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.

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