ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Ukrainian “ethnic chaos” band DakhaBrakha may be making the freshest music under the sun. The four-member group, whose name translates loosely as give-take, gathers musical styles, instruments, and corresponding visual motifs from around the world and gives them a new life by weaving them into Western jazz, hip-hop, and avant-garde practices with Ukrainian lyrics and folk styles. Ann Arbor was prepared, having hosted DakhaBrakha first in 2021. An enormous audience, alight with anticipation, packed the University of Michigan’s historic 5,000-seat Hill Auditorium for the off-beat band’s return Nov. 3.
Avant-garde director Vladyslav Troitskyi founded DakhaBrakha in 2004 at the Kyiv Center for Contemporary Art. The DakhaBrakha musicians are seriously accomplished, tight and tech-savvy, with total control of their material, even while every appearance and photo sees them in variations of the provocatively folk uniform that belies their contemporary orientation. Marko Halanevych (accordion) appears in a long traditional black tunic over black pants; Iryna Kovalenko (piano, accordion), Nina Garenetska (cello), and Olena Tsybulska (percussion) wear the tall black fur hats of the Cossacks, known as parakhi, above traditional full skirts and ornamented tops.
Waiting onstage for them when they entered were accordions, hand drums at every station, a drum set soon to be played with brushes, sticks, and timpani mallets, an electronic keyboard, loopers and body mics, and a cello painted like a Navajo blanket.
Kovalenko, Garenetska, and Tsybulska singing in white voice, as it is often called, stirs something deep. The elemental sound is emotional, both yearning and stern; the hard, clear tone is as unyielding as the Steppe that fostered it. This vocal practice, familiar to many Westerners from the compilation album Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (Nonesuch 1987), is not belting, although the two styles share some sonic similarity. One person singing in white voice sounds like a plaintive call; two or more can unite in chillingly perfect harmony, as these three women did consistently with unerring pitch. Each of the three women revealed her enormous vocal range over the course of the evening, as well-versed in Western vocal practices as in white voice. Meanwhile, Halanevych took his flexible voice from low gravel to an extended “muted trumpet” solo to a soft, wide jazz falsetto that blended unexpectedly well with the women’s singing.
Despite their eclectic mix of musical practices, theirs is not an improvisatory style. The concert featured more involved arrangements of songs from all four of their commercial releases, including their most recent, 2020’s Alambari, each offering tightly locked in, loopers unobtrusively augmenting the mix as they deployed them in real time. Garenetska’s cello was at times a walking bass, sometimes a drone, just as often texture as pitch in their groove-forward arrangements. Tsybulska was rock solid on the drum set, organized without foot pedals for what one assumes is better physical grounding for her soprano vocal lines.
Kovalenko slipped fluently among keyboard, a tiny accordion, and lightning-fast hand drum rhythms under her deep mezzo-soprano solos and harmony. Halanevych began on a cajón before migrating to hand drum, harmonica, and two different accordions that provided, like the cello, as much rhythmic texture as melodic or harmonic structure. Their instrumental material alone would easily occupy the full attention of any great musician. Dakhabrakha did all this while repeatedly accomplishing major feats of singing for an uninterrupted 90 minutes.
A colorful video accompaniment comprising Ukrainian and other folk motifs and loosely narrative images showed swirling collages that did the job of dancers, providing movement and visual interest to accompany the music. Only during the one song overtly dedicated to those who fight or support Ukrainian fighters in their current war against Russia did the images (rightly) pull focus, as picture after picture of young soldiers in their off hours, smudged with mud or holding a cat, rolled past. Their accompanying film also did some work to bridge the language gap, as there were no translations or supertitles of their Ukrainian lyrics to make us English speakers feel more at home. Halanevych addressed the audience in English, then later spoke to the audience in Ukrainian, eliciting a collective refrain from the large, enthusiastic Ukrainian contingent. But there was never a sense of exclusion: DakhaBrakha’s success taps into a shared global language of music that they speak with a particularly poetic flair.
DakhaBrakha is in the midst of a world tour: They’ll be on the East Coast of North America throughout November 2023 before heading to the U.K. in January 2024 and points west in March 2024. Although they’ve been on the road off and on for a decade now, their purpose is all the more pressing in this time of war: Alongside bringing awareness to Ukrainian art and culture, all of the proceeds of their merch sales now go directly to supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. If you’re lucky enough to get to one of their shows, seize the opportunity.