80-year-old Ustyma told us many fascinating and sometimes-stupefying stories from her own life. She told us how she gave birth to her six children, (completely alone and unassisted, untangling umbilical chords with her own hands), how she climbed trees as a child while herding cattle and sang above the treetops, how she played jokes on drunkards and laughed at funerals. She is a woman with an iron will and a great sense of humor, the local matriarch presiding over her large family and the whole village.

Zalav’ja – Bila bereza jarko horila (“Біла береза ярко горіла”)

A song about an evil mother-in-law, a popular theme, performed by Ustyma Andrejevna Krepec’ (b. 1932).

We left Zalav’ja with a gift of several kilos of wild mushrooms, provisions for several-days-worth of travel, and an invitation to a wedding (more on that later). The hospitality in these regions is truly remarkable.

Ukrainian Polesia: first dip in Perebrody

Dear Lord, what can I say about Northwestern Ukraine…if vodka doesn’t kill you, diabetes will. In Polesia, the swampy land that was under Polish control until 1939, vodka flows freely from dawn to dusk, and tea is so sweet it should really be classified as syrup.

Our first trip to this hauntingly beautiful region of foggy mornings and cranberry-filled marshes involved a 5-hour bus ride to Rivne, where our Polesian contact, Oleksiy, shoved a map and some CDs into our hands and placed us on yet another bus. Four hours later we were nearing our final destination, Perebrody (Переброди), a smallish village right on the Belarusian border. In pitch-black darkness some kindly local, whom we met on the bus, led us to the tiny house of our hostess, Anastasija Musijivna Chmunevych.

78-year-old Nastja, the energetic little woman known as “the one to whom the Polish come for songs,” is a regular host to folksong seekers like ourselves. “They only sleep at my house,” she proudly tells us. She remembers countless songs and tells stories in that curious Ukrainian manner, which caused my mouth to drop in stupefied disbelief countless times (check out Maria’s post on that subject). After a good sleep, she feeds us buckwheat with onions and eggs baked with salo, and we set out on a tour of the village to collect “the girls.”

The girls turn out to be three more women in their 70s. They are well known in folklore circles, have sung all over Ukraine and Poland, and are featured on this DVD. We gather in Nadja’s kitchen and spend the next six hours absorbing their voices and personalities as they sing, gossip and bicker over forgotten song texts in their curious local dialect*. To make sure the vocal chords don’t dry out, we finish off a bottle of vodka in the process. The next day we gather for another six hours in a different kitchen and eat our way through an enormous heap of traditional food, which Lesya keeps bringing out from the bottomless void of her huge wood-burning oven. Over these two days, my stomach almost burst from overeating.

Perebrody – O, shcho heto za verba (“О що гето за верба”)

Nastja quickly interrupts her singing with “Don’t pour so much!” to which Nadja replies, “Well…just a little…so it doesn’t dry out.”

Perebrody – Oj ty holube (“Ой ти голубе”)

This song caused the most controversy. The first performance erupted into a heated debate over the text. How could the dove be first shot to death and then engaged? But why would a bird be engaged in the first place?? The girls eventually agreed on something and managed to sing the song all the way through before dispersing for the day.

“Oj, when we were young, we would be coming home from the club and there would be a group singing here, and another there, and a third a little further away. We sang all the time. Our daughters don’t sing. No one sings anymore.”

“Polesia is a modern-day matriarchy,” Oleksij tells me later. These women truly are remarkable. They lived through war, collectivization, the breakup of the Soviet Union and a million family traumas. Now in their 70s they live alone, digging their own potatoes, feeding a host of pigs, chickens and geese, and gathering berries and mushrooms in the marshes. And they still sing. They are the last generation that sings.

* Their dialect uses many Polish and Belarusian words and has an interesting, almost Russian pronunciation. “В гетом году було вельме багато слів.”

Two concerts

I’ve got two concerts coming up in the next couple of weeks. If you happen to be in Halifax tomorrow, November 8th, come out to Musikon’s “Spider’s Logic” happening at Saint Mary’s Gallery, where Jeff Reilly will perform Evelyn’s Watcher for bass clarinet, video and interactive electronics. This will be the very first time that one of my pieces will be performed by a second performer, one who did not premiere it. November 17th will see another such performance by a second performer with Ian Woodman’s rendition of The Child, bringer of light at the Edmonton New Music Festival in Edmonton. Alas, I can’t attend either concert myself, but I’m super excited to hear recordings and to experience what these new players do with these older pieces.