Lyricism under Pressure: Naadya, Onuka, The Cancel, and KSKY

The Cancel (Morshyn, Ukraine): "Criminal" (2014)

One of the best abstract hip-hop outfits encountered since launching FFM came partially from the green streets of Ukraine's Morshyn, a town close to the Polish border. Known as The Cancel, the project had two members: Andrey Zelensky (a Lviv resident) and Dmitro Competition (aka Fedusiv). Sampling with evident love both the socialist and US canons of easy-listening music from the 1970s, these two men drew constant parallels between retrospection and relaxation. A glance cast backwards brought calm, at least until a recent announcement on a social networking account. "Following considerable disagreement, The Cancel has broken up. Nonetheless, the project will continue to exist - and start afresh. Thanks for your support in the past."

Following considerable disagreement, The Cancel has broken up. Nonetheless, the project will continue to exist - and start afresh

Quite how matters would continue remained unclear until this week, when a new beats LP appeared, using the same stage-name. Listeners immediately started asking questions on The Cancel's Vkontakte account - and learned that Andrey Zelensky was already recording on his own. Both the album's contents and cover (above) offer us a sneak peak at these activities of late. First of all, several of the tracks refer directly to tagging and graffiti in ways designed to defend both as art forms. Among the titles, "Graffiti Is Not a Crime" would be the most obvious example. 

And then, behind a monochrome car on the LP's cover, we can see some actual graffiti or partially obscured words on a brick wall. The full phrase reads "KickIt" - the name of a hip-hop inspired artistic collective with whom Zelensky collaborates.

Zelensky's desire to promote graffiti as a culturally worthy enterprise is interesting in the light of Banksy's recent "arrest." A hoax story swept through the UK and US press this week, announcing that the famous street artist had been detained by London’s Metropolitan Police. He was allegedly held “without bail on charges of vandalism, conspiracy, racketeering, and counterfeiting." Twenty-four hours later, Banksy's agent declared that no such thing had happened. That brief period of misinformation, though, was long enough for many bloggers and trolls to declare the artist a lawbreaker, who deserved to be imprisoned for vandalism.

Needless to day, the same curmudgeons were also happy to dismiss Banksy's outdoor works as undeserving of serious attention.

Andrey Zelensky, now the sole member of The Cancel 

KickIt has hoped to sway public opinion about street art around various Ukrainian cities since its official birthday of September 13, 2009. "Now [in 2014] we're a group of MCs, DJs, beatmakers, b-boys, graffiti artists, and photographers from all over the country. We're creating our own hip-hop history, using the values of the music itself. We operate in the name of love, peace, unity, and our ability to have fun." 

We operate in the name of love, peace, unity, and our ability to have fun (KickIt)

The recent experiences of Andrey Zelensky are especially telling when considered against the backdrop of new recordings from Onuka. This is another Ukrainian outfit, also formed in the wake of a band's demise. The Ukrainian synth-pop outfit known as Tomato Jaws were - until their recent dissolution - one of the nation's most appealing projects, seemingly poised on the brink of widespread acceptance. Conceived a decade ago by Aleksandr Zhizhchenko, the group's makeup was augmented by Zhizhchenko's sister Nata and colleague Pavel Lenchenko.

Long-term experience and expertise garnered across that same decade would sometimes lead Tomato Jaws to claim they were "without equal in Ukraine or Russia." Now however, solo endeavors have spun outwards from a prior ensemble: new trajectories are being drawn. Pavel Lenchenko, by way of example, performs both as Cepasa and Playone. Simultaneously, Nata Zhizhchenko has also announced a one-woman enterprise, known simply as Onuka.

From the outset she hopes to generate some variations upon enduring habits within the Ukrainian mainstream. As with The Cancel, a kind of missionary zeal comes to the fore. In an early interview, while still with Tomato Jaws, Zhizhchenko showed her fundamental reasoning. These points made in the recent past are valid for Onuka today: "The public here was raised for ages on the kind of [late Soviet] artists... after whom it can be really hard listening to us. I don't mean to suggest that our music is bizarre or terribly complicated! It's just that after you've [also] sat through some average [modern] stuff on Ukrainian and Russian music channels, it can be tough to get your head around professional, high-quality electronic material."

