When the mind-altering Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha first appeared on the North American music scene about five years ago, they looked like they’d stepped out of a village wedding and sounded like they’d corralled the untamable spirits haunting the vast Pontic steppe. In fact, the band grew out the avant-garde Kiev Center of Contemporary Art, and the women’s wedding dresses were appropriated from a Dakh Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. They’ve been acquiring all manner of extraordinary instruments, outfits and haberdashery ever since, sights and sounds that will be on display Saturday and Sunday at Freight & Salvage.
If their theatrical look seems out of time and place, DakhaBrakha knows exactly where they come from. Steeped in the folkloric culture of their Ukrainian homeland, they’ve created a hair-raisingly beautiful body of music as gentle as the first stirrings of spring and as raucous as a vodka-fueled wake. Delivering striking polyphonic vocals while accompanying themselves on everything from cello and accordion to hurdy gurdy, piano and sundry percussion implements, the multi-instrumentalists Olena Tsybulska, Irnya Kovalenko and Nina Harenetsha founded the band in 2004 and were quickly joined by Marko Halanevych on vocals, tabla, didgeridoo, accordion, and trombone.
As they’ve toured the world, they’ve picked up instruments and rhythms along the way, while holding fast to the traditional songs they’ve been immersed in since birth. “The polyphonic vocals you hear the three women singing are close to what you might hear in a Ukrainian village, but they morph the meter to blend with grooves and textures that underlie the tunes,” says Shira Cion, the Berkeley vocalist and artistic director of the all-women Bay Area vocal ensemble Kitka, who opened for DakhaBrakha at the group’s Northern California debut at the 2014 Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.
“One of the things I love about DakhaBrakha is that they manage to be so true to the traditions, while also stretching into this world music genre,” Cion continues. “I’m normally very skeptical of world music fusion aesthetics, but they do it so innovatively and respectfully and artfully.”
“Every song has a traditional source recorded in a Ukrainian village,” says Halanevych, speaking in Ukrainian through an interpreter. “Some songs are changed very much with unusual arrangements, and some not so much, but we always use traditional Ukrainian songs.”
Halanevych hails from a family of intellectuals in west-central Ukraine and earned a degree in philology before gravitating to the theater. He was working as an actor at the Centre of Contemporary Art when he fell in with the three women who were performing as the Dakh Sisters. He’s taken up various instruments picked up on the band’s travels as their arrangements have taken on new textures.
Part of what makes the group so unpredictable is that they treat instruments as a means to an end, rather than something to be mastered as an end to itself. It’s a punk aesthetic that doesn’t so much reject the pursuit of virtuosity as sidestep it in favor of sonic collage. “My first instrument was the Indian tabla,” Halanevych says. “At the time I had an accordion in my kitchen so I brought that in too. I’m self-taught, and I produce sounds and notes as the song needs.”
In many ways, DakhaBrakha is a reaction to the stultifying environment of Soviet times, when folkloric culture was turned into kitsch designed to celebrate the happy coexistence of the vast empire’s many peoples. DakhaBrakha is part of the first generation to grow up in an independent Ukraine in centuries, and they’ve resisted the lure of Western pop culture by recognizing their priceless patrimony.
“I started to value this music and understand that each country has its own particular music, but popular music is the same everywhere,” Halanevych says. “It’s a way to feel the special culture of each country and nationality. The women have been singing together for more than 20 years, since they were five years old, and can’t imagine doing something else. DakhaBrakha, this experiment in folklore, feels very natural.”
DakhaBrakha doesn’t invoke politics during performances, but every show helps raise awareness of Ukraine’s independent identity, a fact contested by Russian nationalists who pine for the days when the territory was the heart of the Tsar’s empire. Since Russia seized and annexed Crimea and continues to support separatists in eastern Ukraine, the country has been under siege and threatened once again with Russian hegemony.
“It’s important to show people our music and rich culture, that we’re real people, open-minded, and not fascists and some kind of enemies,” Halanevych says. “People around the world don’t know anything about except Chernobyl. We want to be a democratic country, and don’t want to go back to totalitarianism.”
Music from the south is also on tap Saturday, when Brazilian-born Berkeley High alum Ian Faquini, a brilliant guitarist and composer, plays a duo set at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall with trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman, a stellar musician who’s collaborated with rock stars, jazz greats, and Brazilian legends.
The great klezmer trio Veretski Pass featuring Joshua Horowitz on cimbalom, chromatic button accordion and piano, and Berkeley’s Cookie Segelstein on violin and viola and Stuart Brotman on bass, basy, tilinca, baraban perform Saturday at The Back Room on an eastern-looking double bill with Janam, a Bay Area supergroup that wanders through the hills of Appalachia and Balkans. Featuring Dan Auvil on percussion and voice, Tom Farris on laouto, guitar and percussion, Juliana Graffagna on voice and accordion, Gari Hegedus on oud, saz, mandocello and mandolin, and Shira Kammen on violin, harp and voice, Janam finds gorgeous new ways to combine far-flung roots music.