Dyed Hair and Pierced Eyebrows: Music and politics in Western Ukraine
A man with a rather large bushy grey moustache plonked three glasses of thin brackish coffee down on the fold-away table of our railway carriage and demanded 12 hryvnia (around 1 euro). It wasn't so much the clink and crash of the glasses as they hit the table which surprised us the most, but rather the hard look on the man's face as his arm swung round releasing the cups, almost throwing them down, and the way he spoke as he asked for the money: short and succinct, to the point. There was no question of not paying, despite grimacing as we reluctantly swallowed the hot watery liquid.
We are on our way by train from Lviv to Khmelnytskyi in Western Ukraine, and then by minibus to Kamianets-Podilskyi, where we have been invited to play on the AZH Promo Stage at the Respublica festival, located in the Khmelnytskyi Oblast near the border with Moldova and Romania. We, consists of the three members of the band Grace Beneath the Pines as well as Ivanna Cherukha from AZH Promo who is acting as our guide and interpreter. The festival was advertising itself as “an anti-commercial festival action whose aim is the concentration of attention on cultural and social problems of small cities, as well as in the country in general.”
The organisers were also encouraging festival-goers to throw away their televisions by stating on the events page of their website: “Throw away your TV – get a ticket for the festival! TVs are useless idiot boxes. So get rid of them now! The first 15 people who bring their TVs to the daylight stage will get a free ticket for the festival. Others will be able to buy them with a 50 % discount.” Other social projects were also advertised as taking place including an eco-action “to clean up the trash from the canyon of the River Smotrych … [which] will become a bright example for the residents of Kamianets-Podilskyi and the younger generation.”
On the minibus which rattled over the gently undulating hills towards Kamianets-Podilskyi, I talk to Maria, who has come to the festival from Lviv, about the upcoming Ukrainian parliamentary elections on October 28th. “Most of my friends have told me that they won't vote because all the candidates are bad, and they feel they have no choice,” she says. “I might spoil my ballot paper because if my paper isn't used, they [the authorities] can use it however they like. But if I spoil my ballot, they can't use it. But I don't think this election will change anything.”
I ask Maria about who would vote in the elections if young people didn't. “Maybe elderly people,” she replies, “because they think that something might change. My dad wants to vote for Yulia Tymoshenko because he thinks that she's better than the other politicians we have now. But the real problem is that we don't have any proper politicians. For example, Vitali Klitschko is a boxer, not a politician. Politics is like chess and the candidates don't really know anything about it. All they want to do is make money. They don't care about anything else.”
Sometime in the afternoon we finally arrive to find the old Polish city of Kamieniec Podolski bustling with the alternative youth of Western Ukraine, all dyed hair and pierced eyebrows, many of whom have come from the surrounding cities of Ternopil, Khmelnytskyi, Chernivtsi, and as far away as Lviv, for this three-day festival. The old city of Kamianets-Podilskyi started life as a town of the Kievan Rus' state. Destroyed by the Mongol Tatar invaders in 1241, it was later annexed by the Polish king, Kazimierz the Great, in 1352.
After the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, the city belonged to the Russian Empire, and was ceded to the Soviet Union in the 1921 Treaty of Riga. Respublica had somehow received permission to use the 14th-century fortress and castle, built on top of a peninsula carved out by the winding Smotrych River, as the most spectacular of settings for the various stages of the festival, including the AZH Promo Stage, on which Grace Beneath the Pines, amongst other artists, is due to perform later that evening.
Around 8 PM we meet Taras Khimchak and Margo Kulichova from AZH Promo who inform us that the stage hasn't actually been built and that the festival organisers have offered them the use of a pole-dancing restaurant for their concerts. Despite the fact that the AZH Promo Stage has been formally advertised on the festival's printed and online programmes, the restaurant's sound system only actually works in one channel, thus rendering it unusable by some of the electronic artists who play in stereo. The organisers have, however, promised to deliver a full PA system, drum-kit and guitar amplifiers later in the evening after the end of the events on the main stage.
