It was an unlikely turn of events for one of the darlings of the British indie scene. Invited to record a John Peel session in 1989, The Wedding Present recorded a slew of Ukrainian songs.
The idea came from Peter Solowka, born in 1959 in Oldham, of Ukrainian descent. In the breaks between performances, the guitarist entertained his bandmates with songs he picked up from his childhood immigrant community.
“The band was doing pretty well, and when John Peel asked us to do another radio session, we said yes because you don’t say no to John Peel, do you?” he says. “But the thing is, we just didn’t have enough new songs, so I said to our singer Dave Gedge, why don’t we do some Wedding Present-style Ukrainian folk songs? That’s how it started.”
A compilation of the tracks “received amazingly well,” says Solovka – it’s the only Ukrainian-language album to make the UK top 30. “I didn’t listen to music that came from Eastern Europe,” he says.
“You may have heard some Russian tunes featured in certain movies and the Mary Hopkins song Those were the days [which uses an old Russian melody]but that’s about it.”
He grew up in a small community of Ukrainian émigrés, “about 15 or so families.” Being 2,000 miles from their home country, their cultural knowledge was weak, he says, but as a child he attended a Saturday morning school where “teachers tried to teach as much as possible about the Ukrainian language, culture and customs.”
In his 20s he continued to explore Ukrainian music. “I learned that for every song I discovered or remembered, there were many more,” he says. “I often think that Ukrainian folk is a bit like traditional Irish music culture as its history is very deep.”
Solovka was a member of Wedding Present from 1985 to 1991. When he left one of the most successful and most admired British indie bands of the time, he made what some considered an unusual decision: the new band he formed was called the Ukrainians. From 1991 to today they spread the rock folk music of his ancestors. Inevitably, in recent weeks, he has been gruesomely reminded of how people hold on to their culture and heritage in times of tragedy.
“Some people might think that songs don’t last long,” says Solovka, “but folk music goes through time and manages to stay current even though the songs are decades old.” He says when he started playing Ukrainian folk songs professionally , his knowledge of the genre was so minimal that the band’s setlists “included songs that we knew were popular in Ukraine and that reflected the country’s dual identity of Ukrainian and Russian at the time”.
Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, he adds, there has been a definite “movement away from the country’s identification with Russianness. In the 1990s, Western values such as freedom, liberalism, mistrust of authority emerged.”
Solovka’s band is a recognized pioneer: in 1993 they were the first UK-based Ukrainian musicians to play a concert on Kyiv’s Independence Square. From the mid-’90s the family took over responsibility, but since then the band has played at least a dozen shows a year. This year will be noticeably different. In recent weeks, he says, phones have been buzzing with requests for the band to play benefit shows to help support the crisis in his grandparents’ home country. Many more are planned.
“What an autocratic state like Russia does not want or obviously does not tolerate is the provision of democracy on its borders,” says Solovka.
“Putin would rather rip the country apart than have that.”
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/music/peter-solowka-ukrainian-folk-is-a-bit-like-irish-traditional-music-culture-41462988.html Peter Solovka: “Ukrainian folk is a bit like traditional Irish music culture”