If you Google “Ukrainian tall hats,” the first result is a series of images of people wearing traditional headgear. The next five are previews and reviews of the Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha, whose members perform in foot-tall woolen hats. Coupled with the long, white lace dresses and the multiple strands of beaded necklaces that the three women of the group wear, and the dark, Eastern European tunics of the group’s male member, their image is striking and unique. But DakhaBrakha’s theatrical appearance is simply the visual foreshadowing and backdrop to their remarkable music.
DakhaBrakha, which means “give/take” in old Slavonic, was formed over a dozen years ago in Kiev. Though rooted in centuries-old Ukrainian folk music, they’ve absorbed musical elements of many other cultures, from nearby Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey to Africa, Western punk, and rock. Their music is by turns hypnotically trance-inducing and energetically danceable.
Between them, Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsibulska, Nina Garenetska, and Marko Halanevych play dozens of instruments, including cello, piano, accordion, and hurdy-gurdy. In concert videos you can watch them pick up wind instruments, such as an Australian didgeridoo or a surma (a Ukrainian woodwind), or tap an apparently bottomless grab bag of percussion instruments: cymbals, bass drum and floor tom from the standard drummer’s kit, African djembe, Middle Eastern dumbek, and lots of shakers and small noisemakers. That list would be even more impressive if they were virtuosos or masters on any of them. They’re not. Nor are they trying to be. “We are free in music, like children with their toys,” Halanevych has said. And that is exactly what their live performances convey: child’s play, in the best sense of the phrase. It’s creative, sweet, playful, aggressive, even violent. Their instruments and voices conjure an ever-changing soundscape that manages to feel freely improvised, while also disciplined and controlled.
Some Ann Arborites will remember the Bulgarian women’s choirs that were a sensation when they toured in the West in the early 1990s. Their gutsy, powerful, unfamiliarly timbered voices combined in harmonies that in the throats of other singers would have seemed harsh, or at least weird to Occidental ears, had they not also simultaneously sounded sugar sweet. DakhaBrakha’s women sound like that. Halanevych, meanwhile, either blends with the female trio with a high falsetto, or contrasts with them in a virile rock roar. Their dynamic range goes from whisper-soft, closed-mouth humming and sighing, to thrilling ululation, to almost animalistic crescendos.
Perhaps because of their limited English they don’t say much on stage; an occasional “Thank you so much,” or an equivalent Russian spasiba, or Ukrainian dyakuyu. In the last few years, reflecting the political realities of the region, they’ve taken to introducing themselves as being from “free Ukraine.”
Long before the end of their show on March 29 you won’t even notice the hats.