Nata Zhizhchenko of Onuka (Kiev) and the debut album

These ideas and convictions - shaped by the studio production of Evgeny Filatov (The Maneken) - have become a debut and eponymous album. If Andrey Zelensky is busy forming a collective dedicated to joint expression, then for Nata Zhizhchenko her new independence is also a way to ponder better social forms - taken from the past. The audio and video for Onuka's first single "Look" employed a delicate wooden flute or "sopilka," fashioned by her grandfather. 

The same homemade sopilka has, in fact, become something of a calling card for Zhizhchenko on stage. "I've actually been playing it all my life. I've used it in performances with both military and symphony orchestras. Whenever things are getting me down, I'll play it - and feel a little better." A connection to the past generates a quiet confidence for the future. 

I started inviting a folk musician to each class

Some of these efforts have now been extended through teaching, as reported of late in Comma. "This spring I started to teach the sopilka to adults or my contemporaries... I work with them to compile a study program and set goals. But recently I got a call from a local cultural center. The director said I should come and teach Ukrainian folk or 'ethnic' culture to children - albeit in a playful manner! ... So I started by inviting a folk musician to each class. They each brought their special instrument and explained its history or origin - after which the children were given a chance to play it themselves."  

She then recalls the connection of folk music to her childhood. "My grandparents are lively folks... they've always lived together, heart and soul. They're lifetime partners in their hearts and their music, too. They form a unified whole, culturally speaking... Even as a child I sensed the special ambience of their lives, but it's only recently that I've seen how lucky I was to grow up in that setting. My grandfather would play the sopilka in the garden, while grandmother would polish the bandura [a Ukrainian lute]. Nothing could be more different to city life [in Kiev] and the endless running around that drives me crazy." 

Nata Zhizhchenko

She continues: "Soviet culture is what ruined folk traditions. They only survived thanks to some very dedicated individuals, the kind of people who don't fit into modern society. I mean the ardent fans of ancient instruments, old traditions, [rural] clothes, or pottery, for example. Today those folks seem totally alien to us [since they've deliberately hidden from modern life]. Most people nowadays don't view those dedicated outsiders as worthy of [artistic] attention." The modest and musical individuals who could and should promote a traditional sense of membership are ignored, as are the harmonies they create.

Soviet culture is what ruined folk traditions

A similar retreat from modern clamor and crudity has always informed the downtempo, elegant compositions by Saint Petersburg's KSKY. This performer brands his italo- and nu-disco output with an "astral" phrasing to match that of other stargazing DJs. KSKY talks of himself as a "'chordy' maniac... a cosmo-romantic from a deep city." His closing adjective refers to the city's endless fog, rain, and snow - which conspire to give the sense of living underwater.

KSKY describes current dance music that's hiding itself in private - and therefore superior - places. A profoundly inclusive kind of music-making retreats from the surrounding society in which it is born. "Club culture here was truly dead and buried something like seven or eight years ago. Instead we got today's culture of cheap thrills. Consequently [in response to that vulgarity], some people who are trying to open new places today want to foster a more positive, even intellectual atmosphere. They want to showcase good, high-quality tracks." 

That admirable cause may soon become an upwards battle. "So many people nowadays are striving for excessive simplicity in their dance music... We don't have the musical infrastructure of the US [to nurture more challenging styles], nor do we have America's sense of cultural activism. I don't want to offend anybody, but Russian DJs, musicians, and promoters really could do much more. I think the fundamental cause of the problem is basic human laziness."

Saint Petersburg's KSKY (Pavel Korzhensky)

Better times, KSKY feels, were in the past. "There were times when people would wait for dance events with genuine anticipation. They'd turn up and then really pay attention to the music. Of course, you could always divide any audience into people who are 'in the know' and those who aren't. I mean people who don't care who's performing; they simply go clubbing for the booze. They'd make 80% of the crowd [even in the past], but at least they helped to keep events upbeat. They were the 'meat and potatoes' of a function. Yet nowadays you can ship in some cool DJ [to a local club] and only 20-40 people will turn up. Plus that previous 80% of the crowd is now absent, cos they find today's music too complicated..." 

