Dancing in the war: Ukrainian music scene thrives

Despite rocket fire and power outages, the music scene in Kyiv is active. Ukrainian bands are playing across Europe, too, to raise funds for Ukraine.

Ganna Nikitina holding a mic, surrounded by masked performers
Ganna Nikitina holding a mic, surrounded by masked performers


Ganna Nikitina wears her trademark red full-body suit, her face is covered. It's the singer's first show on a Belgian stage with Ukrainian electro punk band Ragapop. Under other circumstances, the band probably would not have been invited to play in Brussels, but these are unusual times — a war rages in Nikitina's native Ukraine, and Europe is showing solidarity with the country invaded by Russia.

Vlad Yaremchuk organized the contact with the Belgian music club; before February 24, 2022, he organized the largest music festival in Ukraine. Now he organizes concerts abroad. The proceeds go to the "Music saves Ukraine" initiative.

The lineup at the Brussels' Ancienne Belgique concert hall would never have come together without Yaremchuk's expertise, says managing director Tom Bonte. "In Belgium, how are we supposed to know what's currently going on in the music scene in Kyiv?"

'People know how to help themselves'

The scene is active abroad as well as in Ukraine, says Yaremchuk, who adds that people have adapted to the new reality. "Managing a humanitarian crisis is not so different from taking care of a festival," he argues.

People from the music sector have turned into volunteers; every concert is a fundraiser. Every now and then, the lights go out in the concert halls because of Russian bombs that damage the country's critical infrastructure — but people know how to help themselves, Yaremchuk says. "If the power goes out, it takes two minutes for a generator to be plugged in, and the concert goes on." In case of an air raid warning, it's off to the air raid shelter, then back to the dance floor.

From the stage to the front

At the beginning of the war, music was not much of an issue, recalls Ragapop guitarist Anton Ocheretyanyy. Even more than a year after the start of the Russian invasion and his escape abroad, he still lacks artistic inspiration at times, he says. "But you also know that some of your friends are in a much worse situation right now and still make it," says Ocheretyanyy, who regularly returns to Ukraine to perform.

Ragapop are very popular in Ukraine. Before Russia's attack, they filled concert halls in Mariupol and Kherson.

For the Brussels concert, they make do without their sound engineer. Vlolodymyr Demchencko returned to the front after the band's performance at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Ukrainians 'stopped writing music in Russian'

Unmistakably a punk band and pro-European, Ragapop have been reflecting on traditional Ukrainian values more than before since the attack on Ukraine. They are not the only ones. "Ukrainians stopped writing music in Russian, which was a pretty big thing before the war," says Yaremchuk. That created space and niches for all sorts of styles, he says.

"We stopped collaborating with Russia and started looking more inside ourselves," says Ragapop singer Ruslana Khazipova about the more prominent place Ukrainian culture and language have been claiming in music. "Our music has something special that will touch not only Ukrainians, but the whole world."

Ruslana Khazipova is back in Ukraine with bandmate Ganna Nikitina for a few weeks of concerts. In Ukraine, they agree, people have moved far away from the Russian way of thinking and living — which annoys the regime in Moscow, they say. "But we have the right to a good life. And we want to show that with our music," the singer says.

This article was originally written in German.

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