Ukrainian folk music reloaded8 min read
Ukrainian folk music is diverse. Ritual and festive songs, often performed without musical instruments, make up a large part of Ukraine’s musical tradition, although there are many other styles too. Folk music melodies can be found in various genres, ranging from rap or pop to rock and electro. Aleksej Tikhonov, a linguist based in Berlin and Freiburg and co-founder of the journal osTraum, has compiled the top seven of these tracks.
In total, UNESCO counted around 15,500 Ukrainian folk songs, making Ukraine the country with the largest number of such songs. Italy takes the second place, with around 6,000 songs. Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko is known for having devoted much time to local folk songs and poems, and his collections from the 19th century are still preserved today. Each of the numerous songs is variable and exists in countless adaptations. Especially today, Ukrainian folk songs and folklore motifs are carried on and adapted to modern times and demands.
7. Andriy Khlyvnyuk & Pink Floyd – Oy, u luzi chervona kalyna
Andriy Khlyvnyuk was born in 1979 in the central Ukrainian town of Cherkasy and co-founded one of the most successful hip-hop/funk/groove bands in 2004 — BoomBox (Бумбокс). On 7 April 2022, together with the English rock legends Pink Floyd, the musician released a video with a cover of the Ukrainian song “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow” (Ukrainian: Ой, у лузі червона калина). The song with ‘red viburnum’ in the title is often mistakenly considered a folk song, although it was recomposed in 1914 by Stepan Charnetskyi and re-penned by Grygoriy Trukh in the style of a Cossack song from the 17th century. Nevertheless, it can be considered a folk song on an emotional level, as the song became one of Ukraine’s most important symbols, especially after Russia’s large-scale invasion in February 2022. Numerous Ukrainian and foreign musicians have covered the song, drawing attention to the war and raising funds for Ukraine. Although the song is not banned in Russia, public playing or singing of the song is increasingly sanctioned with arrests and fines, especially in the territories occupied by Russian troops.
With the release of the song, Pink Floyd returned to the public after a 28-year hiatus. The musicians themselves explained the making of the song: “The track (…) uses Andriy’s vocals from his Instagram post singing the song in Kyiv’s Sofiyskaya Square. The song itself (…) is a rousing Ukrainian protest song written during the first world war which has been taken up across the world over the past month in protest of the invasion of Ukraine. The title of the Pink Floyd track is taken from the last line of the song, which translates as ‘Hey, hey, rise up and rejoice.’ The song’s opening choral parts are by the Ukrainian Veryovka Folk Song and Dance Ensemble.”
David Gilmour (singer, guitarist, songwriter, and co-founder of Pink Floyd), who has a Ukrainian daughter-in-law and grandchildren, says: “We, like so many, have been feeling the fury and the frustration of this vile act of an independent, peaceful democratic country being invaded and having its people murdered by one of the world’s major powers.”
6. Alina Pash (prod. Pahatam) – Ivana Kupala
On the night of the festival of Ivana Kupala – the summer solstice – East Slavs and some West Slavs not only traditionally celebrate the elements of nature, but also choose their potential spouses and performed wedding and marriage ceremonies. Making flower wreaths and giving them to each other, jumping over the fire holding hands, looking for a fern flower, and bathing in the morning dew – these were and are the highlights of the festivities. Alina Pash dedicates her own song, consisting of archaic sounds and lyrics, to this festive day.
The artist was born in 1993 in Transcarpathia – the westernmost region of Ukraine on the border with Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary. Already at the age of 13, she took part in children’s and youth singing competitions and was able to enter the professional music business six years later. In 2015, she caused a scandal with her visit to Russia and occupied Crimea, but immediately distanced herself from Russia, continuing her career in Ukraine. She uses Ukrainian, Russian, and English in her self-written songs.
