The band DakhaBrakha, which plays Minneapolis this week, embraces its “magic code” of ethnic music at a sobering time.
The music of the Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha is usually festive and freewheeling, with a sense that anything can happen. Three women dressed in matching costumes and outrageously tall hats are arrayed onstage beside group leader Marko Halanevych.
The song might be a jaunty joust between Halanevych’s accordion and the cello of Nina Garenetska. Or all four members could be pounding percussion and singing in a style akin to Japanese taiko. There might be some falsetto voice over chanted polyphonic choruses, with electric piano or tabla or didgeridoo.
“Ethno-chaos” is what the band, which comes to Minneapolis this week, calls this folk-punk amalgam.
But 2014 has brought ethno-chaos of a different, more sobering variety into the group members’ daily lives. The Russian annexation of Crimea, which was part of Ukraine, and the ongoing military tensions since then have hit home.
“The war with Russia changed everybody in Ukraine and us also,” Halanevych said via e-mail. “We feel a big honor and responsibility to be representatives of Ukraine in the world.”
After getting rave reviews at GlobalFest in New York last winter and then playing at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee in June, the group has returned to the States for an abbreviated tour that includes a two-night engagement Tuesday and Wednesday at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis.
“A lot of times as we perform around the world now we raise the Ukrainian flag as a sign of solidarity,” Halanevych said by phone a few days after our e-mail exchange. “It is important to us and to Ukraine.”
Formed a decade ago as a way to meld traditional music with avant-garde performances at the Dakh Theater in Kiev, DakhaBrakha has always maintained an impish but bold flair for drama. Over time, 1,000-year-old Ukrainian wedding songs meshed with African, Asian, Arabic and Indian percussion, strings and vocal harmonies.
The group is planning to record a musical travelogue of Ukraine this winter, highlighting the various regional styles — but that, too, is impeded by the conflict with Russia.
Normally, “we are free in music like children with their toys,” Halanevych said. “Sometimes we just think our proper role is to tune in to a proper wave at a proper moment.”
The trouble now, however, is that “coming up with new material requires paying attention to new thoughts and feelings, and that is hard because we are so caught up in what is going on.”
Watching taped performances of DakhaBrakha, you can see and hear the melding of ethnic pride and carefree creation in the band’s work. The costumes and even the ornamentation on the cello stem from Eastern European art. The three women are all professional singers steeped in a traditional style that extends from dirge-like harmony to sprightly singsong.
Yet Halanevych said that the group members are all self-taught on their instruments and that joy of self-discovery is inextricably bound up in their unique global mesh of rhythm and texture. He said they take pride in “this magic code of our folk and roots that we share with the world.”
And for an encore, unfurling the flag of Ukraine has become the “proper wave at a proper moment.”