The Folklorist Next-door: The Soul of Ukraine Abroad
The Soul of Ukraine Abroad was released Dec 9, 2022 as Episode 2 of Texas Folklife's Podcast Series The Folklorist Next-door.
Read Kelsey's blog post
The Soul of Ukraine Abroad: Ukrainian Folk Music in North Texas
by Kelsey Lee
Kelsey: On the 20th of August, 2022. If you were by the docks or out on the water of Lake Lewisville, you might have heard a cacophony of vibrant songs in a unique language. These songs were sometimes riotously joyful, sometimes melancholy, but always evocative. If you looked out to the river, you would've seen dancers, singers, and revelers adorned and embroidered vyshyvankas and flower crowns of yellow and blue, celebrating through dance and song on a small party boat.
These were a few of the many Ukrainian Americans of North Texas, some of whom are brand new to the Dallas Fort Worth area, some of whom have been here for 40 plus years. Among the many things that tie Ukrainian Texans together, one of the most significant is music.
The joyful scene on the boat was a celebration of the Ukrainian Declaration of Independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 as a folklorist exploring the Ukrainian community here in Dallas Fort Worth. I attended this and many other events hosted by the Ukrainian Cultural Club of Dallas, as well as the Ukrainian American Society of Texas.
These are the two premier organizations dedicated to preserving and celebrating Ukrainian culture in North Texas. Like many other attendees, I often arrived in my grandmother's vyshyvanka and traditional beaded jewelry. One thing you'll notice if you attend these events is that music almost always plays an indelible role in each get together.
In fact, you'll most likely hear the musical stylings of the Veselka folk singers of Dallas and ever growing group of passionate Ukrainian musicians who bring the beauty of the Ukrainian language to North Texan listeners through song. The word 'veselka' means rainbow. Among the permanent members are Evgen, Natalia, Valentina, Rudy, and their leader and founder Oksana.
I had the opportunity to speak to Natalia Hayes, one of the founding members of the Veselka Singers. She was born in the city of Kharkiv in the 1980s.
[00:02:56] Nataliia: Basically, it was part of Soviet Union at the moment, and in 1991, I was young girl who saw how this gigantic country came apart and Ukraine become independent. So I was witnessing all this, and right now I'm proud to be Ukranian American.
Even I'm living here in Texas now. I, I'm very proud. I'm, I have these roots from Ukraine.
[00:03:26] Kelsey: Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the main things that brought her into the Ukrainian American community here in North Texas was music.
[00:03:33] Nataliia: Changing event was Ukrainian Christmas concert. It was kind of like public event and someone told me, so organizer of this event, she's also from Kharkiv; Oksana Toporina. And this moment we met first time, and from this day we become like, good, good friends here and afterwards.
We create a lot, a lot together. I become part of Veselka Ukrainian folk group here almost every Saturday singing in her house. She organized this group. We all just regular people who just join, you know, music and Ukrainian songs, and we still doing this for this year.
[00:04:16] Kelsey: I ask Natalia what folk music meant to her as Ukrainian Texan. And she shared a passionate anecdote with me.
[00:04:21] Nataliia: Lately. Uh, one song stuck in my head and I'm singing it all the time because Oksana Bilozir is Ukrainian, like, national artist. She's singing longer than me exist in this world. But I organized her event here. It was charity event. They collect money for Ukraine. And I heard this song and it stuck with me and I'm, you know, constantly singing it.
But before one of her song, it was my favorite. I was even take classes to, you know, with private lessons, to, to learn how to sing. And it's like about, I'm Ukrainian girl, I'm Ukraine. And every time I was singing this song I was. So I take lessons and I say, can you help me? Like, I want to sing this on one day, on the stage.
But I'm always crying cause it's very emotional. It's very, you know, given especially right now and afterwards, war starts and it was a chance for me to organize event for her. I did it first time in my life. I never did this before.
[00:05:22] Kelsey: In addition to the talented singers and musicians of the Veselka group, we also have a group of gifted Ukrainian accordionists, violinists, tambourine players, cellists, and bandura players here in the Dallas Fort Worth area.
Meet Chrystya Geremesz, a founding member and treasurer of the Ukrainian American Society of Texas. I spoke with Chrystya in her ranch style home in Little Elm, which is Ornately decorated with pysanky – which are artfully painted traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs – traditional artwork, embroidered tapestries, and of course vintage Ukrainian instruments.
One of the most remarkable instruments I saw was the trembita, a unique, solid wood wind instrument that was listed in the Guinness World Records as the longest musical instrument in the world. Shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains used the trembita to communicate with each other and send messages from Hilltop to village.
I tried to blow into the massive instrument and couldn't quite manage to make a sound, but Chrystya certainly could. She came to Texas in the late seventies and created the Ukrainian American Society of Texas almost 40 years ago. It all started with a bumper sticker.
[00:06:31] Chrystya: So I arrived in Texas late 70, early eighties, wanted to reconnect with Ukrainian community, but couldn't find anybody that was, nothing really created or organized. And so little by little I had a little bumper sticker that said, honk if you're Ukrainian. It was really strange, but surprisingly people honked. There was a international festival in downtown Dallas called the Dallas International Festival, and I decided to join that and visit it, met other Ukrainians, and then my family and I decided to participate and actually represent Ukraine. So eventually met more Ukrainian people that way and, and started the Ukrainian organization.
[00:07:16] Kelsey: However, she's been involved in the Ukrainian American community since childhood. The daughter of immigrant parents, Chrystya spent her early life in a small suburb outside of Philadelphia where she lived close to the local Ukrainian church.
