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.
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.”