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Bozhychi, a folk music group and their friends
Bozhychi is the name of a folk music group. Their members believe they are united by more than their enthusiasm for music — they share similar views on life, and ideas about human existence and relations. Bozhychi also love to travel. Viktor Tsion took a trip with them.
Bozhychi, a folklore ensemble, was founded by students, Ukrainian folk song enthusiasts, on January 7, 1999.
Its present nine members are mostly graduates of the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy, and of the Kyiv National University of Culture and Art.
Bozhychi perform authentic Ukrainian vocal and instrumental music, folk dances from various parts of Ukraine, and from Livoberezhzhya, or left-bank Ukraine, in particular.
Bozhychi have performed at various venues and on various occasions in Ukraine, Russia, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia.
Bozhychi initiated the establishment of the All-Ukrainian Association of Young Researchers of Folklore to promote authentic folk music.
Every Friday at 6 p.m. all who care are welcome to attend classes, free of charge, at the School of Traditional Folk Dances at the Ukrainian Centre of Folk Culture Musey Ivana Honchara (29 Mazepa Street, Kyiv).
How they became Bozhychi remains unclear. Some say the name was taken from Bozhych, the pagan god of youth and kolyada (ancient Ukrainian pagan songs modified into Christmas carols with Christianity). Others say the name was taken from the Ukrainian word bozhychi, which means “God’s people,” or “God’s children.”
Bozhychi travel across Ukraine collecting Ukrainian folk songs and dances and then perform them, remaining faithful to tradition. Bozhychi also enjoy canoeing. I joined them on one of their river trips.
We were canoeing the Siversky Donets River in Donetsk Region. After we passed the Siversky Monastery, we began looking for a place to pitch camp. For a considerable stretch we couldn’t find a suitable place. The banks were either overgrown with reeds, or signs warning, “No Trespassing! Private Property!” accented sandy beaches that would have otherwise made for good camping.
When we finally saw a good spot with no signs, we rowed to it and pitched camp within half an hour. The only nuisance was the many mosquitoes and midges swarming about. It was my turn to do the cooking.
My companion was a student, Oleksandra Platek, a philology major from Wroclaw University in Poland, Anna Zhvanska and Olga Romanko, Polish students from Gdansk University, helped us. As we worked, these girls began to sing a Ukrainian song, their pretty voices revealing Polish accents, which adorned the song with a unique and unexpected ring. The song was about a girl who wanted to put a spell on a Cossack she desired with a love potion.
“I dug out roots,
From under a stone,
I washed them in the river,
And dipped them in honey…”
It was Bozhychi members Illya Fetisov, a great enthusiast of old, authentic Ukrainian folk songs, and his wife Susanna Karpenko who taught these girls the song at master classes they conducted in Poland. Later, they invited the girls on a trip across Ukraine.
Fishing for songs
Fetisov, 30, was born into a peasant family of Kuban Cossack descent in Russia and was educated at the music conservatory in Kyiv. It was during his first year of studies there that he joined an ethnographic expedition and he has been going on such expeditions ever since.
Ten years ago he founded a folk ensemble, Bozhychi, which has arguably become one of the best folk music groups of its kind. Canoeing trips are only a part of Fetisov’s expeditions. He invites intellectuals, artists, scholars and writers — all of them enthusiasts of Ukrainian traditional folk music — to join him on his trips. Foreigners join too.
On this particular trip, in addition to the Polish girls, we had a young computer specialist from the Russian city of Yaroslavl, Grigoriy Kudryavtsev. As it turned out, his interest in Bozhychi developed beyond the group’s music and centered on a beautiful girl — a Bozhychi member.
Every 10 days new people would join us, with about 50 people ultimately becoming a part of the expedition, which lasted 40 days. Among them were students from Kharkiv Polytechnic and Donetsk National University, and members from the music group Buttya, the band Dakhabrakha, and the ensemble Dyvyna from Donetsk.
About six or seven years ago, Fetisov invited Oleh Skrypka, one of Ukraine’s best known rock singers and musicians, to join a Bozhychi expedition. Since then, Skrypka has been inviting Bozhychi to join his own music projects.
At the latest international ethnic music festival, Krayina mriy, organized by Skrypka, Bozhychi made a prominent appearance. Particularly active were Bozhychi members Susanna Karpenko, Mariya Firsova, Iryna Korin and Olga Karapata, who joined Skrypka on stage when he performed his numbers. They also joined the group Choboty z buhaya, who performed a kind of ethno-disco music.
Valery Hladunets, another Bozhychi member, performed with his own rock group Karpatyany. Fetisov played the accordion, introducing the audience to old Ukrainian dances. Bozhychi member Mariya Firsova joined the group Sontseklyosh to perform music that can be described as ethno-cabaret. And Bozhychi themselves delivered a strong performance of songs and dances from their own repertoire.
In human relations, it is often observed that “likeminded people tend to stick together.”
The University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy (UKMA) promotes the arts, and Bozhychi are granted the use of UKMA Art Center premises for their performances.
Recently, theater director Andriy Prykhodko staged a play, Az, by an unknown author, which had been performed in the 18th century by students of UKMA (at the time called Kyivo-Mohylyanska Akademiya). Bozhychi took part in the play’s new staging alongside the UKMA Ensemble of Ancient Music. Bozhychi were invited because they collect and perform old psalms and other folk renderings of religious music and texts.
