On Feb. 23, Ukrainian musicians were doing what they’ve always done: getting together with their bands, recording in studios, writing new songs, planning concerts and tours. The next day, Russia invaded their country, and everything changed. Some took solace in songwriting, performed secret concerts for soldiers or took in refugees at theater shelters. Others, plagued by bomb-induced migraines, were unable to contemplate a single note. Some music artists joined the military; some used their bands’ vans to transport supplies. “Obviously, you’re not thinking about touring,” says Sasha Maslov, the Kharkiv-born photographer who returned to Ukraine from New York. In these images he shot for Billboard in late March, Maslov captures regional pop stars, folk groups, rappers and bandura players. “A lot of people can’t concentrate. You’re going about your business and the Russians are everywhere. War is always present.”
Twelve days before collaborating with Pink Floyd on “Hey Hey Rise Up” — a traditional Ukrainian war song and the band’s first new release in nearly 28 years — Andriy Khlyvnyuk was wounded by mortar fire in the Kyiv suburbs. “Doctors took a piece of Russian iron out of my head,” says the frontman for pop-rock band Boombox. “Now I’m OK. Some [people] lost legs and arms. I’ll have a scar, but it’s nothing.” Speaking through Telegram from a Kyiv military barrack, Khlyvnyuk, 42, wears a New York Yankees cap, its shadow barely covering his black eye and a bruise on his cheek from three or four stitches. “We train every day, for different kinds of antiaircraft, anti-helicopter, anti-tank weapons,” adds Khlyvnyuk, who first served on territorial defense, then as a local sheriff deputy. “Everywhere I go, I do selfies. I find it fun. People feel more optimistic.” Khlyvnyuk’s recognition is increasing: The Pink Floyd video, for which he recorded his part by phone, has over 8.8 million YouTube views.
If she hadn’t woken up to explosions in her newly rented Kyiv flat on Feb. 24, rapper alyona alyona, 30, might, at this moment, be preparing for summer festivals in the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland. Instead, Alyona Savranenko, who was earning $200 a month as a nursery school teacher before moving into music, is now living near her parents in a village 25 miles from the capital city, volunteering to deliver medicine, recording inspirational videos and doing endless media interviews to draw attention to the Ukrainian cause. After her song “Rybky” (“Fishes”) went viral in late 2018, she received invitations to tour the world, but the pandemic forced her to cancel her plans — and then the Russian invasion forced her to cancel rescheduled plans. “I guess, in the future, we go to all the cities where I [was supposed] to be in 2020,” she says in a Skype video interview by candlelight. For now, “all my mind and attention are here.”
With her father, brother and other relatives still holed up in heavily bombed Kharkiv, Natalia Rybka-Parkhomenko (right) of folk group Kurbasy calmed herself by helping to open a shelter in Lviv’s Les Kurbas Theatre. Volunteers contributed pillows, blankets and food and moved stage scenery to the basement to accommodate a bomb shelter; 300 people stayed there throughout the first month after the Russian invasion. In late March, Rybka-Parkhomenko and bandmate Mariia Oneshchak (left) put on a program of folk songs for the residents, touching on “losing people, losing relatives,” says Oneshchak, 37, by Telegram through a translator. During the show, says Rybka-Parkhomenko, 42, “There was complete silence. After the songs, people shared their feelings about how they felt. One man from Kharkiv said he was about to cry every time the song started.” As for Rybka-Parkhomenko’s own Kharkiv family, they hid in bathrooms and bomb shelters for 10 days after the invasion, then traveled safely to Lviv.
Masterskaya, a 6-year-old Kyiv label, recording studio and “house of culture” founded by singer Ivan Dorn, functions today as a shelter for about 15 musicians, actors and directors and their families. The windows are barricaded with tables, tape and garbage bags. Inside, Yulia Yurina, a 27-year-old singer whose band YUKO competed in Ukraine’s national final to select its song for Eurovision, divides her time between distributing food and medicine to needy Ukrainians and releasing new music under the name YUYU. Yurina is frustrated that her parents, who live in her native Russia, believe Russian government propaganda about, for example, supposed Nazis in Ukraine. “We all understand this is bullsh-t,” she says through a translator during a Telegram call where she’s seated along with Masterskaya marketing director Yana Polupanova (see below). Yurina hopes to change her nationality to Ukrainian. Meanwhile, she teaches Ukrainian songs to fellow volunteers.
