DakhaBrakha are from Kiev, and many of their songs are reinterpretations of ancient Ukrainian village folk tunes.
This was a truly magical evening that is difficult to capture or do justice to in words. The two standing ovations and three encores attest to how everyone in the audience felt. I would add a standing ovation to Pontio for bringing DakhaBrakha to Bangor.
Four musicians, one man and three women wear sumptuous costumes, and more remarkably, tall furry black hats (a group of fans in the front row came with matching hats). They employ a vast array of wonderful instruments (jaw harp, wind maker, accordions, cello, piano, drums, mouth organ) not least of which are their voices to conjure up wind, rain, birds, horses… Each instrument is lovingly introduced, handled with care and reverence and allowed to shine in its own right. I have never been to Ukraine, but after this performance I feel like I have been there in my mind.
I hear the sounds of galloping horses, getting faster, then receding, the dust kicked up by their pounding hooves caught in the luscious lighting on stage. The sound of human souls given voice through the mouths of swaying bodies beating out ferocious driving beats. I felt that this performance expressed beauty and pain in the best way it possibly could, by drawing us into its landscapes, often built gradually from a bass line, joined by a drum beat, then by a voice, then several drum beats, then several voices until the quartet were in full flow. And then the flow was interrupted as if someone had asked a question which caused all to pause to reflect… then to pick up where they left off but with a new energy.
Steeped in folk tradition, this quartet employ an extraordinary melting pot of styles; jazz, blues and some amazing Ukrainian rap by the female singers. I agree with Bob Boilen’s comment on NPR music’s tiny desk concert, that DakhaBrakha ‘make music that sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard, with strands of everything I’ve ever heard.’ I heard hints of the rap of MC Solaar and grooves of the Fugees, of the bleak sparseness of Portishead’s trip hop, of howling Arabic ululations, of Satchmo/Ella Fitzgerald/Erykah Badu-like jazz scat and many others besides, with an underlying background of Ukrainian folk culture and language, until I didn’t know where one culture starts and the other ends. Ukraine has a rich and varied history of music characterized by melismatic singing (stretching one syllable of text over several notes in succession), chordal harmony and the use of minor keys. The proximity of Ukraine and the contested Crimean peninsula to Turkey and the country’s history of successive occupation by Slavs, Mongols, Turks, Cossacks, Stalinists, Russians etc. attest to the rich and varied influences which DakhaBrakha playfully and skillfully blend in their music. Ukraine apparently means both homeland and borderland, and there is a powerful sense of underlying tension in this music which surely reflects current threats to the nation’s sovereign status. The power, elegance, grace and humanity of DakhaBrakha’s music reminds me of the late politician Jo Cox’s words: ‘we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things which divide us’.
There were too many stand-out moments to enumerate, but I would like to talk about one in particular. The extraordinary Vesna is a call to Spring after the long winter, and begins with the sounds of bird calls and the flapping of new wings created by the singers’ voices and hands. The re-emergence of life builds, shimmering with accordion energy and repetitive calls, to an intoxicating climax evocative of a marketplace where the instruments drop away and the women’s voices celebrate the bounty nature has given them at full volume. We then return, like the cycle of seasons, back to the sounds of the birds saying goodbye until next year. I sincerely hope this band may return to Bangor in the future. If they do, GO AND SEE THEM!
Dakha Brakha, Monakh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFJ717atqaw
DakhaBrakha, Vesna: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AObDpJ6xQMk