Summer lovin’ Ukrainian style

By Heather Higgins
Posted in Culture

Summer lovin’ Ukrainian style

The third season of the Ukrainian Women’s Voices series, titled “June Wedding: An Evening of Traditional Ukrainian Wedding Songs,” brought universal themes of wistful partings and new beginnings to the stage on the evening of June 13.

The concert, held at the Ukrainian Museum at 222 E. 6th St. in Manhattan’s East Village, brought together singers and musicians — only some of whom were Ukrainian — in a concert that seemed perfect for the summer wedding season.

The instructor and lead singer, Nadia Tarnawsky, of Cleveland, Ohio, said that you don’t have to be Ukrainian to love this kind of music. “The Ukrainian community is pretty closed off; we didn’t expect anyone else to like our music,” said Tarnawsky, whose parents and grandparents are from Ukraine and has spent time there herself. “However, when we started to perform, we found a lot of people really wanted to listen.”

They wanted to sing too. Cherrymae Golston, 55, an adjunct professor of Spanish at Columbia University and one of the singers Saturday night, does not speak a word of Ukrainian, yet she sings beautifully in the language. “It doesn’t matter if you understand the words, I love the way the music sounds, the way it rolls off the tongue.”

Brandon Vance, a two-time National Scottish Fiddle Champion who has played with numerous Celtic and jazz bands, was among the musicians who accompanied the singers. “Tonight’s music is eclectic,” he said. “Our sound is experimental. What Nadia and I are doing is taking two traditions and blending the humanity of it all.”

To the average listener, it seems quite a stretch to connect Ukrainian music to traditional Scottish and Irish tunes. Tarnawsky clears up the skepticism, “Ukraine and Ireland have a similar history. We are both oppressed people and as a result, our music has a particular sound and style.”

The Ukrainian Women’s Voices program is the vision of New York-based Ukrainian-American bandura player and singer, Julian Kytasty. He has gained international recognition for his work with the bandura, a Ukrainian plucked string folk instrument. The classical bandura is wooden, looks like a guitar/banjo hybrid and has around 20-25 strings.

Kytasty strives to accommodate a range of contemporary influences without losing the authentic Ukrainian sound. “There are several women vocalists who have delved deeply into the Ukrainian folk song tradition and done very interesting work coming out of that tradition, combining it seamlessly with North American influence,” said Kytasty.

Instructors, like Tarnawsky bring an enormous wealth of knowledge and songs to these vocal workshops in New York.

According to Eileen Condon, Project Director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, a New York organization that assists immigrant communities in passing traditions to new generations, interest in the music of the Balkans was fueled in part by the organization’s founders, Ethel Raim and Martin Koenig, who went on expeditions to Bulgaria in the 1960s and returned with an arsenal of recordings of village songs. Koenig is a nationally known teacher of Balkan dance.

Tarnawsky said that the music gained a wider audience thanks to the growing interest in folk music in the 1980s. Tarnawsky’s connection to Ukrainian folk music is clear. She is first generation Ukrainian on her father’s side and second generation on her mother’s side, and both parents desired to maintain Ukrainian culture within their home.

In addition, there are around half a million Ukrainians living in her home town of Cleveland. There are approximately one million Ukrainians living in the United States with concentrated populations in the northeast — New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania and throughout the Midwest.

However, her love of these traditional ethnic melodies was not immediate. “I wanted to be an opera singer. Folk music was for old ladies and mountain people.”

The fall of the Soviet Union enabled Tarnawsky to travel to Ukraine in 1992 and immerse herself in the culture by living in different villages and singing songs with local women. In 2002 while teaching music and pursing a master’s degree in music history at Cleveland State University, she received a fellowship that enabled her to return to Ukraine to collect folklore and wedding songs from the northwest region of Polissia. Many of the songs from the concert have roots in this region of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Women Voices Collective marries different influences with an unquestionable quality. The musicians and singers are keeping Ukrainian culture alive and their passion and talent have a universal appeal.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Ukrainian Museum

One Comment on “Summer lovin’ Ukrainian style”

  1. An Evening of Traditional Ukrainian Wedding Songs | New York Torch

    [...] The third season of the Ukrainian Women’s Voices series, titled “June Wedding –An Evening of Traditional Ukrainian Wedding Songs,” brought universal themes of wistful partings and new beginnings to the stage on Saturday evening. …Continue Reading… [...]