Being a Musician in Ukraine: ‘Hearing Bombs Explode Changes Your Relationship With Sound’
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Daria Kolomiec, along with 40 other people, was hiding in the basement of a café, which remains a makeshift bomb shelter to this day. The initial terror has left, not because the war is over, but simply because human beings get used to things — even the worst things — very quickly. When Kolomiec noticed that international media attention began to fade a few months into the war, she thought about how to raise awareness herself. “Civilians are still being killed, raped, tortured, every day, so I made the decision that I needed to use my voice a bit louder,” she told Pollstar.
So, in June 2022, Kolomiec packed her bags, including all of her vinyl, and left for an impromptu visit to New York, a city she views as the cultural hub of the world. “I was trying to find the places where to showcase music on the one hand, and my Diary of War podcast.” Her podcast is a collection of 41 unique stories and monologues of Ukrainians talking about how their lives unraveled since Russia launched its war. The music she DJs is designed “to engage people who never been to Ukraine, who have never heard Ukrainian music, just to show the beauty of our country and culture and sound. For me, it’s very powerful because I can’t carry a gun. I can’t serve in the armed forces of Ukraine. Many of my friends are, but I just can’t. These are my weapons right now,” she explained.
Live concerts have taken on a new meaning in Ukraine, according to Vlad Yaremchuk, booker for the country’s biggest festival, Atlas Weekend, who said, “We need to seek normality where and when it’s possible as it’s been almost a year now. We have to find ways to keep sane amidst this insanity. A lot of people don’t have a privilege like that — they might live in cities that get shelled daily, they might have lost homes, their incomes and their dear ones. Shows, concerts and stand-ups right now are so much more than just entertainment — it is a chance for people to unite, grieve, vent, support and cheer each other up. None of these events are about escapism or decadence. Culture is important more than ever as Russia seeks to destroy, and history is being written in real-time.”
During the first couple of months of the invasion, there was no concert activity in the country for security reasons. Over the course of last summer, people were trying to build a “new normal,” as Alona Dmukhovska of Music Export Ukraine told Pollstar. This included “test events in subway stations, because they are safe, deep in the underground, and have great acoustics. You probably have heard that U2’s Bono and Edge were playing a surprise gig there, numerous Ukrainian artists played solo concerts, and even the last season of the local TV show ‘The Voice’ was filmed in a Kyiv underground station,” she said.
An 11 p.m. curfew is still in place, and all events have migrated to the day and evening. Dmukhovska said, “Local promoters and music enthusiasts started organizing small-scale gigs. Small, because when you have an event for 200 people, you have to have a bomb shelter right next to it for those attendees, so that when the alarm sirens start, you can quickly evacuate all of them. The world-famous Kyiv techno club Closer even holds music festivals, starting early in the morning and finishing in the evening. Rave parties also work in daylight, and now you finally have an excuse to wear those fancy sunglasses while dancing,” Dmukhovska said.
The complete absence of international touring activity has freed up a lot of space for local talent, said Yaremchuk, “up-and-coming artists go on tour and manage to sell out every venue, which was basically impossible before. Some are touring the safe regions, some choose to go to the frontline and play for our beloved defenders, to give them at least an hour of relief. Some are gathering volunteers in frontline territories around their shows and it becomes more than just a show. All are raising money in every way imaginable for the army or humanitarian help. It’s amazing to behold how a whole new Ukrainian scene is forming before your eyes during the worst of times — people are united more than ever, they are ready to embrace those artists who are in tune with them. Some of the shows I managed to see were some of my favorite ever, not because of music, but because everyone there was cherishing every second of it.”
Almost a year has passed, since Kolomiec sat in a makeshift bomb shelter, not knowing what the next days, hours, minutes, would bring. “I remember, on the third day, one guy started playing the guitar, and we started to sing Ukrainian songs,” she said. “It was one of the most uniting moments during the war, personally to me. And this is where I understood that, ‘Oh my God, music helps us so much.’ Hearing bombs explode changes your relationship with sound.”
There was a period during which she couldn’t even listen to music because her ears had turned too sensitive in a reaction designed to protect the listener from approaching danger. When her body and mind slowly adjusted, it was Ukrainian songs that helped her work through it all. The country’s history with Russia is steeped in bad blood. Ukrainians have been singing about this painful struggle for decades. Her NY setlist included music by Volodymyr Ivasyuk, who was allegedly murdered by the KGB. Said Kolomiec, “Only Ukrainian songs can reflect and spread what we really feel right now.”