A Year Later, Ukrainian Musicians Are Navigating Wartime Lives
"The art of small things brings you happiness," says Natalia Rybka-Parkhomenko of Kurbasy on recalibrating to the whims of Russian attacks.
One year ago, singers, songwriters, producers, guitarists, drummers and bandura players from Ukraine were making the transition from being musicians to soldiers, refugees and volunteers.
In interviews with Billboard, they complained of headaches and stress as they navigated their new daily routines of sheltering from bombing attacks. Today, the entire group of 14, from veteran rock star Oleg Skrypka to emerging rapper alyona alyona, are safe and healthy, though weary from navigating the pressures of balancing recording and touring careers with drawing attention to the Ukrainian cause. They are providing help and resources to the soldiers protecting them from Russian forces while working to ensure their families are out of danger.
As the country prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of the invasion on Feb. 24, Billboard followed up with the Ukrainians featured in last year’s story. War has changed their lives in dramatically different ways. Andriy Khlyvnyuk, the singer-songwriter behind Boombox, is a soldier. The electro-folk duo ONUKA fled the country and relocated to Switzerland to preserve their mental health. Through a translator, Natalia Rybka-Parkhomenko of folk group Kurbasy tells how her brother returned home briefly to Lviv before going back to his military post. “He said the sausage at the petrol station is something unbelievable that he enjoys,” she says. “The shower, the washing machine, the heating system. We take it for granted. The art of small things brings you happiness.” For these musicians, those small things include making new songs, playing gigs and marketing their music on social media.
On the February day when Khlyvnyuk, 43, connects with Billboard from Kyiv, he is crashing at his sparsely furnished apartment. At one point, he pulls back his phone camera to show baggage and equipment strewn about the floor. The following day, he is to return to the front line, where he operates drones to identify and kill Russians. “It flies 400 meters high and it can fly 20 miles,” he says. “I’m more or less secure.” In two weeks, Khlyvnyuk will take a break from war to temporarily resume his lifelong occupation as the singer-songwriter for Boombox, which collaborated last year with Pink Floyd on the Ukrainian war song “Stand Up.” The group will soon tour North America for three weeks. Khlyvnyuk is a musician. He writes songs. How does he mentally process the killing of enemy soldiers? “I think all of us will have to go to the doctor when this s— ends,” Khlyvnyuk says.
Following delays due to the war and the pandemic, alyona alyona, the 31-year-old schoolteacher-turned-rapper best known for her 2018 viral hit, “Rybky,” was finally able to tour Europe and the United States last year. It was just part of her punishing travel schedule. Between gigs, she lives with her parents 40 minutes from Kyiv for roughly a week out of every month, then resides in Poland for another week for easy access to planes and airports. When she has extra time, she volunteers to visit Ukrainians in cities throughout Europe to give information about supporting the cause and helping refugees. “I live everywhere but nowhere,” she says. “It was gypsy life.” Early this year, her body demanded she take a break from the intensity and anxiety; her constant tooth-grinding had necessitated an operation. For a month, she shut out music and the war and spent time with her boyfriend and visited her grandfather. She returns to Europe for a tour later this month. “You have to think about yourself or you get sick,” she says, from a studio in Gdansk, Poland, where she is working on new tracks. “I know many Ukrainians feel the same.”
No longer operating a shelter in Lviv’s Les Kurbas Theatre, Rybka-Parkhomenko and Mariia Oneshchak of folk group Kurbasy have pivoted to staging musical productions for 60 people nightly from Thursday to Sunday. Two young actors in their troupe left for the front line of the war, including one in a “very hot spot,” as Oneshchak calls it, speaking via Telegram with a translator. The student-soldier regularly texts photos and messages from the front. Like all Ukrainians, they’ve recalibrated their lives according to the whims of Russian bombing runs, which wake them up at 3 a.m. Oneshchak mentions a new military cemetery near her home. “She doesn’t look at it very often,” the translator says, “but still she notices how fast it grows. That is something she can’t get used to.” Adds Rybka-Parkhomenko: “When the victory will come, we won’t celebrate very loudly. We probably will just cry and sing about those heroes that we lost.”
Yulia Yurina and Yana Polupanova
Kyiv studio-turned-shelter Masterskaya, where singer Yulia Yurina was living with another two dozen musicians after the Russian invasion, has closed. Yurina, who became regionally famous when her band YUKO competed in Ukraine’s national final for the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, and Yana Polupanova, Masterskaya’s marketing director, are back to living in apartments. “All the recent Russian attacks, we have seen by our own eyes,” Yurina says during a Telegram call with a translator. “It creates a lot of problems, but life is precious.” Yurina, 28, has spent the past year organizing charity concerts, many of which are located in underground shelters, as well as teaching folk music and folklore as part of a program called Muzykuvannya. “Every day we are scared less and less, but it is not normal to wait for some kind of explosion,” says Polupanova, 27. “It is still putting us in a stress all the time.”
