Like a wedding where everyone doubts the couple are meant to be together, the audience at the Ukrainian Community Center in northeast Minneapolis looked hesitant.

Folks watched and smiled politely as the Ukrainian Village Band breezed through a half-hour of traditional songs meant to get people up and dancing. Few complied, however.

Then came "Oy U Luzi Chervona Kaylna." A hundred-year-old song about a unit of Ukrainian riflemen during World War I, it quickly got folks clapping along to its marching beat. Soon, one tableful of people rose to their feet, then another.

By the end, everyone who knew the lyrics was standing and singing along.

Holding his 1-year-old daughter while his wife, Katja, joined the large dance circle that followed, Kostya Korchak, 28, said the Ukrainian Village Band "is doing very important work.

"It's important to hear songs in our own language right now, to promote our people and our culture through music," said Korchak, who emigrated from Ukraine eight years ago.

Like those tentative patrons at last weekend's Aid for Ukraine fundraiser, the band hesitated at first when Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The group did not perform for about a month. For one thing, UVB is a "zabava" (party/celebration) band, and the members thought it inappropriate to carry on as such.

"People were dying. Family and friends of mine were living in danger," said accordionist/co-vocalist Oleksij Khrystych, who emigrated from Ukraine as a student in 2001. "It didn't seem like a time I should be picking up my instrument and playing fun polka music."

Its members had much bigger concerns to deal with — especially those with family members caught up in the war. "My parents have been told to take shelter about three times a day," said Khrystych, who is from Bila Tserkva, a city south of Kyiv known for a Jewish massacre by Nazis in World War II.

Singer Viktoriya Kantor struggled to keep in touch with her brother, who has been working in front-line aid efforts around her hometown of Sumy, not far from the Russian border.

"We've been trying to do everything we can to help them out, financially or in other ways," she said. "It was very challenging to know what to do. And just the emotions of it all have been overwhelming."

Things changed a month ago when the band was invited to perform at a senior living complex in a wealthy part of Minneapolis. Initially viewed as a low-key but well-paying gig that could raise money for Ukrainian relief, it taught the band members they could serve a more important role than purveyors of "fun polka music."

"We realized we need to be ambassadors," said bassist John (Ivas) Bryn, who recalled members crying after that performance.

"There were just so many inexplicable feelings about us finally being together playing music. It felt like we were coming out of the heavy fog of war and saw a way forward."

Since then, the UVB has hit the ground running.

Last weekend's benefit at the Ukrainian Center was the first in a series of spring fundraisers the band is leading to raise money and spirits.

On Wednesday, the all-acoustic sextet returns to its usual stomping grounds — a quite literal term in this case — the Schooner Tavern in south Minneapolis, where the group performed every other month or so before the COVID pandemic.

Other upcoming events include a May 6 Musicians for Ukraine benefit concert at the Dakota with Orkestar Bez Ime and SlovCzech; a Band-Aid for Ukraine festival May 8 at the Minnesota Music Café with UVB's rock 'n' roll pals Curtiss A, the Hypstrz, Jiggs Lee and Trailer Trash; a June 2 concert with klezmer music star Jake Shulman-Ment at the Cedar Cultural Center, plus summer gigs at breweries and assorted festivals to be announced.

In most cases, the band members are donating their performance fees. They hope attendees will similarly take money out of their pockets to help Ukrainian relief efforts — typically funneled through the Stand With Ukraine fund set up by the Ukrainian Center (, or through St. Katherine Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Arden Hills.

Look for them on the free stages at the Minnesota State Fair, too — a prime example of how UVB's members hope to also teach Ukrainian culture and emphasize the country's independent identity to Minnesotans.

'Our own stress and grief'

"To me, there is no hyphen between Ukrainian and American," said drummer Stefan Iwaskewycz. Like Bryn, he's a first-generation immigrant and has long studied and taught dance and anthropology from the region.

"It's my way of understanding the unique way I was brought up," he said. "I've always wanted other people to understand and appreciate that culture. Especially now."

Iwaskewycz founded the Ukrainian Village Band in 2007, starting with performances at the International Festival of Burnsville. Since then, the group has put out two CDs and become a go-to for weddings and other parties within the community. It also puts on an Ivana Kupala (summer solstice) celebration every June.

Normally, they have a lot of fun, offstage as well as on. At a recent band meeting, members comfortably joked with each other as they smoothly downed a Ukrainian brandy that challenged this experienced reporter.

They clearly enjoyed themselves at last weekend's concert, too. But even while having a good time, UVB's members say they could never lose sight of what's most important right now.

"My grandma reminded us until the day she died of the evils of war," said guitarist Lev Frayman, who also performs around town with his Ukrainian wife as the folk duo Lev & Olga.

Lev is actually from Moscow. His Jewish grandparents wound up there after fleeing Ukraine during the Nazi invasion.

"It's heartbreaking to see another generation of our people facing that kind of evil," he said.

Bryn's parents fled Ukraine at the onset of the Cold War, shortly before he was born. They went on to be prominent musicians and organizers in northeast Minneapolis' Ukrainian community. Today, around 17,000 people of Ukrainian descent are scattered across Minnesota.

"Most of us are here because Ukrainians have been facing these same types of brutal, Leninist regimes for 100 years," Bryn lamented. "We owe it to our people to try to finally put an end to it."

And if they have a little fun while doing so, they realize now that's OK.

"We are all going through our own stress and grief, too," Khrystych said. "I think it's OK for us to blow off a little steam as we try to do some good."

Ukrainian Village Band
Wednesday: 7:30 p.m. at Schooner Tavern, 2901 27th Av. S., Mpls., free with donation.
May 6: 7 p.m. at the Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., with Orkestar Bez Ime and SlovCzech, $20-$35,
May 8: Band-Aid for Ukraine, 4 p.m. at Minnesota Music Cafe, 499 Payne Av., St. Paul, with Curtiss A, Jiggs Lee and more, free with donation.
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