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Sofiya Rotaru: a star that keeps shining
Sofiya Rotaru is, to a great extent, what may be called “a legendary singer.” On the one hand, she was among the better known Soviet-time pop singers (one of her Soviet songs went like this: “Me, you, he, she — we’re all of us one great country”). On the other hand, she introduced many Ukrainian and Moldavian melodies she had been exposed to in her childhood into the Soviet pop music, and these songs were listened to and performed by others all over the former Soviet Union.
Ms Rotaru, to what extent did the fact that you were born in Bukovyna, known in Ukraine as “a singing land” and a border land between Ukraine and Moldova, influence your singing career?
To a very great extent. Bukovyna is a land where two cultures — Ukrainian and Moldavian — not just coexist; they merge and interpenetrate each other. Bukovyna is a fantastic place, the greatest place on earth! Take my word for it — there’s some magic there which permeates even the air. Everything that surrounds you — scenic nature, hospitable people, age-old traditions — everything inspires you, excites your creative urge. Three cultures — Moldavian, Ukrainian and Russian — have greatly influenced both my life and my songs. And out of the three, Moldavian is of a greater importance. In my family, we talked Moldavian, we sang Moldavian songs, we cooked Moldavian dishes. I learned Ukrainian and came to love it thanks to the songs of Volodymyr Ivasyuk and thanks to my husband’s family. The transition from Moldavian to Ukrainian was not an easy one and took some time but now when I go on tours to Kyiv or Chisinau (formerly Kishinev — tr.), or even to Moscow, they call me “our Rotaru.” It’s a great honour and privilege.
Would you care to take us for a short tour of your childhood?
My father was a team leader of grape gatherers. I was the second child in the family of six children. It was a grass-roots family, and I never concealed this fact. In fact, I’m proud of my humble origin. We faced the harsh realities of life at an early age — not like these days when in many families children are not exposed to the daily grind. Our parents spent most of the day, from morning till night, away from home and we had to learn to take care of ourselves. The elders helped their juniors. Some worked in the vegetable garden, others cooked and tidied up in the house. Milking was my responsibility. When I was just six years old, I knew how to cook, and I cooked for the whole family. And I did so many other chores. Very early in the morning I rushed to the nearest market to sell parsley and other herbs for garnish and for cooking, and with the money I got for the herbs, I would buy bread. In the evenings, when the whole family were back together, we would sing songs. It was my elder sister who taught us many songs. When she was four she had typhus and went blind because of it, and after that she spent a lot of time listening to the radio. She picked the songs right from the broadcasts, and also she learnt some Russian, which then she taught to the rest of us. But the language we used in the family was only Moldavian.
Was it then that you discovered your singing talent?
Probably, yes. I began taking part in all kinds of contests and festivals and even won prizes. My first prize was an accordion. It felt great to win it but I could not play it at home in the evening because in the country people go to bed early and get up early, at dawn. But I did find time when I could learn playing the instrument without disturbing anyone. Even before I graduated from school, I knew I wanted to go on studying music, and the music school in the town of Chernivtsi was an obvious choice. But my mother was reluctant to let me go — she said she needed me at home where there was always so much to do. And I decided to leave home without letting her know of my decision — and go it alone. It was my father who discovered my absence first. He caught up with me but instead of trying to persuade me to go back home, he gave me some money — not much but enough to last me some time. It was my dad who believed in me — he was convinced I was destined to become a singer.
Respectful attitude to parents was typical, wasn’t it?
Very much so. I’m very grateful to my parents for what they taught me — love of work, love of native land, compassion. They taught us to be humane. Respectful attitude to your elders in general and your parents in particular was — and I hope remains so — a distinctive feature of the domestic life in Western Ukraine. I remember my parents as kind, just and demanding. It was unthinkable for me not to do what my father told me to do. It does not mean we did not do things we were not supposed to do. I remember when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, I was not allowed to go to the dances in the evening, and since I wanted to go so much I had to wait until they would go to bed and fall sleep, and then I would quietly slip out of the house. I suspect they knew of my escapades but hoped I’d be a good girl and would not do anything untoward.
Your singing career began in the mid nineteen sixties. Did you have to adjust to the demands of the then Soviet totalitarian system, to make compromises?
