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Ukrainian Folk Music in North Texas

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By Kelsey Lee

On the Eastern European side of my family, we didn’t discuss culture and heritage that much. My paternal grandmother’s family came to the United States from Central-Eastern Ukraine before World War II. However, I didn’t grow up learning the Ukrainian language, eating much Ukrainian food, or delving into Ukrainian history, which is extensive, storied, and richer than most people realize. However, I have a distinct memory of rummaging through my grandmother’s extensive CD collection while visiting my father’s childhood home in St. Louis, Missouri, and uncovering a volume of instrumental folk song arrangements from Eastern Europe. I was immediately enchanted by what I heard – the sounds were powerful, romantic, and vivid.


When I first learned about Texas Folklife’s Community Folklife Fellowship, I turned to this memory and the feeling of hearing Ukrainian folk music for the very first time. I saw an opportunity to delve into my own heritage, of which I had very rudimentary knowledge, unlike many Ukrainian Americans. At that time, I had just finished my PhD in cultural anthropology at the University of Durham and moved from my hometown in Southern California to North Texas, subsequent to the sudden and untimely death of my dearly beloved father. In stumbling upon the Texas Folklife fellowship, I perceived a chance to honor my father’s ancestry. I also knew I wanted to focus on folk music, since that was what first piqued my curiosity about my own heritage.


Right now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which commenced on the 24th of February 2022, is causing the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Around 7.2 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their country. There are over 15,000 Ukrainians in Texas, 5,000 of whom live in Dallas-Fort Worth. Many Ukrainian Americans in North Texas have relatives and loved ones who are still in Ukraine, fighting for their freedom to exist as a sovereign nation. Putin’s offensive is not just militaristic; there have been strategic attempts at the deculturation and Russification of Ukraine with historic roots
that reach back far earlier than 2022. Part of the fight abroad involves preserving Ukrainian folk heritage, the artistic heart and soul of the nation.

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The Veselka Singers comprise a folk singing group that performs all over North Texas. The word veselka means “rainbow.” I first heard the Veselka Singers perform at the Stand with Ukraine Benefit event in Dallas in May 2022. The event, located at St. Rita Catholic School in Dallas, was rich with art and bustling with vendors selling everything from handmade jewelry to artisan soaps to kits for making traditional borscht recipes. Volunteers were adorned in blue and yellow shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Stand with Ukraine” as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke on a massive overhead projector. Attendees embraced each other warmly, many wearing traditional embroidered vyshyvanka blouses and flower crowns. After enjoying some traditional Ukrainian food and conversation with new friends, I sat down to listen to the musical stylings of Ukrainian American violinist Marina Dichenko, Czech American violinist Martina Fundaro, Ukrainian American bandura player Mark Krasij (with whom I would speak extensively later), merited artist of Ukraine Ludmila Kasyanenko, world-renowned Ukrainian singer Alyosha as the featured artist, and, of course, the Veselka Singers.

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I spoke to Nataliia Hays, one of the founding members of the beloved ensemble. Nataliia was born in Kharkiv in the 1980s. As a young girl, she saw the Soviet Union fall apart and Ukraine gain its independence in 1991. She came to Texas in 2009. When Nataliia arrived, she was afraid that she wouldn’t make any friends, or meet any other Ukrainians. Perhaps unsurprisingly, music is one of the things that brought her into the Ukrainian American community in North Texas.


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 [author note: she is also the artistic director of the Veselka Singers]. And this moment we met first time. And from this day we become good, good friends here. And afterwards we create a lot together. I become part of Veselka Ukrainian singing group here. Almost every Saturday, we are singing in her house!

We discussed the ways in which Ukrainian music can help in terms of both advocacy and cultural preservation, at home and abroad. She said:


Singer[s] now, they create new music, new songs. And do you know what I understand, I'd 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 one hundred years or two hundred, someone will sing the song which was created when we are all witnessing. And I feel like music can do a lot!


Indeed, Ukrainian songs are powerful and incredibly diverse. There are ritual songs, which can be incantations (healing songs), laments, wedding songs, work songs (like vechornyzi, or winter evening work songs, and toloka, which are sung during or after joint work, especially in winter), and non-ritual songs like folk epics (duma) and ballads. Christmas carols (kolyadki) are also wildly popular in Ukraine and among Ukrainian Americans abroad; they illustrate the beauty of the Ukrainian language and are connected to the hospitality of the culture. In Ukraine (as well as many parts of Romania, Slovakia, and Poland), carolers go from house to house throughout their villages, sharing the good news of the Nativity. The master of each house, or hospodar, warmly welcomes the young carolers, often with bread, mead, mulled wine, or vodka. In fact, the world-renowned tune “Carol of the Bells” was initially composed by Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych (1877 – 1921), a Ukrainian musician, conductor, and teacher, and has evolved into a legendary carol in the English language.

