" this is world music in the widest sense of the word"
"Prairie Nights is of such a fascinating beauty that we want to learn about their earlier works"
March 13, 2001
Paris to Kyiv's Warm Embrace
by Orysia Paszczak Tracz
Forget the rules. Abandon all preconceptions. This is familiar music, and yet something you have never heard before. It is as comforting and beautiful as your mama's or baba's soft, all-encompassing embrace when you were three, and yet it is also jazzy, innovative, and not at all
This is the music of Paris to Kyiv, the ensemble led by singer Alexis Kochan, with musicians Julian Kytasty, Richard Moody, Martin Colledge, and Nenad Zdjelar. It is classified as "world music" in the stores, but that is an inadequate description. This is the group that has ignited interest in Ukrainian music in the mainstream and has excited young Ukrainians who are hearing it not in church halls, but "out there" on the radio and at commercial concert venues.
To boot, it has also attracted a substantial core of listeners in Québec, where the openness to international music is particularly strong, and among other French Canadians.
The ensemble's music has a strong effect on audiences. Last December, I attended a their concert, held as part of the Mondetta World Music Series at the the University of Winnipeg's Eckhardt-Gramatte Hall. A the conclusion of each song, there was a lingering silence, then a collective sigh of pleasure, followed by a shower of applause.
Over the last few years, Paris to Kyiv has performed the Embassy of France in Washington, D.C., the Showcase of Culturally Diverse and First Nations Artists at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Québec, at the World Music Institute in New York, and the Carpenter Center in California.
In May, the ensemble took part in a repeat performance of "Night Songs from a Neighboring Village: Traditional and New Jewish & Ukrainian Music," along with Brave New World. (The cycle premiered at the inaugural Ashkenaz Festival of Yiddish music in Toronto in 1996.)
This summer the third Paris to Kyiv album, Prairie Nights and Peacock Feathers, will be launched. It was fashioned during the course of the ensemble's residency at the St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre last
It continues the tradition of the successful and critically-acclaimed earlier albums, Paris to Kiev (1994), Paris to Kyiv Variances (1996), and Kochan's first solo album, Czarivna (1982).
So what kind of music is this? In addition to folk songs, Kochan searches out the ritual songs: pre-Christian koliadky and shchedrivky (winter cycle), hahilky and vesnianky (spring cycle), Kupalo songs (Midsummer's Night), obzhynky songs (harvest), wedding songs, lullabies, and laments. Some early religious chants are included for good measure.
Kochan selects the songs, mulls over the arrangements, presents the songs to her musicians, and then collectively they work on each song's instrumentation. Kochan and Kytasty are the two ensemble members who know Ukrainian, so the lyrics and background have to be explained to the others. The songs are performed in Ukrainian but, in the new album, Richard Moody sings responses in English to two of the songs, responses that he wrote and composed.
This music is very attractive to the ear, but it definitely is not easy-listening or sing-along. Whether listening to the album, or attending a concert, you feel the ease, the gentleness of the presentation, with no hype. And yet there is intensity in the beauty of the melodies, the virtuosity of the singing and the playing, and in the simple-yet-intricate arrangements. If you pay attention to the details, their works are richly rewarding, and each time you hear a song, you find another facet to delight in and admire.
In performance, Paris to Kyiv never play a song the same way twice, because these virtuosos perform without sheet music-the arrangments memorized, then improvised upon.
Each musician is an accomplished master in his/her own right, bringing talent and passion to the ensemble. In Paris to Kyiv, their individual excellence creates something greater than the whole. These guys just ooze talent. Their creative interaction, mutual respect and admiration for one another are remarkable. Danny Schur, the sound engineer and "technical whiz-kid" (as Kochan calls him), said they are "excellent musicians who play off each other, as if they had been playing together for centuries."
At the centre of this mass of talent is Alexis Kochan, with a lush, honeyed voice, and the love, knowledge, passion, and drive to get this music across to the whole world. She is the founder, producer, and force of
Olesia Productions, which produces Paris to Kyiv. This is her life and her career. There is no distinction for her between work and rest-this music surrounds her all the time. She plans, researches, pays the bills, promotes, sells, and pursues grants and backers. Through Olesia Productions, she is able to further her passion of promoting Ukrainian music.
This self-described "North-End Winnipeg kid" chose to give up her career in psychology, just before finishing her Ph.D., to pursue her calling of singing and promoting old Ukrainian music.
Kochan says she was surrounded by Ukrainian folk songs in her childhood. And yet, she averrs, she "did not have a sense of being Ukrainian, did not know songs that she was singing were a thousand years old." However, she does remember weeping along with the rest of the audience at a Nina Matviyenko (Ukraine's Ur-folk singer, who emerged in the 1960s) concert, listening to an ancient lament.
