To get to this moment — singing “Masters of War” at the Speakeasy in Austin, Texas, on Saturday (March 19) with Bob Dylan‘s guitarist while fans draped in Ukrainian flags roared from the balcony — Oleksandra Zaritska endured a terrible journey.
On Feb. 25, the 29-year-old singer for popular regional trio Kazka was living in central Kyiv when Russia invaded her country. Early that morning, she witnessed the bombing from her balcony.
“I will remember this for my whole life,” Zaritska tells Billboard, with the occasional help of a translator, during South by Southwest at a downtown Austin food hall a day prior to the Speakeasy gig.
As emergency sirens blared throughout the city, Zaritska, better known as Sasha, decided to drive the 20 kilometers to her mother’s house in the forest. The drive took nearly six hours, due to panicking Ukrainians queuing up at gas stations for fuel, water and other necessities.
Along with eight friends and family members, including her mother, and three dogs, Zaritska spent four anxious, sleepless days viewing smoke and fire from the nearby airport. The house has no basement, so the occupants had nothing to do but cower and watch planes and the white, blinking, popping dots of bombs going off like fireworks in the sky.
“Every time we hear this sound, we just run into the bathroom. We are hiding behind two walls, all these dogs and all these people. It was crazy,” Zaritska says. “This sound was very loud. It’s really close. We never expected our house would be an epicenter of war.”
On the fifth day, her father called from another city in Ukraine: “You need to go right now.” The Russian military had surrounded her village, and there were concerns about thieves. Her father and boyfriend stayed in the country, as Zaritska and her mother returned to the car and drove to the western side of Ukraine — normally a seven-hour trip, but this time almost 24 hours.
Finally, they arrived in Berehove, near the Hungarian border, where locals provided food and helped transport would-be refugees outside Ukraine. After that, they went to Poland, and have been living there ever since — until Zaritska, along with her two managers, Yuriy Nikitin (who handles Kazka’s production) and Anton Fokin (who works the live side), decided to fly to the U.S. for her band’s long-scheduled showcase at SXSW.
Kazka had planned to play the Austin festival in 2020, until it was canceled due to COVID-19, and kept the date even though sopilka player Dmytro Mazuriak and multi-instrumentalist Mykyta Budash stayed behind in Ukraine. They are safe, Zaritska says, and one of the band’s producers is protecting valuable sound equipment in his apartment studio, hiding it under mattresses.
Kazka is best known for 2018’s “Plakala,” the first Ukrainian-language video to hit 200 million YouTube views. The trio had participated in the country’s version of X-Factor 8 and the Eurovision Song Contest, making the general decision to sing in Ukrainian, not Russian, even though Russian songs have been the most popular in Ukraine and the easiest pathway for rising to stardom.
“I’m proud of it,” Zaritska says. “My grandma, she is really proud of us.”
Zaritska sang “Plakala” onstage at the Speakeasy in Austin, of course. She has a warm, dominating stage presence and an instinct for showmanship, arriving onstage hidden behind a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag, then dropping it dramatically to show her face under a Stevie Ray Vaughan-style black hat. Zaritska played to about 150 people in the small club, singing the Ukrainian national anthem and telling her story before performing several Kazka tracks.
“We are Ukrainian. It’s all in our genes. We are all strong,” she declared to the crowd.
Zaritska and her managers decided to use the SXSW platform, as well as hastily planned trips to New York, Chicago and Miami afterwards, to drum up publicity and support for the Ukrainian defense effort. Although they have no concrete plans beyond the U.S., she will eventually go back to Poland and Yuriy to his family in Cyprus, Greece.
At the Speakeasy, Zaritska instructed the crowd repeatedly to make donations, “talk to your government” and attend a Sunday protest at the Texas State Capitol.
Along the way, Zaritska and Kazka might finally be able to break in the U.S. In a separate interview, Nikitin, 54, recalls helping to build the Ukrainian music business out of scratch, shortly after the country became an independent state in 1991.
“When we met with many Polish, German, Austrian music companies, they ask us, ‘How do you work?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know,'” says Nikitin, whose family was vacationing in Cyprus, when Russia invaded Ukraine. “We work each direction. We make a concert, we make a record.”
Nikitin formed a record label, mamamusic, in the 1990s, and recorded songs with Ukrainian pop stars before meeting Zaritska six years ago. Of her stardom, he says, “I look at it like it’s not only our success, it’s like success of our people, all of our business, all of our industry.”
Charlie Sexton, Dylan’s longtime guitarist, lives in Austin and joined Zaritska for the finale, the 1963 classic “Masters of War.” He led the younger band through the changes as Zaritska commanded the final verse: “I’ll stand over your grave/ ‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.”
Zaritska and Kazka had discussed recording it while still in Kyiv, just before the Russian invasion, but she didn’t rehearse it until arriving in Austin.
“It’s difficult to sing,” Zaritska says. “Eight verses.” To elaborate, she switched to Ukrainian. “Eight verses of really cruel stuff,” her translator explains. “But that’s exactly what she would say to Putin. And exactly what she would have done to him.”