Amid the chaos of waiting for the equipment to arrive, I catch up with Taras and Margo and ask them about AZH Promo. “It started as a family business,” Margo tells me. “When I first met Taras, he was running AZH Art Magazine and had already put on a few concerts in Kyiv, as well as a tour in Ukraine. I was working in the theatre at that time, so we developed the idea of creating an 'audio-visual performance'. It was an extremely long project with three months of preparation and one working week at the theatre space. The performance was sold-out and very successful, but afterwards I was fired from the theatre because of conflicts with the accounting department.”
Taras continues: “We'd been working as independent music journalists since 2006 when we thought that we could put on gigs better than the local promoters in Kyiv. The second step was to try to set ourselves up as a non-profit organisation. In a way, this is like saying: 'Hey. Ukraine. We are here. We want to be officially part of you. Do you want us?' The government's reply was 'no'. So we are not registered, which I'm actually very happy about, but continue to make audio-visual projects as well as putting on concerts by ourselves.”
To cut a long story short
By 11 PM the concert on the main stage had finished and we were still waiting for the equipment to arrive. Although there had been around 5,000 people at the main stage to see the headliners, the message that the AZH Promo Stage was now happening in the restaurant on the periphery of the castle obviously hadn't filtered through, and only a few people had started to arrive in dribs and drabs. To cut a long story short, we waited and waited. Phone calls were made and received, but no equipment ever arrived.
The organisers of Respublica had failed to order the right equipment needed for the headliners on the main stage. And when it turned out that the three headlining acts weren't able to sound-check due to lack of equipment, the organisers cancelled all the other concerts on the main stage to concentrate their efforts on ensuring that the headliners had the right equipment to play; which they finally did. In the disruption that followed, it seems that the AZH Promo Stage was the first to be forgotten about.
“The festival appeared to be too big for the organisers to handle,” says Taras. “They didn't have any experience in such big events and there were many things which went wrong. I also heard that they had problems with the local authorities who didn't want to return the money they had earned through selling tickets.”
“I felt uncomfortable from the start of the day,” recalls Margo. “There were a great many problems which Taras was trying to manage, while I was the one who had to help the musicians. Everyone was asking questions which I couldn't answer. I talked to the organisers afterwards and all they kept saying was 'sorry' and 'how can we help you?' But, in fact, no one helped us.”
So despite the fact that three artists from Kyiv (over eight hours away), three artists from Poland (around 15 hours away by bus and train), and a band from Belarus had travelled to Kamianets-Podilskyi on the invitation of AZH Promo, and in spite of the fact that Taras and Margo had to spend their own money on food, taxis and accommodation for these artists, the AZH Promo Stage was unofficially cancelled without any official explanation or compensation to either the artists or the organisers.
I ask a disappointed Taras about the music scene in Ukraine and how difficult is it to organise live music: “Sometimes it's difficult to come to an understanding with the owners of venues,” says Taras. “Everyone wants money from you. And in general the government or big business isn't interested in supporting us. Indie music has been developing very quickly in the last few years, and people are building it through their own enthusiasm, trying to find their own ways of managing it.”
“The biggest problem is that Ukrainian musicians don't want to support each other through attending concerts or doing projects together,” says Margo. “There are times when I meet lots of talented artists and organise projects with them, but at other times there are moments when nothing really happens and everyone complains about how it is hard to be an artist in Ukraine.”
The future of Ukraine
Later, as we sit down in the empty restaurant to eat Ukrainian borscht and Russian dumplings, I ask Taras and Margo about Ukraine's future: “A lot of young, intelligent people are leaving Ukraine, usually for financial reasons,” replies Taras. “It is very difficult to live among the masses who still long for the Soviet Union, which the government uses as a tool to rob the Ukrainian people. I don't support Viktor Yanukovych and will vote against him, although we also have some scepticism about the opposition. It will take many years to eradicate the post-Soviet consciousness, corruption and do business fairly. So we want to do things that won't tie us to Ukraine in the future.”
“I don't want to stay in Ukraine,” says Margo sadly. “Honestly speaking, I'm tired of it. Progress here is very, very slow, and I feel that I'm not in my place. I've met a few level-headed people who I want to keep working with, and I know that I have to be here for two more years, but after that I will see.”
Hayden Berry is a musician and an editor for New Eastern Europe.