In 1978, she travelled to Ukraine with the Winnipeg-based Oleksander Koshets Choir. During this tour, she had an epiphany: that Ukrainian folk and ritual music was to be her life. She was so moved by the experience that she vowed to return to her ancestral homeland to study music. In 1978-79, she spent a year in Kyiv with her husband, Nestor Budyk, studying with the Veryovka company. Soon after returning to Winnipeg, she collaborated with Arthur Polson on her first album Czarivna (1982). Polson arranged the music and composed interludes to this album of wedding, Kupalo, harvest, and winter-cycle songs. Czarivna had a big impact on the Ukrainian music scene and was used in various film and dance productions.
During her first trip to Kyiv, Kochan thought how the Ukrainian capital could have been the Paris of the East, were it not for history. "I realized how powerless we have been for centuries." A decade or so later, the thought resurfaced as the name of her ensemble. Now, she says: "I like to think I'm helping people to come alive again."
The ensemble's first album, Paris to Kiev (then still using the Russian-based orthography) was released in 1994, with Budyk on accordion, Alexander (Sashko) Boytchuk, an internationally-renowned jazz saxophonist and clarinetist, and Petro Yourashchuk, fiddler and wind instrumentalist extraordinaire. This album was a wonderful fusion of Ukrainian and Ukrainian Canadian music and musicians. The line-up performed to packed tents at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1993 along with Peter Ostrouzhko, the prominent American musician with Ukrainian roots.
Paris to Kyiv Variances (1996) expanded the horizons of this new yet ancient Ukrainian music, with Julian Kytasty, Martin Colledge, Richard Moody, Henry Zacharias (udu drum) and Evans Coffee (congas and djembe). This album expanded the group's audience, and was featured often on various CBC-Radio programs, and in film soundtracks.
Julian Kytasty, the latest member of long line of bandura players, sings, plays the sopilka, kobza, and bandura. He brings to the ensemble his enormous wealth of knowledge of Ukrainian music and his creativity. Like Kochan, he is rooted in tradition, but has also put down roots in the contemporary and improvisational. Kytasty gives Kochan credit for finding and selecting the beautiful material, for inviting exceptional musicians, and for letting them shape the music in their own way.
Kytasty says he also serves as Paris to Kyiv's "band leader" of sorts. "It is a joy working with these guys, to work with players that are that good and that creative, who are able to take one sentence direction," he enthuses. Kytasty says all three musicians have very high standards for themselves, and push themselves to make every note the best it can be. The problem in recording the Prairie Nights was not in getting them to play something again, but in getting them to stop, because they wanted perfection. He found it remarkable that there was not a single botched tape. The bandurist also says Kochan's consistent vocal excellence "took pressure off the musicians, and we could repeat takes, taking a chance and looking for another instrumental spark, knowing that her next vocal would be just as good."
Kytasty and Kochan have known each other for some time. They've become good friends and musical soul-mates. They share an understanding, respect for, and love of Ukrainian music. This mutual benevolent obsession is obvious in the studio and on stage.
Kochan and Kytasty have also collaborated in print. They are proud that they expanded the listing on Ukrainian music in the second edition of the Rough Guide to World Music from two paragraphs to a few pages. They hooked up when Kytasty was teaching liturgical music at the University of Manitoba's St. Andrew's College, and Kochan was beginning work on Paris to Kyiv Variances.
Kytasty says work on Variances and Prairie Nights went similarly-they both searched for material, and fleshed out a core repertoire. They discussed their ideas and prepared multiple arrangements, both duet and ensemble, for each number.
"You bring the arrangements to the musicians, find a spot for them in the music, and then they start to think and develop their own parts, their own voices," Kochan says. For the end product, however, she asserts, "there is no democracy." She has the final word. Richard Moody, a classically-trained Canadian son of English Australians, joined Paris to Kyiv at Kochan's invitation. He is also member of the Acoustically Inclined and of the Trivocals Jazz Ensemble, and serves as The Wyrd Sisters's accompanist. He plays viola, violin, guitar, sings, composes and arranges.
Moody recalls that at first, Paris to Kyiv's music was foreign to him, and just a gig, but he developed an affinity, a familiarity with it. He adds that since music is a common language, he has no problems in not understanding the lyrics. He says that the most important consideration is: "We have an interest in a certain sophisticated international world music."
For Prairie Nights, Moody composed and sings "replies" to two songs performed by Kochan. "The Well" is a traditional jilted woman's plaint. Moody's song is the man's reply, a fascinating expression of fear, of running away from commitment. "Plach" is Kochan's rendition of the holosinnia of a mother weeping for her dead child. Moody's response is written in the voice of the child. Both are heart-wrenching. Martin Colledge, originally from England, has specialized in Celtic music, playing Irish and Scottish melodies on the cittern, mandolin, and the Northumbrian small pipes. He enjoys Paris to Kyiv's blend of the Celtic and Ukrainian sounds in some tracks. "It's pretty noticeable, and it works," Colledge says.