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Chrystya Geremesz, Treasurer and Founding Board Member of the Ukrainian American Society of Texas (and established realtor with Ebby Halliday), recalled participating in the caroling tradition in her childhood neighborhood:


We would go to homes and sing Ukrainian Christmas carols… Part of the tradition would be to welcome us with cookies and sweets, and the adults would get shots of vodka just to keep them warm… We had this little bell that we would ring and people were moved to tears lots of times too, because that particular tradition reminded them so much of being in their country, which they couldn't be [in]. Because when I was growing up, Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. [Many of] those that left would have been persecuted or killed… because my parents came after World War II, they couldn't go back to Ukraine. My father would have been shot, and my mother…was taken by the Germans.

Growing up, learning about Stalin’s regime and its cruelty towards Ukrainians, Chrystya explained, actually made her feel even prouder and more protective of Ukrainian culture, history, and language, because, as she put it, “it could easily be wiped away. And we’re looking at that [threat] today.”


Ukrainians abroad and here in the United States fight mightily to preserve their cultural distinctiveness. Chrystya participated in these efforts as she grew up. Her parents came over to Pennsylvania from Ukraine, making Chrystya a first-generation Ukrainian American. As a child, she grew up about a block away from the local Ukrainian church, where she took Ukrainian language classes on Saturday morning. In the afternoon, she participated in Ukrainian Girl Scouts. She grew up listening to
Ukrainian songs on her mother’s record player, and it wouldn’t be long until Chrystya felt the desire to make music herself: “I joined a little Ukrainian orchestra and started out playing the mandolin and then saw the bandura. And I thought, ‘God, I’d love to learn how to play that!’ That’s Ukrainian. That’s a Ukrainian instrument. You can’t find the instrument being played in any other culture or country.” After learning to play from the teacher in charge of their orchestra, she began traveling to Philadelphia to play with a larger orchestra of bandura players.


Chrystya attended Southern Methodist University here in Texas in the late seventies and is now one of the only bandura players in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. We spoke in her beautiful ranch-style house in Little Elm, which was adorned with woven tapestries of traditional Ukrainian embroidery, imagery of legendary Ukrainian figures like the renowned poet Taras Shevchenko, tons of hand-painted pysanky eggs, and, of course, vintage instruments. Indeed, we cannot discuss Ukrainian folk music without touching on traditional instruments, of which there are many. I’ll discuss just a couple in the lexicon below.

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First, we have the sopika, a wind instrument with six finger holes. Next, there is the Ukrainian bagpipe, the volynka. These bagpipes were used by shepherds, peasants, soldiers, and miners in the Carpathian Mountains.

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Perhaps the most impressive wind instrument is the massive trembita, which is used by shepherds to signal their location in the Carpathian Mountains. Chrystya had a rather impressive one in her home – I tried and wasn’t able to produce a sound, but she certainly could!

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Then, of course, we have the bandura, which is often understood to be the national instrument of Ukraine. Its sound is gentle and ethereal, and it combines the acoustic principles of both the lute and the harp. Though the bandura has medieval roots, from the late 15th to 18th centuries, wandering, usually blind minstrels called kobzari would travel through villages and towns, singing epic songs about the people’s exploits and relationships with the Turks and Tatars.

Chrystya is not the only bandura player in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. We also have Mark Krasij, a talented musician as well as a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Arlington. Mark was raised in Avon, Connecticut, and like Chrystya, he grew up immersed in Ukrainian culture. He spoke Ukrainian at home, participated in Ukrainian Boy Scouts, and attended Ukrainian school on the weekends, where he learned about Ukrainian history, culture, and geography. His mother, who was living on the border of Ukraine and Poland, came to the United States in 1971. His father’s situation was different. Mark’s paternal grandfather was a freedom fighter, positioned against the Nazis and the Communists at the same time. The whole family was forced to flee during World War II.