Since electronic artists Nata Smirina and Ilya Misyura fled Lviv last April to live in Aarau, Switzerland, Smirina’s debilitating migraines have mostly subsided. “I’m not sure when the joy of living came back to me, specifically,” says Smirina, 31, who runs a clothing brand called hochusobitake and donates some proceeds to the war effort. “You don’t have these air alarms five times a day, really loud. People do not know. They’re 500 kilometers from the border and they do not even have this idea of what war is, and it’s happening not too far from here.” After crossing the border — an immigration officer interviewed Misyura, a Russian citizen who opposes the Ukrainian invasion, for two hours — they soon realized they had to compensate for the higher cost of living in Switzerland. So Misyura partially paused his longtime career as a producer and took a job as a scientific researcher at a university. They’ve since regained the emotional strength to make music again, putting out tracks by their electronic bands Astronata and purpurpeople. “It was like an opening to me,” says Smirina, who still hopes to marry Misyura someday, possibly in Portugal. “It’s crazy important for a person to have this feeling of safety ground under your feet. It gives you so much strength.”
Halfway through a brief WhatsApp call, Volodymyr Voyt picks up one of his 15 banduras, a traditional Ukrainian instrument that combines elements of a zither and a lute, and begins strumming. This one was made in 1929, he says, and he has recovered all of them since fleeing from Kyiv to Lviv last year. “We are somewhat used to living in these conditions,” says Voyt, 43, who lives with his wife, Ruslana, also a bandurist, and his 3-year-old daughter, Tereza. Earlier that day, his family had to flee to a shelter in their apartment for seven minutes, although air-raid sirens can last as long as five hours. Tereza attends kindergarten and occasionally retreats to a basement shelter with no light. “This is very hard, I think,” Voyt says. Voyt toured Europe last year with the 100-plus-member Hryhory Verjovka Ukrainian National Folkloric Ensemble, then returned to Kyiv in June. Ruslana has been playing with the local NAONI Orchestra at local concert halls, and Voyt says, “Sometimes we have [an] alarm, and the concert [stops] and people must go in the basement.”
Splitting time between Kyiv and Budapest, Hungary, the DJ spent much of last year performing at electronic-music festivals and concerts. “Kyiv is my home and I have a lot of friends, I have a flat, I have some tasks to do,” says Logdnanidi, 34, who lives with her husband in Budapest while her mother lives in Kyiv. “It’s not like I finished my story with Ukraine and decided to leave.” She played a club gig last December in her hometown, although the curfews made it more difficult, as events must be completed before the streets close at 10 p.m. “It was super-cool to see people drinking, having fun,” she recalls. “But, you know, you have a shadow.”
Weary and red-faced in his Kyiv apartment building, with flickering power and a spotty internet connection, Skrypka, the frontman for popular Ukrainian rock band Vopli Vidopliasova, flashes a charismatic smile as he showcases his wartime resilience. “My generator works for hours,” he explains. “There is no petrol. So I went to put petrol in the generator. So now it works.” Skrypka has been touring Europe for much of the past year, obtaining permission from the Ukrainian government on each trip to take a train to Poland and access international airports. “Yeah, I am very tired. But it’s like that,” he says. “I understand it’s much more difficult to be here, on the front. My friends, or friends of my friends, they’re in very, very hard situations.” The band’s guitarist, who is in the army, was “lightly traumatized” and had to go to a military hospital, then back to Kyiv for two weeks. He reunited with Skrypka for a few concerts before returning to the army, Skrypa says.
Now and then, Dmytro Kumar, frontman for the Ukrainian death-metal band 1914, messages Basil Lagenndorf to ask how things are going. “Fine, guys,” responds the band’s guitarist, who is serving in the military: He operates a grenade launcher at the front. “Tell my wife I’m OK. Keep on going.” Minus Lagenndorf, the band spent much of 2022 playing festivals and clubs in Europe, trying to draw attention to and raise support for the Ukrainian cause. But the experience isn’t the same as it used to be — and not just because fans sometimes upbraid Kumar for talking too much about war while on stage. “You’re checking your phones, you’re seeing this bombing and you call and say, ‘We will be home.’ You’re stressed every time,” says Kumar, 40, speaking by phone from his home in Lviv one evening when the electricity is more reliable. “You’re playing music because you must, not because it’s your dream and you [have] a lot of fun.”
After briefly moving to Warsaw to obtain travel documents for a U.S. tour last year, electronic musicians Nata Zhyzhchenko, 37, and Eugene Filatov, 39, of electro-folk band ONUKA, were forced to leave their two-year-old son, Alex, with a nanny at their Kyiv home. “It was the first day rockets were shelling Kyiv, just at night,” Zhyzhchenko recalls on a messaging app from the couple’s apartment on the sixth floor, as the sun sets through a large window. “When you are outside, especially when your child or parents or family is here, it’s very hard to accept.” (Alex’s first words were a Ukrainian phrase meaning “the light was gone.”) Determined to stay in Kyiv despite the “lizard-brain” realities of “run, hide, eat, sleep,” as Filatov describes them, the couple has made a single and video drawing connections between the current war and the 1932 Soviet-induced Holodomor, or Great Famine, in Ukraine. “When you have the work, it’s a great pleasure, because you have to do something and not concentrate just on power, light and alarm-siren issues,” Zhyzhchenko says.