KYIV: November 2007.
“You’ll like this,” said Anya. “Shakespeare, no words. Macbeth.”
It took time to sink in: Macbeth in Ukraine, no words – a relief, given I couldn’t speak Ukrainian – but why bother with a mimed Macbeth? In Kyiv.
I didn’t probe too hard. Anya, 26, grew up mainly in Boston (USA not Lincolnshire) but returned to live with mum in Slavutych, couple of hundred yards from where the river Dnipro looked to be at its sootiest.
It was hard to doubt Anya. She’d sorted out a decent flat for me – my previous one in Svyatoshin had Nazi swastikas in the lift and the walls weren’t painted, they were whitewashed, which stained your clothes as you brushed past.
She had good taste in music I’d noted, and as a kickass half-Yank, half-Ukrainian was hyper-critical of Kyivyans’ neglect of their city – filth everywhere – and was in the habit of buying pizza to feed to the scary-looking feral dogs at the end of her street.
She still does this and is devoted to helping the nation’s strays.
So, Ukrainian actors miming Shakespeare, eh? Well it wasn’t top of my lifetime bucket list, that’s for sure.
Tube to the end of the line at the bottom of Chervonoarmiskaya – to the square at the bottom of Bolshaya Vasilkovskaya. Snow hadn’t settled but it was chilly. Anya and about 48 other people. Theatre Dax, the centre of Ukrainian avant-garde culture.
Ground floor of a classic Soviet-era block. No neon, little indication that a theatre is present. Pigeons flapping around on the awning and in the street. Thick wooden doors at the entrance – bang on it to get in
You had to take your shoes off and hand them in. Bloody theatre had a shoe cloakroom – only in Ukraine! And then we shuffled into one of three rows of seating. Middle tier, middle seat.
The show, well that featured a mimed Macbeth as per Anya’s promise. At one point Mr Macbeth was swirling a nasty-looking hammer around rather like fire jugglers juggle their sticks. He was two yards away from me and he finally used it to stove in a swede – let’s be clear, the vegetable, not a Scandinavian – representing a man’s head, causing me to titter uncontrollably at a less than overwhelming production.
At no time during his dancing hammer routine did Mr Macbeth look like he was in full control of his weapon. Middle tier, middle seat, I was directly in line – one false move and it wouldn’t be the swede that bought it – I would be Banquo for the night and my ghost would be appearing nightly behind Anya as she fed the slavering hounds pizza margheritas in Doggieskaya, Slavutych.
I was cowering in my seat and thinking that, being a good cricket fielder, that might save my bacon and I could catch the hammer inches from my head. What a way to go – brained by a hammer at a mime show.
But the music – the MUSIC! My God, my goodness, my oh my oh my. What choir of angels had been spirited in for this show? I wasn’t prepared for that. In the gloom, at the back of the theatre, three pallid, spooky females in strange hats like a baby bear was sitting on their heads. One guy, singing through a loudhailer.
THIS was the show then. Anya didn’t bloody tell me that. Not the blimming Scottish play (they also did backing music for Richard III back then). It was a gig.
Almighty doomy drones from the cello matched with piercing, hard-edged harmonies, thunderous drumming. It was heart-searing. The real drama was created by the music not the actors.
Glorious voices so perfectly pitched and faultless that your mouth fell open, your eyes strained to see these creatures under the hats.Why were the women wearing their wedding dresses?
The intensity teamed with Ukrainian harmonies, modern beats, beautiful, beautiful voices I think would, overall, have mightily impressed the bard himself.
There weren’t many highlights in a chequered stay in Ukraine, but this was easily it.
The band had a profound presence that a man vigourously smashing up a swede in with a hammer couldn’t really match.
I came out stunned, grateful to be alive, and collected my shoes in a rapture-induced stupor. They were DakhaBrakha and they were my new favourite band ever.
I went back a week later on a date with a woman I met in taxi. I made sure we sat on the side, close to the swede, but she wasn’t impressed enough to agree to a second date.
Anya and myself then saw them in the theatre on Independence Square – the scene of the key events of the Ukrainian Revolution last year, close to the spot where government snipers murdered demonstrators.
Brighton Corn Exchange
Sporting the same togs with maybe a few more necklaces festooned round the women’s necks.
Marko Halanevych pointedly said: “We are DakhaBrakha. We are from free Ukraine.”
Well, great as it was to see this group in the UK, I never would have thought they could improve. But they have.
The confidence is striking – never in strong supply in Ukraine unless you’re a member of the criminal oligarch class. Back in 2007, this band was finding its feet. Perhaps didn’t know how unique they sounded.
Travelling abroad and playing Ukrainian songs to foreigners must have been daunting at first. As people used to ask: “Where exactly IS Ukraine?” We all know now but it’s taken a war with Russia to pinpoint it for most.
But DakhaBrakha have jumped the linguistic and ‘Where is it?’ hurdles. They know they’re good – in Kyiv, where the avant-garde is a minority interest they had a cult following.
Word has spread across eastern Europe and they’ve been to North America.
This show was absolutely mesmerising even when compared to their earlier days. They are even better, possess more ingenuity, than when they started out backing a bloke murdering swedes nightly in front of 50 people in their socks.
In 2007, the band’s first album Yagudky was released. It’s OK on CD but it blows your head off live. But they’ve added to that.
Key to the evolution is Nina Garenetska – the Hendrix of the cello. She also features in Theatre Dax’s offshoot ‘freak cabaret’ – Dakh Daughters an avant-garde show that is the best on the planet and if the Festival doesn’t invite that over next year then, frankly, it should disband. That’s more of a theatrical feast than a musical banquet.
Anyway, Nina can pluck the cello like Charles Mingus on a jazz classic then, with her bow, extract deep, warm lowing sounds full of a yearning melancholy, which is almost the Ukrainian national characteristic.
She beams like a bride and sings like a thousand larks. As do the other women Iryna Kovalenko and Olena Tsybulska.
What, ultimately, do they sound like? Well they call themselves ‘ethno-chaos’ but that is basically meaningless and of no use whatsoever.
For this listener, they’ve taken the keening folk songs of eastern Europe and Ukraine and pepped them up with a punk-ish attitude and marvellous melodies. And of course, there’s stunning musicianship and for my money, they’re probably the only band alive that could outsing a blackbird.
Few present would have expected to be so impressed I fancy. In my experience, Brightonians think they’ve seen it all. Well now they have and they were as rapturously received as an Albion promotion.
A band as bohemian as Brighton, they should be adopted and invited back every year.
Full marks to the festival for booking this brilliant, brilliant band. They’ve played the UK before but this must be their highest profile concert so far.
Shame Anya couldn’t make it but if you’re out there, Nedarici, dyakooyou (thanks) for the introduction and buy the dogs a pizza for me.