I don’t think it’d be possible to become a popular singer without some compromises but frankly I did not feel the pressure of the system too much — except for one confrontation which made me leave Chernivtsi and move to another town. It was like this.
My parents were profoundly religious people, and we celebrated all the religious holidays and feasts. Christmas was a particularly festive time, with a Christmas tree installed and decorated. It smelled of the forest and of cakes in the house. There was a tradition of fortunetelling on Christmas and my sisters and I tried to find out what kind of husbands we would get. We sang Christmas carols and danced traditional dances. I knew that the religious feasts continued to be celebrated by my parents long after I had left home and become a popular singer.
At the end of 1975, my brother Anatoly retuned home from the army service and his arrival coincided with Christmas celebrations, and at that time the Soviet authorities adopted a tougher line in “doing away with the religious holdovers” as it was called. The police patrol heard them celebrating and burst into the house where my brother with his friends were having a good time. My father was a communist party member and though it was not he but his son and his friends who got busted by the police, he was in trouble. He was excluded from the communist party and my brother lost his young communist league membership. It was very bad news at that time. I tried to help — I was already a well-known, popular singer and I turned to the local party boss for help but to no avail. My father was very much upset, and he could not understand what he had done wrong to be punished by expulsion. He had been the first in our native village of Marshyntsi to join the communist party and the family had been proud of him, and now he felt completely at a loss. My position in Chernivtsi also became precarious and my friends advised me I should move to another town. When I went on a tour to the Crimea and was in Yalta, a resort town on the southern coast, the local variety show society offered me a job — and I took it. I moved to Yalta and settled down there. It took some time to get adjusted but then Yalta gradually began to feel like home. I met people, made friends.
Did you get invited to perform for the party bosses?
I did but I never accepted these invitations. I performed only on stage. Yes, there were shows at which party bosses were present and I was told what I had to sing, regardless of my plans, wishes or state of health. Nobody cared to ask whether it was all right with me or not — I was a popular singer and “masses and their leaders” wanted to see me and hear me sing. And that was it. I was even supposed to be proud that I was in such demand. With no right to say “no.”
Once, after a tour I was taken to hospital with pneumonia. But a “government show” (that is, a concert at which communist party bosses and members of government were to be present — tr.) was to be held in a couple of days, and they put me on the train and took me to Kyiv. The show was to be staged at the Ukrayina Concert Hall, the place where all kinds of official ceremonies and exclusive shows were held. I turned up at the rehearsal quite sick, running a high fever. The director must be given credit for immediately spotting my condition and telling me — and the authorities — that I was in no physical condition for performing and must be taken back to hospital. I was — but by the time I was readmitted my pneumonia had become a bad problem.
On another occasion, I developed a terrible soar throat shortly before a “government show.” I was taken to an exclusive clinic and the doctor there began doing something to get my throat into a singing condition. It helped but little, and I told the doctor that I still could not perform. But she looked so miserable. She told me, “Please, do what you can, in a half-voice, maybe? I was expressly ordered to cure your throat. If you don’t sing, I may lose my job…” What could I do but acquiesce?
These days things are totally different. I sing what I want to sing, not what I’m told to sing, I perform when I want it and where I want it. Freedom is a great thing! And I won’t exchange it for anything!
You knew Volodymyr Ivasyuk personally, didn’t you?
Oh yes! He played such a great role in my life. It was he who penned “Chervona Ruta,” the song that made me famous overnight. I’ve been performing this song ever since. I met him in person at the filming of Chervona Ruta. We were so young and happy and optimistic — Volodymyr, Nazary Yaremchuk, Vasyl Zinkevych, Anatoly Yevdokymenko — singers and musicians. We felt we’d be young forever, everything seemed to be beautiful and full of meaning… You couldn’t help liking Volodymyr Ivasyuk. He was a powerful personality, and he had an amazingly kind, attractive face. In spite of his mellow exterior, he was tough whenever it concerned work. He knew exactly what he wanted — in life and in his songs. He was the most important musical influence in my life, The Teacher. And he was great fun to be with…
And then came a terrible day when he just disappeared. He was a sort of a cult figure then, at the peak of his popularity. He was seen to leave the Lviv Conservatory, take a car — and no one saw him alive again. Several weeks later his body was found in a forest. The official report said that the post-mortem had revealed that he had hanged himself, but I do not believe it was a suicide. Just before he disappeared, I had seen him a lot, we were good friends, I knew he had a lot of new ideas. In fact, we were cutting his new album. I did not detect anything that could make him so upset or disoriented that he would take his own life… Most of the songs he was writing then were written for me. We had had an album released in Moscow — “Volodymyr Ivasyuk’s Songs Performed by Sofiya Rotaru”… His death has remained an unsolved mystery.
