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War isn't dampening artists' determination to revive Indigenous Ukrainian music

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin said that, quote, "Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood." But for decades, groups of working-class activists, intellectuals and clergy did their part to revive Ukrainian culture that had been repressed by Soviet and Russian imperial governments. NPR's Julian Hayda met with three musicians who are bringing traditional Ukrainian music to the war effort.

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: I meet Tanya Loboda in her cramped studio.

TANYA LOBODA: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: It's perched high above a Soviet-era skyscraper in Kyiv. A dozen baroque instruments hang on the walls. Steam fills the air from a tea kettle that's constantly boiling to keep her tea hot and vocal cords loose. The drone of a hurdy gurdy fills the narrow studio played by one of Tanya's students. This was her world before the war, teaching people a form of indigenous music that had all but vanished from Ukraine.

LOBODA: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: Her specialty is the bandura, a harp-like Ukrainian instrument small enough to fit on her lap. She gracefully plucks at the strings.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANDURA)

HAYDA: She says she lost her musical inspiration during the early days of the war. Instead, she bounced around the city from one army recruitment center to the next, begging to be handed a rifle to defend her city. Eventually, she was trained as an army medic and spent three weeks at a checkpoint near the front line. As a music teacher, Tanya found herself well-suited to teach a rotating crew of soldiers how to use tourniquets and how to do basic trauma care.

LOBODA: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: I'm disciplined. I'm demanding, she tells me.

LOBODA: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: But when she had to return to her studio to take care of some business, she was inspired to create once again.

LOBODA: (Singing in non-English language).

HAYDA: That's not a falcon closing the sky with its wings, she sings. It's the horde from Moscow, laying siege to Kyiv. The ballad is her own composition, and it's in a style that was created around the 1600s by blind bards called Kobzars as they traveled across Ukraine's countryside.

JULIAN KYTASTY: So they were obviously not popular with most colonial governments.

HAYDA: That's Julian Kytasty, a New York-based Kobzar and expert in the music's history.

KYTASTY: Because of their disability, not tied to the land and able to move around. And they sang a very specific repertoire about, you know, how it's important to know the difference between truth and the lie.

HAYDA: By the 1930s, hundreds of these musicians disappeared, and many were murdered under Stalin's regime.

KYTASTY: They were singing this alternate version of history - right? - which didn't fit either the Russian imperial or the Soviet paradigm.

HAYDA: Only a few Kobzars survived the Soviet era, and a few books made it to an independent Ukraine 60 years later. By the 1990s, folklorists invested in reviving a distinct Ukrainian culture. They pored over books to determine how the old instruments looked and would meticulously carve new ones to play.

JURIJ FEDYNSKY: (Singing in non-English language).

HAYDA: Jurij Fedynsky teaches people how to make them in his home studio. He's from a Ukrainian family in North Carolina and moved to Ukraine 23 years ago to be part of that Kobzar revival. When the war began, he sent his wife and kids abroad while his Kobzar guild committed to staying in Kyiv, performing in bomb shelters and checkpoints.

I meet him in a minivan on a rainy Kyiv day. His colleagues are already rehearsing.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

HAYDA: We're headed to Borodyanka, one of the towns northwest of Kyiv that had been under Russian occupation. On our way, we drive past the husks of Russian tanks, cars that have been crushed, signs taped to them reading, corpses inside. Entire houses are reduced to rubble.

FEDYNSKY: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: This entire region turned into hell, Fedynsky says. In Borodyanka, emergency workers look for bodies in the rubble of the destroyed apartment buildings. Locals who have emerged for a month in their bomb shelters mill around. The Kobzar guild gravitates towards a statue in the middle of the square. It's a bust of the 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko, a progenitor of modern Ukrainian identity. His bronze temples gape from shrapnel. The great Kobzar still stands, says one of the musicians. Fedynsky pulls out his lute.

FEDYNSKY: (Singing in non-English language).

HAYDA: The rest of the guild begins to sing along. A violinist then improvises a countermelody.

FEDYNSKY: (Singing in non-English language).

HAYDA: Slowly, a small crowd gathers.

OLEKSANDR CHERNENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: It's good they came here, says Oleksandr Chernenko, one of the volunteers. Tears well up as he surveys the neighborhood.

CHERNENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: It's a bit depressing, says Chernenko, but the music is fitting.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

HAYDA: The Kobzars here see it as almost a religious experience to perform at these ruins, dipping into a thousand years of local orthodox Christian tradition. Fedynsky pauses to talk to a woman in the audience. Olha Lysenko has lived around the corner since 1944.

OLHA LYSENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

FEDYNSKY: OK. OK. OK.

HAYDA: The music helps her cope with survivor's guilt and also a cold shoulder from her estranged daughter. She lives in Russian-occupied Crimea with her ethnic Russian husband.

LYSENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: No, no, life doesn't end here, she says. The next day, I call Taras Kompanichenko, a giant in the Kobzar revival movement.

TARAS KOMPANICHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: He's really tough to get a hold of since he's on active duty near Kyiv. Kompanichenko rushed to sign up for the territorial defense just as the Russian military was bearing down on his hometown. His first priority was to learn how to shoot, but he knew he'd be taking at least one of his instruments to the front, a 100-year-old bandura that had belonged to one of the Kobzars.

KOMPANICHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: He says he hands the instrument to new recruits so that they feel the battle against Russia.

KOMPANICHENKO: (Singing in non-English language).

HAYDA: Now Kompanichenko has more instruments with him at the front, and he works in the same military unit as religious chaplains.

KOMPANICHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: His fight, like the music of Kobzars past, is one for life over death and truth over evil. Julian Hayda, NPR News, Kyiv.

KOMPANICHENKO: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.