At the UKMA Art Center, Bozhychi also appear in the play Kolo zhyttya (Circle of Life) staged by theater director Vladislav Troyitsky, who also heads the Modern Performing Arts Center Dakh and is known for his theatrical experimentation. The play has been awarded several prizes (Start; Kyivska pectoral, and Kyivsky rakhunok) and was shown at a theater festival in Vienna, Austria.
The play traces the life of an ordinary man from a Ukrainian village, from his birth to death, with scenes accompanied by folk songs appropriate to the occasion. The play’s focal point is a table laden with real traditional Ukrainian foods, including cherry brandy. The same kind of cherry brandy was offered at the presentation of Bozhychi’s last album, Vik lyubysh — ne nalyubyshsya (Love for an Age and It Won’t Be Enough).
Bozhychi also often perform at the Ukrainian Centre of Folk Culture Ivan Honchar Museum. The museum runs a free School of Folk Dance and Bozhychi play a prominent role here too.
“We have a lot of young people coming to us to learn more about Ukrainian folk traditions, folk dances being part of these traditions,” Illya Fetisov says.
“In contrast to many other folk dance groups, where a lot of attention is given to perfecting dance skills, the directing and impressive staging even of such traditional dances as Hrechanyky, Hopak or Orlytsya, we place great emphasis on emotions, on the mystery of relations between man and woman, as these emotions and relations are symbolically interpreted in folk dances. Many folk dances have metaphoric meanings; they show the beginning of a relationship but don’t show the end of it. Incidentally, in the past year alone, 10 of those who attended our dance courses paired up, and three of these pairs have married.”
Yury Borysenko, an artist who works in animated cartoons, danced his way to marriage with Iryna Korin, a singer. Instead of going to a resort for their honeymoon, they joined a Bozhychi canoe trip. A year later, Yury created an animated cartoon music video for the song “Da prosyv mene Herasym” (“Herasym Asked Me”), performed by Bozhychi. It was the first such music video ever created in Ukraine.
In the first half of the 20th century, a new phenomenon of “academic” folk singing and dancing sprang up in the Soviet Union, and in Ukraine in particular, which was meant to turn “unsophisticated” folk traditions into “true art.”
Folk songs and dances were staged as grand spectacles by such groups as Hryhoriy Veryovka’s choir, Hnat Khotkevych’s bandura players and Pavlo Virsky’s dance ensemble. One of the problems was, however, that in traditional folk singing and dancing there had never been a division between audience and performers. As a result, what the “academic” approach gained in organization, it lost in life, with academic singing and dancing becoming comparable to wax figures or dolls in colorful garments going through the motions of dancing and singing, but losing the true folk spirit of these traditions.
Fetisov and his Bozhychi have sought to reintroduce the authentic traditions of folk singing and dancing, that is, of the art that is created at the moment when songs and dances are performed. Thanks to a new understanding of such art, promoted by Fetisov and Bozhychi, we can experience the freedom of creation and feelings, appreciate the value of authenticity, and rejoice in the act of taking part.
“We collect old songs, rituals, dances, asking people of the older generations to share them with us,” says Fetisov.
“Once in a while we come across authentic treasures, such as the shchedrivka (a traditional Ukrainian song performed at New Year’s celebrations) Bereza (Birch Tree). This shchedrivka, which was discovered in Chernihiv Region, is an excellent example of so-called “imitation polyphony” more typical of old Lithuanian melos than Ukrainian folk songs. Other great treasures that we discovered and added to our collection were the song Oy balka, balka (Ravine, Ravine) from the Poltava region and the Natalivsky hopak (Natalia’s Hopak) dance from the region of Katerynoslav.”
“We are not just after faithful reproduction. We want to present the treasures of folk music in their living, authentic form,” Fetisov added.
“We are not taking ‘photographs’ for an album; we are picking up traditions and implementing them. Our aim is to maintain the traditions. Unfortunately, on Livoberezhzhya (left-bank Ukraine, east of the Dnipro River) we have found that folk music traditions are dying out right before our eyes. Continuity has been broken. Those who have maintained the traditions will soon be gone, and there’s no one left to keep them going. In so many villages we’ve been to there was nothing that we could record and save.”
Fetisov’s radiant smile, however, gives the lie to these pessimistic observations. His infectious enthusiasm has proven potent enough to make people change their paths and ways, including their careers.
A Czech, Woitech Gyonik, joined Fetisov’s expedition last year. Afterward, he dropped out of university where he was studying theology and moved to Kharkiv. Oleksandra Platek, the Polish philology major, fell in love with “Ukrainianness” and now plans to leave Wroclaw to live in Kyiv. Grigoriy Kudryavtsev, the young Russian computer specialist, moved from his native Yaroslavl to Kyiv, declared his love for Bozhychi singer Mariya Firsova, and proposed marriage. She did not turn him down but neither did she accept his proposal right away. After a probation period, she agreed to become his wife. Congratulations!
That’s what being “authentic” is all about. Join us!
Photos provided by Bozhychi
A Bozhychi expedition: The means — a canoe,
the end — a song.
Bozhychi in Krayina Mriy (Country of Dreams),
an international folk festival organized by
Everything is authentic — from the food to