5. Wellboy – Wyshni
Born in 2000 in Sums’ka oblast (north-eastern Ukraine), Anton Velboi is now a viral star of Ukrainian pop music. He and his team produce tracks that all become catchy tunes and are listened to and watched non-stop on Spotify and YouTube. Вишні (English: “cherries”) is probably one of the songs in this ranking that is furthest from an original folk tune and can therefore be understood more as an homage. With its Ukrainian folk-influenced music and countryside vibe, the upbeat pop/R&B song achieved almost 17 million views on YouTube:
4. PROBASS HARDI (feat. Anna Bulat) – Kozaki idut’
Probass Hardi is already known for several viral hits that use the musical or lyrical motifs of Ukrainian folk songs, though they eventually become completely new works. Furthermore, the electro musicians raised a lot of attention for Russia’s war against Ukraine with their tracks and videos. They support the Ukrainian army with their songs, activism, and donations.
This folk song — “Cossacks go” (Ukrainian: Козаки йдуть) — is about the Ukrainian Cossacks, who are equated with soldiers of the Ukrainian army in the new composition. To be more precise, it is about the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who were described as early as the beginning of the 17th century as people who rode the Great Steppe wearing high sheepskin hats without any badges of rank or affiliation on their lances. They were free warriors and steppe riders, sometimes also skilful sailors, who then dispersed all over the world and were called ‘Dnieper Cherkasses’ by the Muscovites, though they called themselves the Zaporozhian Cossacks.
3. GO_A – Shum
After the competition-free year 2020, Go_A participated in the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest for Ukraine. The title of their song Шум (English: “Noise”) means in the East Slavic languages not only noise, but also the rustling of treetops, wheat fields, and the sea. Released at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the music video shows the realities of the time and the desire for human contact, closeness, and dance. The music and lyrics are a successful interplay of the original and modern parts by Taras Shevchenko (no, not the poet) and Katerina Pavlenko, who together form the creative heart of the band Go_A. The piece is an interpretation of the Ukrainian folk song of the same name, which dates back to the 19th century. Шум became one of the most streamed songs on Spotify in 2021 and now counts around 82 million streams. The band came fifth at Eurovision.
2. Serhiy Roman – Nese Halya Vodu
Serhiy Roman describes his interpretation of one of the best-known Ukrainian folk songs with the words, “In each of you lives a Halya” (Ukrainian: Галя живе у кожній із вас). The song has all the common features of a Ukrainian folk song. First, it has a bright and easy-to-remember melody. Second, the song is lyrical, quite simple in content, but containing an entire story of love between a man and a woman. The song probably originated in the central regions of Ukraine, most likely in the Poltava region. It is also popular abroad, especially in Canada. At the very beginning of his music video, dozens of shots of Ukrainian landscapes and Ukrainian women are shown — both in the most diverse way possible. The song itself begins with Roman’s characteristic electro strings and is underpinned with a dynamic beat after the intro. Roman, a participant of the casting show The Voice of Ukraine (Голос Країни), then switches between solo pop vocals, folklore-like choral singing, and a medium-fast rap performance, which ideally fits the tempo of the song and encourages dancing and singing along.
1. Jerry Heil, alyona alyona, Ela – KUPALA
Not much can be said about the number one of this list, since the artists themselves have already said everything in their video description:
“There are four elements in the song #KUPALA — fire, water, earth and air. Hundreds of generations. Two languages. One truth:
Why are you looking for a fern flower in thicket thoughts?
Its seeds, like an inheritance, were planted in the heart by an ancestor.
The beast will come and open its mouth –
Don’t give a flower for nothing!
Take care of it and know that
It will wither in the hands of the lost
“For the first time in the history of Ukrainian music, a German artist performs a Ukrainian folk song in German!
“About the clip: This is the historical heritage of our culture. The basis for it was the Ukrainian-language film “Evening on Ivana Kupala” [Вечір на Івана Купала, 1968, dir. Yuriy Illenko], shot at the Dovzhenko studio 50 years ago! I urge you to watch it again! And the song #KUPALA seems to have become the soundtrack to it and revived the film for us, contemporaries!
“And from now on, every work we create will bring to the world the idea of the genius of Ukrainian culture and music in particular. Uniqueness of its sound. And values for the global industry. We are already doing it! And feat. Ela., a German singer who sang a Ukrainian song in German — a magical beginning!”