In the last days of September, Maria and I visited two villages in the Bobrovyts’kyi district of Chernihivs’ka region to collect songs, stories and memories. A bus ride shaky enough to break teeth or induce labour took us to Kozats’ke (Козацьке), where a welcoming party of babushka-clad old ladies was awaiting us by the village club*. After a series of kisses and a debate about whether it was still sinful to sing softly on a fasting day**, the old ladies hopped on their bikes and rode off to the hut that would serve as our recording studio for the day.
The eight ladies who gathered in the humble, but beautifully decorated home of our host, Maria Andrijivna Vakulenko, form the well-known ensemble Berehynja. They tour all over Ukraine on a little bus that belongs to the former village kolhoz (communal farm). We ate delicious steamed pirogues and spent several hours listening to their stories and songs. Afterwards, Maria Andrijivna showed us some very old articles of traditional garb and gave us a tour of her little farm.
Village Kozats’ke, Ensemble Berehynja: “Kalyna malyna” (“Калина малина”)
Village Kozats’ke, Ensemble Berehynja: “Pryjizhaje mij mylen’kyj z polja” (“Приїзжає мій миленький з поля”)
The next morning we arose bright and early to catch a little bus to the neighbouring village, Vepryk (Веприк, which translates to “little pig”). There was no welcoming committee here. Iryna, our guide, had a list of names obtained earlier from the village head and we went door-to-door looking for the old ladies known to sing. Once we got two of them in one place, I was given an ancient bike and sent to look for the third.
Soon enough we were gathered in the summer kitchen of Nina Myhajlovna Borovik, who was preparing potatoes and constantly shooing the countless cats living in her yard. These three women are not part of an ensemble like Berehynja and rarely sing together anymore, but managed to remember quite a few beautiful songs. After several hours of singing, gossiping and eating, one of the women, Hanna Ivanovna Jermenok, took us to her home and showed us around her farm, even demonstrating how she reaps grass with an old scythe. She happily showed off old family photos, embroidered shirts and aprons, and hand-woven cloths.
Village Vepryk: “Oj u poli zhyto” (“Ой у полі жито”)
These women can usually sing all the voices in any given song, deciding almost instinctively who will take which line. Here, the top voice switches partway because the first woman was having trouble reaching so high.
Village Vepryk: “Nagljadajsja moja maty” (“Наглядайся моя мати”)
The whole experience was like traveling back in time. Life in these villages couldn’t have been much different 100 years ago, except that maybe people were younger, fresher. Rural communities are dying in Ukraine and this traditional folk culture is disappearing quickly.
For a writer’s perspective on this little expedition, check out Maria Reva’s “Expedition log: songs and sins.”
* Clubs were set up in villages during Soviet times to promote communist culture and ideals. This is where people would gather to sing and dance.
** One officially can’t sing during fasts, but they made an exception for us.