Trailblazers in Ukrainian cultural revival return with new album

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Vancouver’s Zeellia formed around the fall of the Soviet Union,
return as the independence fight heats up

Album launch for Tse Tak Bulo/That’s How it Was
April 2, 8 pm, at the Ukrainian Hall
Tickets are $20 in advance from High Life Records
$22 at the door

Born out of the Ukrainian cultural revival that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union; nurtured during Vancouver’s global music “golden age” in the early 90s; and recently revived in conjunction with a renewed fight to protect Ukrainian independence, Vancouver’s Zeellia has been at the forefront of a global Ukrainian cultural Renaissance for more than 20 years.

It combines the powerful, piercing harmonies and mournful, minor key melodies of Slavic folk music with a modern artist’s approach to arranging.

Founded and fronted by Beverly Dobrinsky, the ensemble returns after an extended absence with Tse Tak Bulo/That’s How it Was, a collection that is both beautifully reverent toward Ukrainian tradition – Dobrinsky has even included the voices of the now-deceased elders from whom she first learned her repertoire – and filled with vital new energy in the form of clever re-workings of many songs.

“Plyve Kachya / The Duckling Swims” is Dobrinsky’s rendition of a song that has become an anthem in the Ukrainian diaspora since the latest round of protests in the plaza in Kiev; it was a favourite of one of the victims.  Dobrinsky altered the melody and reordered fragments of the lyric to create a contemporary original composition based around the traditional piece.

“My Husband Beat Me” is another deconstructed and reconstructed traditional number that Dobrinsky, ironically, learned from a woman from whom she’d requested wedding songs.

“It’s a short song,” the woman told her.

It’s also something of an empowering song, as its narrator is finally freed when her husband abandons her to go to America.

The mere fact that such words are spoken in traditional Ukrainian song is also empowering in Dobrinsky’s view, though she has been criticized by members of the Ukrainian community for airing its dirty laundry by performing such repertoire.

“Tykha Voda, Teche Voda / Quiet Water, Flowing Water” is a mash-up of two folk songs – a conversation between a mother and a daughter and a confrontation with a cheating lover – in which the singers at times sing both songs at the same time.   It was arranged by accordionist Alison Jenkins.

And “As I Walk Across Canada” is an original composition based on a traditional melody, with English lyrics by Savannah Walling, a string arrangement by Dobrinsky, and a layered vocal arrangement that is entirely contemporary.

Tse Tak Bulo/That’s How it Was is the first Zeellia album to feature Dobrinsky on hurdy gurdy, an instrument she picked up 10 years ago in her continued quest to further immerse herself in her roots.  The album includes “Living in This World/God Came from Heaven,” her take on a song from the hurdy gurdy minstrel tradition that dates back to around the 1200s – combined with an old song from Eastern Ukraine that was rediscovered during the post-Soviet cultural revival.

Joining Dobrinsky on the album are original Zeellia members Alison Jenkins (accordion), Amelia Slobogean (violin), Russell Scholberg (bass) and Carmen Rosen (voice).  It also includes Elliot Vaughan, who has replaced Slobogean on violin in the live ensemble, and new band member Tetiana Zeruba, who is originally from Ukraine, on vocals.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, a third generation Canadian, Dobrinsky took an early interest in reviving the cultural heritage her parents had sought to escape in order to integrate into Canadian society.

She studied voice at the University of British Columbia and fell in love with Balkan singing because it reminded her of her childhood.  She especially loved a style loosely translated in English as “pure voice,” the raw, mournful sound of the old Ukrainian villages.

Dobrinsky became the musical director of a Balkan women’s group called Razom Sestre and sang in two Ukrainian community choirs.

In 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed, and the year that marked the 100th anniversary of the first large-scale Ukrainian immigration to Canada, she formed Zeellia – at the time, a predominantly a cappella women’s group.  Two research trips followed – to Alberta and Saskatchewan – to collect songs from elderly survivors of the pre-Soviet era.

The group’s self-titled debut, released in 1997, was described by The Province as “filled with joy and an exuberant … affirmation of life.”

Its 2004 follow-up, The Willow Bridge, was described by the Georgia Straight as “sweet and fierce, deeply moving, and eminently danceable, passionate and smart”

The ensemble played Lincoln Centre in New York and Music Multi Montreal and took part in the Enemy Aliens installation at the Harbourfront Centre art gallery in Toronto.   One of their last performances before going on hiatus was for the Paralympic Torch Relay in the lead-up to the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games.

When not working with Zeellia, Dobrinsky has done vocal work for countless independent film soundtracks, including the NFB film Being Caribou, Enemy Aliens, and Uncle Eddie’s Guide to Art Appreciation.

In 2009, she began creating a one-woman show called Dolya, which explores her relationship to the hurdy gurdy, her quest for her cultural roots, and her 2010 pilgrimage to Ukraine to study the instrument.

In 2012-13, she worked with Vancouver Moving Theatre to interview local Ukrainian immigrants, and research and arrange the music for the multi-disciplinary performance project, Bread and Salt.  She also collaborated with Laura Lamb on the short film “Bits and Tatters.”

In addition, she performed in Slowpoke, a play about Chernobyl produced by Radix Theatre.  Critic Colin Thomas called her the “one exquisite element” in the play.

In 2014, Dobrinsky began refocusing her energies on Zeellia, who opened for the Ukrainian ethnic chaos band Dakha Brakha at the Rio when they performed in Vancouver.

The release of Tse Tak Bulo/That’s How it Was continues her journey of deepening her bonds with her cultural roots.

It also grants music fans an intimate connection with a part of the world that has taken on considerable geopolitical importance.

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