Yana Polupanova, marketing director of the Masterskaya sound recording studio photographed March 23, 2022 in Kyiv.
After six days of bombs falling in Kyiv, Eugene Filatov (left) and Nata Zhyzhchenko (right) of independent electro-folk band ONUKA relocated for three weeks to the Lviv area in the safer western part of Ukraine. “It was really very tough to just be in this hotel room and watch the news,” says Filatov, 39, the group’s producer. “It was exhausting.” The married couple decided to return to Kyiv with their 1-year-old son; despite the terrifying views of rockets from their window and frequent sounds of explosions, they prefer to be home. For weeks, after they returned from a vacation to Egypt just before the war, Filatov didn’t even open his backpack containing his laptop and microphone. “But now,” says Zhyzhchenko, 37, “I think we are ready to create something.”
Upon leaving his Kyiv home for relative safety in Lviv, Voyt was unable to bring any of his 15 banduras, traditional Ukrainian stringed instruments that resemble lutes. “We had just two small bags and one small bag with food for the train,” he says of the 10-hour journey, during which alarms frequently sounded, causing the train to shut off its lights and travel in eerie darkness. Voyt, 42; his wife; and their 2-year-old daughter are safe at his mother-in-law’s house, but he was unable to play music until a friend loaned him the bandura in this photo. “First week, I couldn’t hear any music,” he says. “We ate, but no appetite. After we move here, I understood the music is my life. I must play.”
The night Russia invaded Ukraine, DJ Vera Logdanidi huddled in her apartment with her family and contemplated remaining in Kyiv. The family did not have a car, so their best option was a 10-hour night train to Lviv. “It was a slow road without lights. Our windows were covered. It was super creepy,” she says. Because women are not required to remain in the country for potential military service, Logdanidi, 33, was allowed to cross the border, so she spoke through Telegram from Budapest, Hungary. She recently posted on Instagram that she is “ready to travel” and work to help her family. She’s aiming for European gigs, but she struggles with the idea of dancing with fans in wealthy countries while her country is suffering. “It’s a psychological problem,” she says. “But I will do it because it’s necessary and I have to work.”
It is not possible for 36-year-old Ukrainian rock band Vopli Vidopliasova to perform in its home country: The band’s guitarist is in the army, its bassist has fled the city, and the drummer is sheltering to avoid Russian bombs. So the group’s leader-singer, Oleg Skrypka, 57, and his 14-year-old son have been playing acoustic concerts in secret locations for 100 to 200 soldiers in Kyiv. “I don’t know if it’s more important for them or me,” he says. “It’s very emotional.” When the Russian invasion began, Skrypka sheltered in the basement of his Kyiv home with his wife and four children. They’ve since returned to a more or less normal life, other than the occasional explosions. “It’s mostly Ukrainian guns,” Skrypka says. “If not [for] this resistance, Kyiv does not exist.”
Dmytro Kumar (standing, center), frontman for death metal band 1914, spends his days transporting toothbrushes, food, armored jackets and other supplies to soldiers on the front line. “Our guitar player has a big car, so he can deliver [things] for us,” says Kumar, 39, taking a break from military service for a Skype call. “We were touring with this van, a Volkswagen Transporter T4.” Kumar’s lyrics have always emphasized war, death and suffering, but after the Russian invasion, “it became part of my life.” Most of the band volunteers or helps the war effort in other ways. “Our drummer is a tattoo artist,” Kumar says. “He’s got a lot of requests: ‘Can you make tattoo with Russian “You can go f–k yourself,” with some national signs?’ ”
It was the migraines that finally broke Nata Smirina (in front). The Russians relentlessly bombed Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, killing 500 people and destroying 600 buildings by mid-March. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t think,” says the 37-year-old singer-songwriter for electronic bands Pur:Pur and Astronata. “My head was aching all the time, and there were no pharmacies working for the first week.” Smirina and her partner, Ilya Misyura (in back), finally moved to Lviv in the country’s safer western region, where they now live rent-free in a generous Instagram follower’s family apartment. Before Russia invaded, the couple had planned to marry on March 22; because Misyura is a Russian citizen, this is no longer possible. “God had another plan,” he says. Adds Smirina: “We’re waiting for our [Ukrainian] victory to marry.”
This story originally appeared in the May 14, 2022, issue of Billboard.