Category: Ukraine

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


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

Samuel Pilip, John Karliak, i ich Lemkiwska Orchestra – Lemkiwsky Sztayer, Taneć

In Poland, on the slopes of the Carpathian mountains near what is now the Slovakia border, is the historical homeland of the Lemkos, also called Rus’, or Rusyns. For centuries, they have lived a rural, economically humble, agrarian lifestyle, centered around small villages. With the exception of a brief few years after World War I, they have never had their own representative government, and have been an ethnic minority under the rule of a larger entity, sometimes by force. During World War II, for instance, a hundred thousand Lemkos were driven from their homes and resettled throughout the Ukraine. Today, Lemkos remain in the Ukraine and Poland, in the Balkan states, Slovakia, and the United States, where Lemko immigrants began arriving in the late 19th century, in order to escape economic hardships.

In New York City, from 1928 to 1930, dozens of recordings were made of authentic Lemko folk music by immigrants, some of whom had only recently arrived in the country. There were some Lemko recordings made previous to 1928, but these were mainly ethnographic field recordings on cylinders. And, conversely, there were Lemko recordings made after 1930, but they had a more polished sheen. The recordings from 1928 to 1930 are truly the zeitgeist of early Lemko folk music. How did this happen, when Lemkos represented a very small immigrant population, especially compared to Ukrainians and Polish immigrants? How did this music ever get recorded in such a short window?

According to Walter Maksimovich and Bogdan Horbal’s fine history Lemko Folk Music on Wax Cylinders (1901-1913) and American Records (1928-1930), it’s all because of one man – a streetcar motorman from Brooklyn named Stephen Shkimba. Shkimba arrived in the U.S. in 1912, and essentially stewed for 16 years, waiting and waiting for someone – anyone – to begin to release recordings from his Lemko homeland. Finally, in 1928 he marched straight into Okeh records and demanded they record some! Okeh were skeptical, assuming that the music would be too close to Polish and Ukrainian music to make a difference – but they consented, and even charged Shkimba for the session. Shkimba was a bass player, and gathered musicians quickly. Their first Lemko record was considered a success, and Okeh signed Shkimba to a contract. Meanwhile, Okeh was bought by the American Columbia label, and Columbia also began recording Lemko music. Lemko wedding songs, folk dances, skits, religious music, and folk ballads began to hit the streets.

You’ll notice that this record doesn’t just say “Lemko” on it – it says “Lemko-Ukrainian.” How these records were marketed and sold to a small immigrant population is really interesting. Not only did Columbia and Okeh use the “Lemko-Ukrainian” qualifier, they also sold some as “Lemko-Russian.” Ukrainian and Russian records were often hot sellers for Columbia, so they must have wanted to capitalize on any potential cross-over and musical/cultural similarity. Further, Lemko musicians often recorded Polish songs during their sessions, and those were then issued on the Polish series, sometimes under altered names or pseudonyms. Likewise, some Lemko musicians recorded Ukrainian records, issued on the Ukrainian series – and the same with Russian, and Slovak. Lemko instrumental dance tunes, in particular, were cross marketed to all manner of cultures, including Hungarian and Lithuanian. My point is that the music of Lemko performers was in many immigrant households, whether they were aware of it or not, although they may not have been Lemko songs.

Maksimovich and Horbal also discuss where the records were sold. Some of the records were naturally sold out of local gramophone shops in immigrant neighborhoods, but a significant amount were sold by the musicians themselves, out of their homes. Some were sold in small businesses that catered to Lemkos – an ice cream store in Clifton, New Jersey, for instance. They were also advertised in small newspapers, such as the Lemko Association of the USA newspaper.

This recording, an instrumental taneć (dance) with wonderful strings, was recorded in March of 1929. Samuel Pilip immigrated to New York in September of 1923, and was originally from Zyndranowa, in the heart of Lemko country in Poland (and the current site of a Lemko historic museum). Pilip made about 5 records. Ivan (John) Karliak played with both Pilip, as well as his own band, with his brother, and issued several records, only one of them Lemko.

