Music from Ukraine and the Donbass

I’m honored to present a guest post from Pekka Gronow. Pekka is well-known in the world of ethnomusicology, audio preservation, and discography. He was the head of the archives at the Finnish Broadcasting Company, as well as the curator of the Finnish Institute of Recorded Sound, and is an adjunct professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Helsinki. He is the author of innumerable articles and books related to the recording industry and global music on record, not the least of which is An International History of the Recording Industry, co-authored with Ilpo Saunio (London: Cassell, 1999). Additionally an editor of the Herculean project to document the activities of the Lindström record labels (The Lindström Project, Volumes 1-4), Pekka has to be the only person appearing within Excavated Shellac to have spoken to European parliament on sound copyright issues. – JW

Pekka Gronow:

Since spring 2014, continuous fighting has been going on in the Donbass area of Ukraine. On one side are pro-Russian separatists, who are trying to establish the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk with the support of Putin. On the other side are the forces of the newly independent Republic of Ukraine. This article is not an attempt to take sides, but I want to present two records which illustrate the historical background of the conflict in musical terms.

Russia already had a flourishing record industry before WWI. After the 1917 revolution all industries were nationalised, and gradually the country closed its doors to the outer world. Record production continued at a low level in state factories. In 1935, Stalin decided that in spite of the country’s huge economic problems, Soviet citizens must have some luxury. In the five-year plan, high priority was given to the production of caviar, chocolates, a sparkling wine called “Soviet champagne,” and 78 rpm records. Engineers were ordered to modernise record factories, and recording studios were soon again operating at full capacity. By the 1950s, the country was producing a hundred million records a year.

The caviar-producing sturgeons have long since been fished into extinction, and today caviar is mainly accessible to Russian oligarchs, but the huge production of 78 rpm records, today still unknown outside the country, may be one of the happiest remnants of the old Soviet Empire. Every year the state record company issued a thick catalogue of records which reminded the dealers’ numerical catalogues of major American record companies. The first part of each catalogue was devoted to masterpieces of classical music. They were followed by optimistic popular songs, dance music, folk songs (“old time music”) and finally a large section of minority-language records for the non-Russian population of the Soviet Union (these would have been called “foreign-language records” in American catalogues). The main difference was a section of political songs and speeches at the start of each Soviet record catalogue, inevitably headed by the voice of the party secretary.

Maria Nikolayevna Mordazova (1915-1997) was one of the greatest stars of Soviet “old time music”. She was born in the village of Nizhnaya Mazovka in the Tambov region of Russia, near the Ukrainian border. During the war she became nationally known for her broadcasts as the soloist of the Voronezh folk choir in a program called “The suffering Donbass,” which reported on the atrocities of German forces in the region.

Maria Mordazova became what was probably the closest Soviet equivalent of country music, as millions of state farm workers tuned in weekly to hear her singing familiar old-time songs on the air. (Instead of commercials for patent medicines, they had to listen to political speeches between the songs.) “Da zadumal malchik zhenitsya was recorded in 1954, nine years after the end of the war and just a year after Stalin’s death. The song tells the story of a young man looking for a bride. It is in the traditional call-and-response form of Russian choral songs, but on this recording the response part is performed by just one singer, who is identified as M. Zelenova.

Maria Mordazova remained as the soloist of the Voronezh folk choir until 1977. She also became a popular solo performer of chastuskas, humorous old-time songs. She made many recordings and was frequently heard on the radio. She received the prestigious “Hero of Soviet Labor” award in 1987, just before the downfall of the Soviet Union.

“The great patriotic war” of 1941-1945 has been one of the most dramatic events in Russian history. It had a unifying effect on a country which was just learning to live with communism. In present-day Russia, it is still remembered as one of the country’s greatest moments. But not everyone in the former Soviet Union remembered it that way. Ukraine, situated between Russia and Poland, had enjoyed a brief period of independence after World War One. During the 1930s, millions of Ukrainians had died of hunger because of the forced collectivisation of agriculture. In 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland among themselves. The easternmost part of Poland, with a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking population, was annexed to the Soviet Union at the same time as the Baltic countries.

When World War Two broke out, many Ukrainians saw it as a chance to liberate their country from the Soviet Union. They formed UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukraiinska Povstanska Armiya) which fought at various times both against Stalin and Hitler. The strongest support of the movement came from the regions which had only recently been occupied by the Soviets. The role of UPA is highly controversial. The Soviets saw them as traitors who joined the fascists. But for many Ukrainians they were freedom fighters, and when Ukraine gained her independence in 1991 they were recognized as freedom fighters and now have an honoured position.

Among the Ukrainians who joined the UPA during the war was the entire Ukrainian State Bandura Orchestra. The bandura is a Ukrainian folk instrument which combines elements of the lute and the zither. It is considered the national instrument of Ukraine. After the war, the members of the bandura orchestra escaped to the USA, where they recorded “Ya siohodnia vid was vidyizdzayu” (“I shall leave you tonight”), a traditional Ukrainian folk song associated with the UPA, for the Surma label in late 1940s or early 1950s.

The Surma label was the product of Myron Surmach, who ran a Ukrainian book and music store on New York’s 11th Street, next to the Ukrainian Catholic Church. I had the opportunity to interview old Mr. Surmach in his shop in 1977, when he was already in his eighties. He had been a major force in the production of Ukrainian-American records since the 1920s, when his store was an outlet for ethnic records issued by Columbia and Victor. One of his discoveries was the fiddler Pavlo Humeniuk, who made a long series of best-selling records for Columbia, including a musical sketch called “Ukrainian wedding”.

When the majors discontinued the production of foreign-language records after World War Two, many record shops in ethnic neighbourhoods were able to fill the demand by importing records from Europe. Ukrainian-Americans did not have this alternative. Little Ukrainian music was produced in the Soviet Union. In addition, most Ukrainian-Americans viewed Soviet products with suspicion. The door was open for small producers like Myron Surmach, who started producing records themselves and also distributed other Ukrainian records made in the USA and Canada. “Ya siohodnia vid vas viyidzaju” is a traditional Ukrainian folk song associated with the UPA. According to the label, the song was collected by bandurist W. Yurkewich from Sambir.

Maria Mordazova and M. Zelenova – Da zadumal malchik zhenitsya

Octet of Banduryst (directed by Stephen Hanushewsky) – Ya siohodnia vid was vidyizdzayu

NOTES

Label: Leningradski Sovnarhoz
Issue number: 24671
Matrix: 24671 (Note: Soviet 78s usually did not have catalogue numbers, only the matrix number was printed on the label)

Label: Surma
Issue number: SU 116
Matrix: SU 116 A

8 thoughts on “Music from Ukraine and the Donbass

  1. Lovely recordings and fascinating history — thanks so much for sharing. Very useful and informative introduction by Pekka Gronow.

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