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- Posted on Apr 21st 2009 12:00PM by Steve Hochman
The Ukrainians, 'Diaspora'
Now gather 'round and hear a tale of a time when, it may be hard to believe, the notion of a Western band playing Eastern European folk music, rocked-up or otherwise, was novel. There were no Gogol Bordellos or Beiruts or DeVotchkas walking the Earth. English folk-rock had meant material based in Anglo-Saxon roots (Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span). "Exotic" was pretty much limited to a sitar here or there (the Incredible String Band and their followers). American versions generally stuck with Appalachian and Delta roots, still in the large shadow of the Byrds, et al. By now David Byrne, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel had, of course, been exploring African music, but in the wake of the frilly New Romantics and other fashion-conscious movements that had undermined the punk revolution, many were left looking for "authentic" music.
For the Wedding Present guitarist Peter Solowka, that meant music from his own heritage, and he persuaded the group to do a BBC session for DJ John Peel of Ukrainian songs, coming not long after the region gained its independence with the crumbling of the USSR. To help out, he recruited friend Len Liggins -- a.k.a. the Legendary Len -- who had been studying Slavonic languages at Leeds University and played village-style violin (and later learned that his ancestors had actually come from Eastern Europe). Also sitting in was an actual Ukrainian, mandolinist Roman Remeynes (gotta love the name).
And that was going to be it. Except the session became popular in repeats, enough so that the band started recording and gigging for real, and here we are today, several lineups and eight albums -- plus a 2002 EP flipping the formula with Ukrainian-ized versions of Sex Pistols songs -- later. Still fronted by Len and Pete, the Ukrainians remain touring favorites in the U.K. and Eastern Europe, where the group has in turn become an inspiration for young musicians.
So it's a lark that lasted 18 years. And though a lark, it's never been a joke but rather a truly affectionate and consistently rewarding venture that still stands out in an ever-more-crowded field.
In an engaging, erudite chat, the Legendary Len elaborated on where the Ukrainians are and where they've been:
Around the World: They were quite different times when the Ukrainians began. There was nothing even remotely like you guys at that point other than maybe 3 Mustaphas 3. So did you feel you were working from a blank slate, as it were?
The Legendary Len: It's funny, but we didn't have any idea that we were about to spearhead a world music movement. We just did a BBC radio session of Ukrainian tunes as a one-off and thought that would be it. We were astounded by the reaction it got. We didn't even realize we'd stumbled on to something new. You know, we didn't consciously try to construct a new genre. Then other bands started taking folk music from other cultures and mixing it with their own Western rocky elements, and new hybrids were created. It was only then it dawned on us: "Wow! We kinda did this first!"
How is it different for you now in terms of the audience's knowledge of music from various cultures?
Well, audience expectation has gone up. You can't do naive, simplistic stuff any more. You can't just punk up a few ethnic tunes and expect a modern audience to get off on it. But then we'd be pretty bored if were still doing that nearly 20 years on. We're producing something much more sophisticated now. That's a good thing. If someone had told me in 1987 that in two decades time I'd be writing songs in Ukrainian about the experiences of émigrés to the West, it would have amazed and scared me. But the world music scene's grown up, and so have we.
What would you say is the difference between the Ukrainians' music and actual Ukrainian music? It seems that you are quite well versed in folk music but that being "authentic" is not your aim.
We have never, ever tried to sound like a traditional Ukrainian band. Our influences are a) any Ukrainian records Peter and I can get our hands on and b) the last 50 years of rock 'n' roll. Nobody else seems to have that remit, so there's not a lot of competition.
What was it like the first time you performed in Ukraine? When was that? Have you played there recently? It must be quite the party.
The first time we played in Ukraine we had a sequence of bizarre, unforgettable experiences. We arrived at Borispil Airport in Kiev and were met by big crowds, a huge choir singing to us and TV crews poking cameras in our faces. News of our forthcoming tour had been all over the national media and we didn't know anything about it. We played in clubs, theaters, on a cruise ship down the River Dnieper and finally in front of 75,000 people in Kiev's Independence Square to celebrate the anniversary of Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union. It was a very big deal.