Samuel Pilip, John Karliak, i ich Lemkiewska Orchestra – Lemkiwsky Sztayer, Taneć

Technical Notes

Label: Columbia
Issue Number: 27177-F
Matrix Number: 110461

To buy Maksimovich and Horbal’s book, where I gleaned most of this information and which comes with a DVD featuring hundreds of mp3s of Lemko recordings, please go here.

To hear more Samuel Pilip on CD, check Arhoolie’s Ukrainian Village Music CD, which also features tracks by the Lemko group, the Orchestra Bratia “Holutiaky-Kuziany.” Dust-to-Digital’s Black Mirror also contains a track by Stefan Shkimba.

Ukrainska Orchestra Pawla Humeniuka – Kozak-Trepak

humeniukA fiddle masterpiece by a master fiddler.

Pawlo Humeniuk was born ca. 1884 in Pidvolochys’k, in the Ukraine, immigrated to the United States around 1902, and began recording for Okeh records in late 1925. Legend has it that Humeniuk was in the store of Myron Surmach, a sheet music and record retailer, when an Okeh records representative came in to query Surmach on whether he knew of anyone who could play “village music,” whereupon Surmach immediately introduced Humeniuk. After several sides for Okeh, Humeniuk and his group of musicians (most of whom are anonymous, still) moved to Columbia Records for a stint that lasted about 10 years, until 1936. He made a few more records in 1940 and his career on records was over. Humeniuk died in 1965, leaving an amazing legacy of early Ukrainian folk music.

Today’s track is a combination of a kozachok (or kozak) and a trepak. The kozachok is derived from the word “Cossack” – and both dances are classically in 2/4 time. In other words, they can be raucous, uptempo numbers for social dancing! Besides Humeniuk’s outstanding fiddling, what makes this track particularly interesting is the addition of the cymbalom, a hammered dulcimer (played by one Ivan Lysechko, the only other known player besides Humeniuk on these sessions).

Ukrainska Orchestra Pawla Humeniuka – Kozak-Trepak

For more Humeniuk, check out Arhoolie’s King of the Ukrainian Fiddlers.

And a special thanks to Ian Nagoski, for his nice write-up on Excavated Shellac included in his article Pearl Diving, in the latest Arthur Magazine. Sadly, it looks like Arthur is hurting financially like so many others – which is not a good thing, as it has consistently been an entertaining and informative magazine. You can download a .pdf of the issue (and donate to the cause) on their website.

Technical Notes
Label: Columbia
Issue Number: 27104-F
Matrix Number: 108160 (2-A-5)

Ukrainska Orchestra Michala Thomasa – Kolomyjka Buczaćka

thomasa.jpgTo the person who spoke another language the phonograph assumed a more important role. In a country with strange customs and values, where other people spoke an unfamiliar language, a phonograph could and did provide a means of emotional retreat to one’s homeland. Records of familiar songs reinforced traditional values and an immigrant’s sense of self-worth…It meant that at least one American business was soliciting his patronage by recognizing, respectfully, who he was. — Richard K. Spottswood, “Commercial Ethnic Recordings in the United States,” in Ethnic Recordings in America. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1982.

Earlier in the blog I posted some Polish-American village music, so today I’m offering up a nice example of Ukrainian-American village music, complete with strong fiddle playing by Michal Thomas, recorded in New York City in March of 1931. Thomas, on the lead fiddle, is accompanied by a second fiddle, piano, tuba (I believe) and percussion in the form of bells.

The Kolomyjka (or kolomyika) is a well-known, traditional folk dance from the western Ukraine, getting its name from the Carpathian city of Kolomyia. Like many folk dances, it can be danced in a circle, and is usually performed on special occasions, such as weddings.

Columbia ruled the Ukrainian-American market in the late 1920s and early 1930s, recording approximately 430 Ukrainian records beginning in 1925. Interestingly, very few recordings were made by the major labels’ counterparts in Europe during the 1920s, making Columbia’s series especially important, musically and historically.

Ukrainska Orchestra Michala Thomasa – Kolomyjka Buczaćka

For more Michal Thomas, you can find a track on Arhoolie’s Ukrainian Village Music CD, and a track on the out-of-print LP on New World, Song of the Shepherd: Songs of the Slavic Americans.

Technical Notes
Label: Columbia
Issue Number: 27296-F
Matrix Number: 112873 (1A-1)