NEW YORK – The “Chornobyl Songs Project” album release concert spectacular took place at The Ukrainian Museum in New York City, almost 29 years to the date of the infamous event at the nuclear plant in Chornobyl. The April 25 event celebrated the April 7 release by the renowned Smithsonian Folkways label of the CD “Chornobyl Songs Project: Living Culture from a Lost World” by Ensemble Hilka.
The album is the culmination of a mission that began in 2011, when noted ethnomusicologist, singer and musician Maria Sonevytsky produced the “Chornobyl Song Project,” featuring the vocal group Ensemble Hilka. The evening’s performances immersed the attendees in the stunning sounds created by the exquisite vocal polyphony of Ukrainian village singing.
The women of Ensemble Hilka – Cherrymae Golston, Eva Salina Primack, Ethel Raim, Willa Roberts, Maria Sonevytsky, Nadia Tarnawsky and Shelley Thomas – opened the concert, singing “Oi Dai Bozhe Vesnu Pochat.” As they entered the performance space, their reverberating voices transported the listeners to the village when spring is called forth. The photographs by Alexander Khantaev that were projected behind the singers reinforced the sensation that the attendees were no longer in New York City.
Next came “Strila,” telling of a youth struck down by lightning and then carried to a church, where miraculous events take place.
The men of the Ensemble, Julian Kytasty, J.R. Hankins, Brian Dolphin and Yevhen Yefremov, with Ihor Perevertniuk of the ensemble Drevo, sang the Chumak song “Da Kosyv Kosar.” Their voices transcended the quintet form – at times each soloing, other times singing in groups of two and three, but invariably segueing into superb unison at the end of each verse.
Returning, the women sang “Rano, Rano.” Led by Ms. Tarnawsky, and with the men, they sang “Nasha Khata Na Pomosti.” The men started “Oi z-za Dnoi Horki,” a morality song from Lubianka. The lyrical “Kalyna-Malyna Nad Yarom Stoyala,” like many Ukrainian folk songs, uses images of natural objects to represent actual events: the kalyna has withered in the heat of the sun; the beauty of the young bride has been worn away by a young child, a cruel mother-in-law and a domineering husband. The ensemble finished with “Oi Po Horke, Po Krutoi,” in which Messrs. Kytasty and Dolphin and the group sang this soldier’s song that has now become part of the repertoire of village folk songs. Their performance was greeted with extended applause.
Just as Ensemble Hilka grew from and was inspired by the Kyiv-based vocal ensemble Drevo, the singers who were in the ensemble continued to explore and spread the sound of village singing. The performances that followed were the flowers and the fruit borne on that “Hilka,” or branch.
Ethnomusicologist Dr. Yefremov soloed with “Steletsia Barvinok” from Polissia. A foremost Ukrainian expert in the polyphonic singing styles of central and northern Ukraine, he created the legendary Drevo ensemble in Kyiv and has taught numerous master classes in women’s and men’s village-style singing.
Accompanying herself on accordion, Ms. Primack performed the Bulgarian love song “Jano, Janke.” She followed that with “Kemano Basal” and “Sar Cirikli,” two Macedonian Romani songs.
The Ukrainian Village Voices, directed by Mr. Dolphin and Laryssa Czebiniak, sang the lively “Da Selo Nashe,” which urges women of the village to come outside and enliven the village because spring has arrived. In “Khodyt Soroka Kolo Potoka,” they sang of the two lovers who will meet once the father has put out the candles and fallen asleep. They ended with “Mnohaya Lita” from Polissia. Here, the 13 voices explored a range of vocalizations, changing tempos and dynamics, at times a celestial choir and then raw power, their fluid harmonies reaching a pinnacle of vocal performance.
The a cappella trio Black Sea Hotel, consisting of Sarah Small, Ms. Thomas and Ms. Roberts, sang the Macedonian folk songs “Sadila Jana” and “Malino Mome,” and “Ibish Aga” from the Velingrad region of Bulgaria, their delicate arrangements producing wonderful fourth and fifth voice harmonies.
Ms. Tarnawsky, accompanied by Paul Holmes Morton on the multi-stringed and amazingly long-necked lute-like theorbo, sang “Plyve Kacha Po Tysyni.” Her use of vibrato added a deep feeling to this Lemko song, a conversation between a son who is going off to war and his mother. They followed with “Shcho Sontse Zakhodyt a Misyats Skhodyt” and “La Folia.”
Mmes. Sonevytsky, Roberts and Primack – the trio Zozulka – came on to sing “Oi Davno, Davno, v Matinky Bula” about the overgrown path to a mother’s house. That was followed by “Oi Ziydy-Ziydy, Ty Misyatsiu,” a heart-wrenching song of a woman abandoned by her lover and left to fend for herself, with her baby at her side.
Acclaimed bandurist and composer Mr. Kytasty sang “The Archangel Gabriel,” his voice and his 21-string bandura providing the emotion of this religious “chant” in which the singer wishes he could foresee when his life would end so he could prepare himself spiritually with good deeds and generous acts.
The concert ended with Messrs. Yefremov and Perevertniuk singing “Oi U Poli Krynychenka,” a Chumak song from the Chornobyl region, and “Bula Vchora Subota,” a humorous song from the Left Bank of Ukraine. Their two voices, singing in the Polissian dialect, garnered them enthusiastic applause and acclaim. As the enthusiastic applause swelled, the Veveritse Brass Band walked on, playing a slow Spanish-tinged serenade. Pausing, they launched into a lively march and led the audience from the room and to the reception and after-party, where they had a chance to mingle with the performers and listen to more Balkan delights by the band.
The “Chornobyl Songs Project: Living Culture from a Lost World” album by Ensemble Hilka is available through the Smithsonian Folkways http://www.folkways.si.edu/ website. It is a CD extra that contains 19 songs, as well as a printable 18-page book with extensive notes and information about the project.