The musician adds: "Each of us knows when to back off, and we work very democratically. With the wealth of good creativity, everyone's ideas are taken into consideration, and for a band, that is very important."
Nenad Zdjelar is the newest member of Paris to Kyiv. The classical musician and his physicist wife arrived in Canada from Yugoslavia in 1998. He was a bass player in the Yugoslavian National Theatre and Opera Orchestra, and played in jazz and blues clubs. He continues to do in Winnipeg what he did in Belgrade.
Zdjelar opines: "Paris to Kyiv is something new for me, but it is close to what I used to play, and I like it. You do not have to be Ukrainian to love this music, but you benefit by understanding [the Slavic soul]. This music is close to my heart."
Kytasty notes that "Nenad is marvelous to work with. He is the perfect bass player for this project; he is able to play all styles, from jazz to classic, and all arrangements. Other musicians [out there] may get the music over the years, but he got it instantly."
Danny Schur excels at discovering, producing, and promoting musical talent. In his cap and jeans, he looks like a kid, instead of the multi-talented 32-year-old father of a young daughter. In Canada, he is known for having launched the carrer of Chantal Kreviazuk (he is her co-manager), as well as a raft of other pop and country artists. He has completed work on his own Ukrainian-flavoured rock opera, and is searching for more backers for the production.
Schur cannot praise Kochan enough: "Alexis has one of the clearest visions of the scope of Ukrainian music, not just historically, but also as it relates to contemporary society. She is singlehandedly attempting to de-ghettoize Ukrainian musical traditions into a true world music context. Her execution of the vision is first-rate in everything: from the passion of her singing, choice of world-class musicians, right down to the last details of the individual pieces on the CD. She really is a musical visionary and, like most visionaries, feels she struggles alone. But the continuing growth of her audience, especially among the younger demographic, is proof that her struggles are not in vain."
The admiration is mutual, because Kochan says "Danny is a very good set of ears, and he's brilliant technically... He is a feedback system for me." Paris to Kyiv has a Web site (www.paristokyiv.com) designed by Ron Sawchuk, a descendant of Canada's first Ukrainian pioneers. Sawchuk has been the designer of all of Olesia Productions's projects. He is also an accomplished painter. An adaptation of his commissioned painting, inspired by the music, is the album cover for Prairie Nights.
The title of the album, Prairie Nights and Peacock Feathers, is a statement about the music, which, emanating from the heartland of Canada settled by Ukrainians, has become Canadian.
Kochan relates that Sam "Sam the Record Man" Sniderman, called after the first Paris to Kyiv album was released, and told her: "Alexis, we're dancing to your 'Kolomyika' here... I told my wife 'that is the definitive example of Western Canadian music.'"
Kochan also feels that this album provides a connection between the Canadian Prairies and the Ukrainian Steppes.
As the Olesia behind Olesia Productions, Kochan would like to have a major distributor for her albums, but prefers the present extent of her control over quality. She has often been compared to Loreena McKennitt, another Manitoban, in her musical style and independent approach to production and marketing. To this writer, however, Kochan's music is much more vibrant and varied.
Kochan says she hopes to continue recording and performing. One dream is to perform in Ukraine, tying in venues like Lviv and Chernivtsi into a tour of the major cities of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, including Prague, Krakow, Budapest, and Vienna.
Paris to Kyiv is set to perform at the world-famous Winnipeg Folk Festival in July, at Bird's Hill Park. Pierre Guerin, the Director of the Festival, himself a musician who had a hand in jump-starting the Celtic revival in Canada a few decades ago, said he loves Paris to Kyiv.
"I had the privilege of hearing the new CD in the studio, and it is just a magnificent piece of work. Their approach to music is absolutely unique. I am very impressed with the juxtaposition of talent and the different culture. Alexis has a superb voice and a great presence," Guerin says.
I sat in on a few recording sessions of the new album, at the Sunshine Studios on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg, and it was a special experience. Danny Schur sat at the console, watching the vertical green line slowly moved across the screen. At one point, Kytasty played two-three notes on the sopilka, then tried to "fix" them. I began to see how important individual notes could be for a musician at this level.
In other songs, his mellow tenor was so easy, and yet carried such deep, ancient emotion. I had to remind myself that I was on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg, not in some village in Ukraine a few centuries ago.
As the members of the ensemble sat in the darkened studio, listening so critically to each sound, I wondered where those wrong notes were that they kept complaining about.
But I also thought of something Kochan told me: "This is soul music at its most basic, this is our soul music which we must proudly share with the rest of the world." Kochan and Paris to Kyiv are doing it.
printed in Zdorov! #15 - Summer 2000
photo by Ron Sawchuk