Zozulka in Concert
March 7, 2014 (Toronto)-The digital age has made it harder and harder for people to be immediately drawn and subsequently impressed by music. This however, was not the case on Friday, March 7th during the Zozulka concert, when three remarkable women came together at the University of Toronto to represent the lyrical ethnic songs of the Ukrainian Poltava and Polissia regions. The diverse crowd vibrantly experienced the musical passion these women brought to the North American world from the deep rural steppes and woodland villages of Ukraine.
The Zozulka trio: Eva Salina-Primack, Willa Roberts, and the Petro Jacyk Post-Doctoral Fellow Maria Sonevytsky brought forward the folklore traditions collected by an ethnomusicologist professor Yevhen Yefremov during the late 1970s, when Soviet censorship was still very much alive. These songs were sung by old ‘babushky’ in rural villages and were passed down orally from one generation to the next. Dr. Maria Sonevytsky who in the past year has taught courses at the University of Toronto’s Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine explained that a number of these songs were prohibited due to Soviet folklore censorship since they resisted political interference.
The experienced, skilled and vibrant voices of Zozulka presented the audience a year in songs. The seasonal songs were usually sung by old women while sitting outside in groups lamenting about their daily experiences. The performance began with spring. The short introduction and the first song entitled “Oh please God, Let Spring Begin” served somewhat of a plea and a light joke much appreciated by the Canadian audience. The subsequent pieces illustrated both Christian and pagan expressions, referring to Slavic mythology and the god of spring, “Lel’.” The summer songs presented the experiences of hard work in the fields and unfolded the sorrowful stories of women and marriage. Throughout the performance there was a clear thread of Slavic mythology and the image of rusalky – the ghosts of young maidens, water nymphs that dwelled in rivers. Dr. Maria Sonevytsky reiterated to the engaged crowd that even if a village was relocated due to the 1986 Chornobyl disaster, most of the songs travelled with the relocated population to the new villages.
Wedding songs and laments of the young brides were the staples of autumn. As these songs were mostly sung by women, they presented a women’s perspective and portrayed marriage as a tragic transfer from mother to mother-in-law. The truly rich ritual season of winter was the only time of the year men would participate in singing. The ‘kolyada’, as Dr. Sonevytsky explained was led by a fiddler and represented the dead descending back to Earth.
Following a brief intermission, Zozulka rejoiced the crowd with some lyrical songs. The trio explained that there were various themes present in the music. Young love, tragedy and betrayal were only a selection. The main imagery in a number of the presented pieces was usually associated with crying birds expressing sorrow as well as trees bending in the wind signifying a tragic end.
In the second half of the concert, the trio divided into three soloists, each choosing a song they felt represented themselves the most. Dr. Maria Sonevytsky who has lived in Crimea and conducted ethnographic fieldwork on Crimean Tatars sang an emotional Crimean Tatar lullaby. The simplicity and gentle beauty of the melody filled the Heart House Music Room with a certain emotion that can only be conjured with the current political turmoil in Ukraine. Willa Roberts moved across the Black Sea by selecting a Turkish folk song about a heroic man leaving his sweetheart. The soloist explained that the song’s hero is killed in battle, but leaves his beloved with a warning to trust no one in this cruel world. The conclusion to the tender low-key solos without any instrumentation was sung by Eva Salina-Primack. Her Bulgarian selection focused on natural imagery and the notion of free movement in between worlds.
By contrast to the distinctive a-capella singing, the evening closed off with a captivating sound of the accordion. The last piece featured the cuckoo bird that the trio’s band is named after – “Zozulka”. The lyrics were projected on the screen and all the guests in attendance joined in the singing. While performing their last piece and playing the accordion, the Zozulka trio slowly walked through the concert hall toward the back exit. Completely captivated by the sound, the singing crowd followed the three talented women and transformed from a listening audience into a large ethnic musical group.
Left to right: Dr. Maria Sonevytsky, Eva Salina-Primack, Willa Roberts