Say you record an album, and for all intents and purposes, the band goes on hiatus the moment the session is done. Three and a half years later, you regroup and perform those songs for the first time since then. And what you’re singing isn’t the music you grew up with – it’s an idiom from a country in another time zone, in an ancient dialect of a foreign language with a different alphabet and a completely alien system of harmony. That’s the challenge that the roughly fifteen-piece choir Ensemble Hilka rose to meet Saturday night at their sold-out show at the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village.
The group – comprising some of the foremost musicians playing Balkan and Slavic music west of the Danube – first came together when singer Maria Sonevytsky enlisted legendary Ukrainian singer and archivist Yefim Yefremov to come to New York to conduct a series of master classes in some of the most ancient, otherworldly folk music from throughout his travels. One of Yefremov’s many areas of expertise turned out to be music from the irreparably toxic region surrounding the Chornobyl [spelling transliterated from Ukrainian] nuclear power plant, largely depopulated since the 1986 disaster there. The New York pickup group’s enthusiasm and aptitude for this largely forgotten repertoire was such that it resulted in the recording of the just-released Chornobyl Songs Project: Living Culture from a Lost World album for Smithsonian Folkways. Since many of the performers on the album are busy with their own projects, the choir members went their separate ways after recording it (although more than one new group, including the lustrous vocal trio Zozulka, first assembled as a result of the session).
Throughout the first half of the concert, the men and women of the choir alternated between songs, opening with boisterous numbers puncuated by animated call-and-response and triumphant swoops and dives as a phrase would reach the end. As the show went on, the full group would assemble, then regroup in subsets. The songs on the program, loosely assembled to trace the rituals and festivities through a year of village life to the immediate east of Kiev, had largely disappeared from the area by the time Yefremov went out to collect them back in the 70s. Their content is pretty universal: guys cajoling girls to come out…and striking out; a musician gone off to war and missing his collection of instruments; and various harvest, marriage and work songs. The melodies varied from simple, anthemic and largely minor-key to more complex, with occasional use of the eerie close harmonies common to Balkan music. Yefremov, now in his seventies, projected strongly as he led the group – which also comprises members of the folk ensembles Yara Arts Group and the Ukrainian Village Voices – through a couple of numbers, and then delivered a spare, pensive number solo, a-cappella.
The second half of the show featured individual band members performing traditional repertoire from their own projects. Hearing Eva Salina – the Romany music diva and leader of a wild, psychedelic, jazz and reggae-tinged brass group – and Bulgarian music reinventors Black Sea Hotel‘s Willa Roberts work every mighty inch of their spectacular vocal ranges out in front of the group was spine-tingling, They’d later regroup with Shelley Thomas (also of Black Sea Hotel) as Zozulka, for more Ukrainian songs. And although Black Sea Hotel’s shapeshifting, microtonally-spiced new arrangements of ancient Bulgarian songs are a completely different idiom, the crowd, heavy with Ukrainian expats, responded vigorously to the stylings of Roberts, Thomas and recently acclaimed indie actress/songwriter Sarah Small.
Another singer who wowed the crowd with her visceral power and spectacular vocal range was alto Nadia Tarnawsky, in a duo performance accompanied by long-necked lute. Eva Salina picked up her accordion and treated the audience to a handful of wrenchingly plaintive songs from her amazing recent solo album. Bandura virtuoso Julian Kytasty – who has a reputedly sensational new album of his own due out this June – drew just as much applause for his stately, elegant, stark solo songs. And it was kind of a trip to see Sonevytsky, who for several years co-led the elaborately or not-so-elaborately costumed, irresistibly quirky lit-rock trio the Debutante Hour, decked out in a simple black suit and singing these haunting numbers alongside a veteran expert from a previous era, the CTMD’s Ethel Raim (who can still belt!).
Veveritse Brass Band, a rotating cast of New York Balkan brass talent who specialize in Romany party anthems, serenaded the crowd afterward at a reception downstairs. One wonders how many if any of these musicians would have even come to New York, let alone met each other and shared their passion for this magical music, if ten or fifteen years ago this city had been gentrified to the extent it is now.