Recently, I had an album out, Yedynomu (“To You, My One and Only”) which was dedicated to my husband, Anatoly Yevdokymenko. Some of the songs are Ivasyuk’s, in my new interpretation. His songs are very much alive, I want the new generation of Ukrainians to know them, because the message they contain is universal, for all time.
Your success — how much of it was just good fortune, and how much hard work?
Probably in equal measure. Yes, there are things that happened in my life which were just strokes of luck, and in general I think I can say Providence was kind to me. But there was also a lot of hard work. For so many people who see me only on stage or on television it must seem like a fairy tale — here’s a woman who is so popular, she’s had everything — adulation, success, flowers, fans! What else one would want from life? But there were failures, bitter disappointments in my life and hard times too. You can hardly do without them in a career that spans several decades, or in personal life. But failures and disappointments have always made try ever harder — I wanted to prove to myself that I could overcome anything. And I did. Both in work and in personal life.
I’ve never relied on just good luck, I’ve always worked hard. I think you could call me an achiever — I worked so hard to achieve good results — and it paid. I’ve got a piece of advice for those who think they are failures — try ever harder, do not expect things to be handed to you on a silver platter.
Are there any books that have made a lasting impression upon you?
Yes, there is one book that’s been with me for many years — it’s One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I keep rereading it once in a while, and every time I find something new in it — new revelations, new pleasure.
Do you regard yourself as a strong personality?
It’s for others to say. But I know that I’ve got something that gives me strength and helps me overcome all the obstacles, achieve success. And this something is love — love of work, love of nature, love of people. But there’s also the other side in love — when you love someone you forgive a lot, and do not see the faults, weaknesses or imperfections in those you love…
Love for me is the most important and most wonderful thing in the world — love of your native place, love for a person, for the children, family friends — there’s nothing greater than that. Love is the most elevated state of soul and heart. I think that love is the greatest gift given to us. As you grow older, your love and your attitudes are modified — you look at things more realistically, you feel more compassionate, you add respect to love. But it does not mean that love withers — no, not at all! It just changes — the colours of love, as it were, change. But true love always stays with us, it’s beyond age, and it’s always a wonderful feeling.
Is there anything in the present-day Ukraine that makes you feel worried and concerned?
Yes, there is, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this — it’s the children. It grieves me and pains me so much to see the homeless children in the streets, to know there are so many abandoned children. My heart goes out to them, and when I think what the future has in store for them, I’m horrified. And I can’t help wondering whether the state does enough to give them help, to succour the needy, helpless and vulnerable.
And, of course, I want the people who are close to me, my relatives, to always be healthy and live long and be happy. As a citizen of Ukraine, I want my country to live in peace, I want every able-bodied person to have work and earn enough for a decent living, and I wish there were fewer of those who are destitute, who are hungry and who are sick. They are perfectly normal wishes and concerns, aren’t they?
What kind of future you see for Ukraine? Say, in ten years — will it be a member of the European Union? NATO? In a union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan?
Frankly, I’m not that keen on politics but I wish Ukraine were more closely integrated into Europe. I find the European values in culture, everyday life, traditions and human relations closer to my heart. I want Ukraine to be a part of Europe not only in the geographical sense — it is in Europe anyway — but in the sense of being on a par with other developed European states as far as the political, social and cultural levels are concerned. Ukrainians should be proud of their country, they must not feel themselves like younger siblings in a big family. The changes that Ukraine is going through are of the kind that will hopefully make it a better country. If the government and the people continue to make concerted efforts, Ukraine will have a great future — we do have a great intellectual and cultural potential.
Sofiya Rotaru was interviewed by Tetyana Kryvenko.
Photos are from Sofiya Rotaru’s archives.[Prev][Contents][Next]