The last time we played was last year, when we set off to play a festival in the beautiful Carpathian Mountains. When we were about 100 km from the site, we got wind of a severe weather warning and by the time we got there we found ourselves surrounded by huge floods. Whole villages were under water and the event was a washout. Sixty thousand people were expected and about 300 made it. But then that's the wacky world of rock 'n' roll. You win a few, you lose a few. The main thing's to keep going. We've been invited back next year, but now we know to check the weather forecast first.
Is there purpose behind the title 'Diaspora' beyond the literal application in the song's lyrics? Is this a comment in any way about the dispersal of people, culture and information over the globe? Regardless, is there any commentary to be gleaned from what you are doing, any "statements" about the world today? You wrote most of the lyrics, and in looking at the brief descriptions in the liner notes, there seems to be a lot about displacement, loss, cultural conflicts.
I'm sure someone's psychology can be read in between the lines of lyrics, so there's probably stuff in there that is beyond the literal, stuff that I'm not aware of myself. That said, I'm certainly distressed by the idea of "disconnection" in our world, as many of us are. I think most of us in the West feel a bit lost and rootless in a multimedia, pick 'n' mix world where, compared to the past, most of us can choose where we want to live, what job to do, what religion we want to follow. If you were born into a village anywhere in the world a couple of hundred years ago, that's where you'd probably live your whole life, surrounded by family, being part of a family business, aware of your family history and your place in it.
The downside of that old village way of living of course is boredom, ignorance and prejudice. By comparison, these days there's no need to be bored because we're constantly being stimulated via the media, and we're relatively knowledgeable and understanding of other cultures. But then we have so much choice about the person we can turn into that we can lose the plot trying to find out who we really are.
'Sobache Zhyttya' seems particularly intriguing, at least based on that little bit in the liner notes.
"Tse sobache zhyttya" means "it's a dog's life." The song grew out of a phrase that's typical of what an old Ukrainian grandma, or baba, might say. It's about an old Ukrainian lady whose son is an ex-Soviet soldier and whose other younger relatives are a Catholic missionary, a fascist in the military and a social revolutionary. The song is from the point of view of her grandson, the social revolutionary, who is moved by her sadness but also by her ability to take it all in her stride as she mutters "life is worth less and less. It's a dog's life."
'Marusya Bohuslavka' is also rather interesting, with the implications about current affairs in the Christian/Muslim divides. But you say it's a 17th century poem, so maybe nothing is ever new?
Yep, that's the whole point of the song. I adapted the narrative from a 17th century poem that Peter found about Cossack Christians and Turkish Muslims. The original story is about a slave girl called Marusya Bohuslavka who gets a key to a prison, freeing Cossacks from the Turkish "infidels." What I've done is to adapt it, imploring Christians and Muslims in the future to respect and understand each other's customs and beliefs. In our version, Marusya is the symbol for liberation of the mind from prejudice.
You use Brahms' 'Hungarian Dance' piece in what seems to be a pointed manner. Could you elaborate on that?
Well, it's probably a tune that was common to a number of parts of Central and Eastern Europe, not just Hungary. Brahms assumed that it was Hungarian because a lot of the refugees and musicians passing through Germany at the time had come via Hungary. So we're reclaiming the tune for other parts of Eastern Europe!
Do you feel you've had impact on other bands? Not simply world music artists but rock bands as well? Does anyone ever tell you they were influenced by you?
We're constantly told by young bands in Poland, Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe that they were influenced by us. Quite a few of our songs have been covered over there by rock bands, folk bands and even choirs, and a few times they've been credited as "traditional." That's feels odd really, but I guess that's what we've been doing unwittingly this last 20 years -- adding to the tradition. I thought we were a bunch of guys from Yorkshire who enjoyed each other's company, got drunk a lot and just loved playing what we play, but apparently it amounts to a bit more than that.