[00:07:29] Chrystya: I grew up in Pennsylvania in a small little suburb outside of Philadelphia, and literally lived a block away from the church, the Ukrainian church. I learned Ukrainian on Saturday morning, and that was in addition to going to American school Monday through Friday, and I would do Ukrainian Girl Scouts Saturday afternoon and then Ukrainian choir.
[00:07:53] Kelsey: it wouldn't belong until she discovered the Ukrainian national instrument, the bandura. The bandura is a unique lute zither hybrid that has been played by Ukrainians since medieval times. It's delicate, yet powerful sound, enchanted Chrystia.
[00:08:08] Chrystya: I joined, uh, little Ukrainian orchestra and started out playing the mandolin and then saw the bandura and thought, God, I'd love to learn how to play that. That's Ukrainian. That's a Ukrainian instrument. Finally, the teacher, or the the one in charge of our orchestra, brought one home and she learned how to play it and then taught me how to play it. Shortly after that, within about a year, I started traveling to Philadelphia cause there was actually a larger orchestra of bandura players. And so, I joined their group and performed in different places.
[00:08:47] Kelsey: Many say that the bandura embodies the voice and soul of Ukraine. Chrystya seems to agree. Ukrainians were using the, well, it was the lute, then the kobzari, and then the bandura from the, you know, medieval times. So it's an extension of who Ukraine is. And so maybe it's a connection that I think, you know, It's something to say again, you know, you're reaching into your culture.
[00:09:19] Chrystya: When Chrystya first moved to North Texas, she was the only bandura player that she knew of. However, after getting involved in the Ukrainian American community here, she would soon meet Mark Krasji. Mark is another treasured Ukrainian American musician here in North Texas. He is also a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Arlington.
[00:09:40] Mark: I grew up in Avon, Connecticut. Pretty good sizeable Ukrainian community there. So, I was kind of immersed in the culture there. We spoke Ukrainian at home.
That was, you know, it was always [speaking Ukranian], you know, which means like by, ‘by what time?’ Or like that type of, that type of thing. I think from age four we used to attend Ukrainian school, actually. On the weekends. So on Saturday it was like a Saturday school. We had a little parochial school. So from nine to one we would, everything was total Ukrainian immersion, Ukrainian history, culture, religion, literature, geography, even.
[00:10:14] Kelsey: We spoke a little bit about Mark's performance at the Stand with Ukraine benefit in Dallas in May, 2022. When I first heard Mark play the Bandura on stage.
[00:10:24] Mark: If somebody needs a player, I'm usually the guy they call and I'm always happy to play for – especially for something like that, you know, it feels, I don't wanna say obligated, but it's, it's needed.
[00:10:34] Kelsey: Of course, mark is referring to that which is on the minds of all Ukrainian Americans and Ukrainians: the brutal Russian invasion, which commenced in February, 2022 and is still continuing as of September. He spoke to the necessity of music and Ukrainian advocacy, as well as its long-term role in cultural preservation among Ukrainian Americans.
[00:10:55] Mark: Taras Shevchenko is like the main, you know, heralded poet. A lot of his, you know, poetry has been turned into music and, and that's some of the, the songs I play definitely, you know, well they just, you start with the poem and then you, you make the music to match. And those songs, like you, if you grow up in the Ukrainian community, you, you just kind of know those songs, you know, it's like, [speaking Ukranian]. So like, when I die, bury me on the step. In a free Ukraine, you know, and it's like next to the NEPA River, and you can hear the roar of, of the, the waters. And a lot of the Ukranian ones, they tend to be kind of patriotic ones. And so when you, when you have concerts and so on, you hear those things again and again. You kind of remember it's meaningful to me and I need to help.
[00:11:41] Kelsey: Traditional music is the life and soul of Ukrainians. On May 23rd, 2022, the Prime Minister of Estonia said, "Estonians are a singing nation. So are Ukrainians. Singing means freedom and gives freedom." Indeed. Ukrainians are on the whole, a very musical people. Chrystya and Nataliia echoed these sentiments.
[00:12:03] Chrystya: We are a singing nation. Everybody would sing. You would sing as a group, going to work, coming home. You would sing for weddings, you would sing for different time- like again, Easter is a big, very big holiday for Ukrainians and a lot of singing in church. A lot of liturgical songs were sung around a certain period of time, just like at Christmas, just like at Easter. So yeah, singing everywhere. Ukrainians are singing in the battlefield. Ukrainians created songs in the battlefield. Um, the national anthem has become such a recognized song because in the face of death, the Ukrainians will sing the national anthem In the face of Russia, they will sing the national anthem, you know.
[00:12:51] Kelsey: Natalia agrees and adds that contemporary folk music is adding to the legacy of Ukraine and the nation's struggle to maintain cultural and political freedom.
[00:13:00] Nataliia: Sooner now they create new music, new songs, new – and do you know what I understand? I say right now it's like goosebumps because I understand what they created right now in this hardest time for probably any nation, and I understand in 100 years of 200, someone will sing the song which was created when we all did this. It just – and I feel like music can do a lot.
[00:13:30] Kelsey: Ukrainian songs, whether they are sung or instrumental tell about the history of our people and about their landscape. Dictate ethics and describe rules of social life and encourage bravery and resilience in the midst of seemingly insurmountable circumstances.
They are cultural treasures that are being preserved at home and abroad from Kiev to Dallas.
Listen to the Folklorist next-door