This is not a time for whining. So I'm off... to build something!

KSKY explains further: "The main ingredient in club life will always be new people [and fresh faces]. Everything looks grim today because youngsters are clubbing less often - and mainstream places just emanate a feeble, even vacuous kind of energy. It's clear when all this started to happen, I mean the moment when nightclubs became a 'trickier' investment prospect. Clubs started looking dubious to investors after all those TV reports about drugs, punch-ups... and murders. Who'd want to put their money into a shady business? Nobody!" 

The best response to failing social structures? Build one yourself. "Saint Petersburg needs better information about club life on the radio, TV, and a dedicated professional magazine. A new DJ shop and web station would also help. We used to have all of that, but it vanished. Now, therefore, is the right time to create all that [once again]. This is not a time for whining. So I'm off... to build something!"

A fourth and final release this week, born of disbandment or a related social "split," comes from Moscow's Nadezhda Gritskevich. After several years performing as fifty percent of Moscow's Moremoney with Ivan Kalashnikov, she is slowly releasing tracks under a different moniker: Naadya. She has just announced a debut album, working together with Ivan - plus new team members Masha Teryaeva, Sergey Burukhin, and Oleg Zanin.

One recent interview raised a pertinent question: to what degree would the Naadya solo album be informed by lyrical themes? Were social concerns also on display, perhaps? "The album is closely tied to what's going on around us. It's just that my reaction to social life may not be that obvious..."

Nadezhda Gritskevich of Naadya and colleagues on stage

Not surprisingly, despite Gritskevich's reticence, reference is made to an important concert two years ago, when her band played in support of activist blogger and one-time Moscow mayoral candidate Alexey Navalny. Would she consider similar civic acts today? Nadezhda responds by saying that other requests are sometimes made for protest events, especially following the intervention in Ukraine, but she has declined. "That's not my style at all. When those invitations come, I quickly realize it's not what I want to do. It's all rather excessive, using music in that way" - as agitprop.

I had the sensation of not belonging to myself

What's intriguing here is the manner in which Gritskevich speaks of an ongoing struggle between her singing voice and the external pressure to use it as a social instrument. "I grew up with the songs my father taught me. I have a cassette - even now - with the inscription: 'Nadya. Five years old. Songs.' It contains my tiny little voice singing about a pony's dreams. The pony wants to carry generals into war, but he's simply not big enough. So he takes children for rides instead. He goes and round in circles [on a leash]... which drives him crazy. So I've always wanted to sing... But in music school I was forced to sing songs I hadn't chosen myself. I also had to dance, maybe wear a yellow costume, or perform at corporate parties for oil companies. For a long time that rid me of any desire to play music. Even when we started the band Moremoney, I had to struggle against the feeling that I was still wearing that yellow suit... I had the sensation of not belonging to myself."

For The Cancel, the failure of one collective has led - thankfully - to another. The band becomes a solo project, and Andrey Zelensky finds kindred spirits in KickIt. The future looks bright. For Nata Zhizhchenko, following the demise of Tomato Jaws, her erstwhile band has also become a solo endeavor, Onuka. She harbors doubts about the future of Ukrainian pop music and finds greater social dignity in the folk melodies of prior centuries.

Saint Petersburg's KSKY has direct experience of this downswing, and blames both worsening public taste and the cheap, tabloid critiques of club life on mainstream media. Then that very same worry colors the outlook behind the new Naadya album. Nadezhda Gritskevich has proudly moved from Moremoney's demise into a new adventure on stage, but she wonders whether any attempt to make private songs public in Russia will face age-old problems and cultural preferences. Crudity, cash, and general disinterest appear to have spoiled a great deal. The social potential of music is evident to all these artists; actually making it social is far from easy.  

Mutual support before a Naadya concert in Izhevsk


KSKY – Broken Open
Naadya – Naoborot (Vice Versa)
KSKY – Olga in New York
Naadya – Omut (Whirpool)
Onuka – When I Met U
Onuka – Zavtra

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