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I first saw Mark perform at the Stand with Ukraine Benefit event. “If somebody needs a bandura player, I’m usually the guy they call,” he explained. “I’m always happy to play, especially for something like that. It feels…I don’t want to say obligated, but it’s needed.” He described the importance of traditional music in the fight for Ukraine’s continued freedom and sense of identity:


Taras Shevchenko is the main heralded poet [of Ukraine]. A lot of his poetry has been turned into music… If you grow up in a Ukrainian community you just kind of know these songs. You know, it’s like, ‘when I die, bury me on the steppe in a free Ukraine…’ Every culture has their songs that they revere, and a lot of the Ukrainian ones…tend to be kind of patriotic. And so,
when you have concerts and so on, you hear those things again, and you kind of remember, yeah, this is important. This is something I grew up with; it's meaningful to me and I need to help.

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The Ukrainian American community in North Texas also has enthusiastic support from other Central and Eastern European communities. For example, the Stand with Ukraine Benefit also featured the Jagoda Ensemble, an assemblage of talented folk dancers promoting Polish folk culture through song, traditional dance, and colorful performances throughout North Texas. Multi-talented Polish musician Marek Eneti was also booked to play the violin on that day; unfortunately, he had a scheduling conflict and wasn’t able to perform. The good news is that I was able to speak with him anyway!

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Marek grew up in Warsaw. He earned a scholarship at Louisiana State University for studying viola performance and composition, and later completed his PhD at the University of North Texas. He has been in Dallas for about twenty years. He explained that, alongside the Ukrainian community, there is a vivid Polish community in North Texas as well: “It's a small community, but we have our school. We have Polish school, Polish church, two Polish restaurants, one in Plano, one in Southlake. We have a Polish folk dance group, Jagoda.”


Marek has an incredibly diverse performance repertoire. He plays country rock, bluegrass, jazz, international fusion, classic rock, classical, and, of course, folk. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to hear him play at the Stand with Ukraine Benefit, but Marek was hopeful that he would be able to collaborate with events like these in the future.


I had to perform with my band and couldn’t perform at the benefit concert. But I wanted to, because I feel sad about what is going on in Ukraine and want to help them as much as I can. Musically would be the best. And I want to play some Polish music. There are a couple songs which are Polish-Ukrainian. It is both nations, like a composition of both nations. So maybe I'll perform with them again next time. Yeah. That would be a really lovely way to show solidarity.


The most recent event I attended in the Ukrainian American community was the Ukrainian Independence Day celebration on Lake Lewisville on the 20th of August 2022. We embarked out on a charming little party boat at 6:30 sharp, and very soon thereafter the dancing and singing festivities commenced, complete with a rousing performance by the Veselka Singers.

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The next day, I attended an Independence Day luncheon at St. Sophia’s Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, located in The Colony. The Ukrainian American Society of Texas kindly treated us to varenyky (Ukrainian pierogies), kvashenaya kapusta (homemade sauerkraut), kovbasa (sausage), bread, and cake. A couple of recent refugees from Ukraine were warmly welcomed into the community as familiar traditional music played on an overhead projector.

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On May 23, 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 agrees:


We are a singing nation. Everybody would sing. You would sing as a group going to work, coming home. Ukrainians are singing in the battlefield… The National Anthem has become such a
recognized song because in the face of death, the Ukrainians will sing… In the face of Russia, they will sing the National Anthem. Every song has a meaning, every song has a story. It would be a story about a solder going away to war and connecting with his love to say goodbye. Or it would be a story about a mother who is about to lose her son possibly by going to war. And she embroiders a Ukrainian blouse in two colors, red and black. Red is for love. Black is for remembrance. She gives it to her son. Everything has a story… So whenever I sing anything Ukrainian, I feel connected to my ancestors.

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 Kyiv to Dallas. Slava Ukraini!


About the Author

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Kelsey Lee earned her PhD in Social Anthropology from Durham University in 2021, subsequent to receiving her MSc in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh in 2013. Her doctoral thesis explored Indigenous Sámi storytelling through digital media as part of a broader decolonial endeavor in the Arctic European North (more specifically, in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia). Kelsey also has a keen and long-standing interest in ethnomusicology and global folk arts and has taken the opportunity to delve into these topics further as part of the Texas Folklife Community Folklife Fellowship Program. 

 

About Texas Folklife's Community Folklife Fellowship

The Texas Folklife Community Folklife Fellowship program is a statewide, NEA-supported pilot program that provides training in oral history, interviewing, audio storytelling, archives, and podcast production for adults. Participants learn to document community traditions in their own cities and towns throughout the state, through workshops and community partnerships. The program supports applicants from diverse regions and communities of the state of Texas.

Learn More About Community Folklife Fellowship