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by Virlana Tkacz

The village of Kryachkivka is a mere two hours drive from Kyiv down the main highway past Boryspil airport. Once you turn off the main road and drive just a few kilometers on a side road, you find yourself in a world that is totally apart from the hustle and bustle of Ukraine's capital. This is the Ukraine I imagined when my parents told me bed-time stories about their homeland: huge fields of wheat, giant sunflowers and ripening orchards. Here the driver must give way to the geese, cows and chickens who consider themselves the rightful traffic on the dirt road.

A row of white houses lined the village green, (one house even had a roof thatched with straw). We pulled up to a house with a gorgeous cherry tree in the front yard. For the first time I understood why so many Ukrainian folk songs compare their love to a ripening cherry tree.

Baba Hanna's home in Kryachkivka

An older woman peeked out the window and then came running. "Marianko, Marianko, I was sure you'd come to see us again this summer and here you are. Here you are." She started hugging and kissing the young woman who brought us to this village. I was traveling with two Ukrainian artists, Maryana Sadovska and Yaryna Turianska, who for the last ten summers have been traveling through villages in Ukraine collecting and recording folk songs. Given their mutual interest it seemed incredible that they had never met in person before that morning. But after the two-hour conversation in the car I knew I had brought the right people together. They would help me create a new Yara theatre project that would be based on Ukrainian folk songs.

I first met Maryana Sadovska in 1991 when she appeared in my first theatre project in Ukraine. She was very young then, but obviously talented. She did a wonderful job playing the lecturer in our piece about Les Kurbas. Now she was an award-winning actress with Gardzienice Theatre in Poland. Last winter she was in New York and appeared in the two festivals that Yara Arts Group produced at the Ukrainian Institute of America. Everyone who attended our festivals "Harvest: Ukrainian Folk Song Today", GOGOl/HOHOL or her workshops in Ukrainian folk songs at La MaMa was smitten with her. She is radiant when she sings the ancient songs she first heard from grandmothers in the Poltava Region and in Polissia.

Yaryna Turianska is an ethnomusicologist who lives in Kyiv and sings with the National Opera Company. She has been collecting folk songs and music in the Pokuttia Region of Western Ukraine. This summer Caravan CD Company in Kyiv released her CD "Chorniy Potik: try zustrichi z muzykoiu Peredkarpattia" [Black Stream: Three Encounters with the Music of Precarpathia]. This is an excellent recording of music she collected in the villages of Chornyi Potik, Bilyi Oslavy and Chorni Oslavy. The material is wonderfully documented in linear notes that are presented as a 16-page booklet both in Ukrainian and in a lucid English translation by Peter Bejger. The quality of the recordings and the documentation make this by far the best Ukrainian ethnic music recording available today, on par with any World Music recording.

Yaryna Turianska and Maryana Sadovska meet to work on Yara's new theatre piece

Yaryna and I stood at the gate, as the petite woman fussed over Maryana. Then Maryana introduced us to Nadia Mykytivna Rozdabara. Soon we were ushered into the house where we met her husband Khvedir Oleksandrovych.

News travels fast in a village. Within the hour we were recording Kryachkivka's best singers. That afternoon I heard many songs that Nina Matvienko sang with my actors in Waterfall/Reflections, including the haunting "It's Been So Long…"

It's been so long so long
since I've been to my mother's
the path is now
covered with thorns --
covered with thorns
and with wild roses….
translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps

The songs Kryachkivka women sing also inspired Zoloti Kliuchi and Drevo, the best-known folk group trained at the Conservatory who recreate the village style of singing.

Kryachkivka is best known for the polyphonic style that the women developed over years of singing together. The previous fall the group sustained a severe blow when the most vivacious member of the group, Tetiana Krevenko, passed away. But now the circle had expanded to include several younger women.

Halyna Popko goes over Nina Reva's new part as Alla Dmytrenko looks on

The next day we spent most of the morning and afternoon recording songs from the wedding ritual. There are songs that accompany every moment of the complicated ritual, which lasts several days. Specific songs are sung as the korovai (wedding cake) is baked, others when the wedding wreath is made, and still others when the bride is dressed. One of the most striking moments of the wedding is the decoration of the viltse, the wedding tree. A young tree is chopped down and decorated by the bride's girl friends. It accompanies the bride throughout the rituals and party. Many of the most beautiful songs are sung about this tree.

We were very encouraged to see two younger village women sitting in on our recording sessions. One was Valentyna Dzhym whose 20 year-old daughter was getting married in August. She had invited the older women of the village to sing at the wedding and was now learning her part. Her friend Alla Dmytrenko was taking copious notes, writing both the words to all the songs and their sequence. She, too, had daughters and was planning ahead. I asked if I could take a look at the notebook. She had the entire wedding ritual written out as a scenario. Next to the appropriate texts she glued old family pictures from weddings to help her remember the various parts of the ritual.

We found time to pay a special visit to Baba Hanna, the oldest member of the Kryachkivka singing group. Baba Hanna was eighty-eight and lived in the straw-thatched house I first noticed when we rode into town. We had to bow down to enter the dark single-roomed house. Baba Hanna sat on the pich, a traditional clay oven that also serves as the stove which heats the house. The thick walls of the oven retain heat for long periods of time and have wonderfully warm seating spots. Baba Hanna said she was not well, and complained that she could not lift her arm. Then she told us that this spring she had been attacked in her home by a village youth. Her was beaten black and blue; now her broken collarbone was not healing. "Nechysta syla bula v lisi, a teper vona v liudiakh, (Evil spirits used to dwell in the forest, now they live in people)" she said. This is a phrase we often hear as we traveled through the villages of Ukraine this summer.

Baba Hanna Levada

Next morning we picked cherries, mulberries and sour cherries for breakfast in Halyna Yakimivna's yard and then continued our recording sessions. During lunch the singers reminisced about their adventures with Maryana. Several years ago Maryana invited them to sing at a festival in Poland. To travel abroad all the members of the group, despite their advanced ages, had to get their first passports. They related many hilarious stories about their travails in the world of the local bureaucracy, as well as their travels abroad. They fondly recalled their enthusiastic reception by young people in a foreign land.

After lunch we walked across the green, past the children playing soccer and the dozing cows to see one of the eldest women in the village. We had been told that she poured wax and known for taking away childhood fears. She told us she learned her craft by watching many other practitioners. Her eldest son became very sickly after he had been suddenly frightened as a child. At first, she took him to many doctors, but eventually started seeing old women healers. She believed that she helped cure him herself by practicing what she learned from the other women. The condition and the proscribed cures she mentioned reminded me of things I had heard a shaman describe in Buryatia.

We visited Tetiana Krevenko's grave with several of the singers. The cemetery was at the far end of the village. It was divided into two parts, the old section and the recent one. Metal crosses painted sky-blue marked most graves, although several of the recent one had granite stones. There were fresh flowers and decorations on many of the graves. The people buried here were not forgotten. One felt they were very much part of the village. The two old friends talked on Tetiana's grave, as if she was with them. We weeded the plot and left several candies she liked near her head. They sang one of her favorite songs.

We decided to hold our final recording session in the garden. Although we continued to laugh at the stories the women related, there were several tense silent moments. Suddenly Halyna Popko asked Maryana to sing with her. The young woman took out her earphones, put down her recorder and leaned towards the elder. They started to quietly sing to each other, searching for the right intonation. As the song grew and expanded the women started shielding their eyes, not only because the afternoon sun shone brightly.

originally published in the Ukrainian Weekly August 27, 2000
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