How Detroit House Music Found its Ukrainian Home

Vakula is an artist who major underground music magazines and websites call ‘the man of the modern house scene’. He is a founder of two labels, Leleca and Bandura, as well as the producer of numerous tracks and EPs whose titles and covers are rich with ethnic symbolism of his motherland. His tracks are woven out of the complex syntax of house and Detroit techno. His music is played in the world’s best clubs.

Vakula comes from the little city of Konotop, in northern Ukraine. Detroit was the city where Jim Jarmusch’s last vampire movie was set, as if it were the one place on Earth where people could not be any more forgotten and left alone. If Jim Jarmusch knew about Konotop, he would probably make his vampire sequel there. If only he knew! Vakula was a passionate supporter of the revolution that recently took place in Ukraine. In the hard times his country is going through, the artist talks to Sensa Nostra about national identity and aesthetic education.

I have always called myself a Ukrainian artist, no matter how strongly I disagree with the general attitude towards art and music in my country. My studio is based in Ukraine as well, and I find it right to live in the land that you belong to. A lot of people move around searching for luck in big cities. These cities seem to be kind of torn apart after everyone tries to get a piece for themselves. I find it more precious to make an effort in your own land, even if your town can sometimes be too small for this. I’ve created for myself a world in which I can work and not depend on the outside conditions.

Despite this, I realize that if I ever need to go outside and search for work in my city, there won’t be any chance for me, because people of my profession are not relevant. This is funny ,though, because there was this time when Jeremy from My Love is Underground told me that he never knew anything about Ukraine, especially Konotop, before he came to know me, and thus the city administration should erect a memorial in my honour. Well, we’ll see about that.

I know for sure that my music is not well known in Ukraine and I have never really bothered to find out why. Music and aesthetic values there differ a lot from what I make. And although there are some obvious reasons for this, such as years of cultural isolation and the Iron Curtain, I still strongly believe that there is no excuse for bad taste and ignorance.

My aesthetic education did not start from the record store. These were the wild 90s, when Western treasures became more available and my friend’s uncle had some kind of business in Germany and was bringing records back to Ukraine with him. What was probably considered to be super pop in the West became an extreme underground for us. We spent hours listening to Orbital and Warp and re-recording tapes from each other. You always find what you are looking for, no matter how many hurdles are there. I went through all the possible genres before I found what really speaks to me. I believe this is the only way it was meant to happen.

In the 70s when underground dance music first started breaking through in the USA, it was not warmly welcome straight away. People were leaving dance floors on hearing the weird synthetic arrangements of Ron Hardy and Larry Levan. Djs were suffering a lot of rejection, both in America and Europe, but their music was never treated as an act of conspiracy. It was the music of resistance, and assisted by freedom of choice as well as access to information it broke through and eventually traveled overseas. And obviously even today it is not the music of the masses. 70 and 80s were times in the Soviet Union when anything different was still treated as treason, and only children of diplomats had access to denim jackets and Rolling Stones records. Chicago house music must have been out of question.

Nevertheless, a lot has changed since then and self-education as well as taste preferences are just a matter of personal choice. The way people sometimes chose to entertain themselves is shocking to me. The party at which you choose to dance does not start in the club, it is just another reflection of your inner world. Music, food, clothes, and relationships should be the matter of personal choice. This is also what people protesting at the Maidan in Kiev wanted: not to go back to the times when gathering at someone’s apartment and listening to something different than the New Years TV concert would be suspicious and thus forbidden. Young people, artists, musicians, writers, and common citizens wanted to be heard and to make it clear that it was their personal choice to make that difference happen.

I first started making my own music and djing in Moscow. I have lived for eleven years there; it is my second home. What I realized over these years is that success is not just a matter of good luck—it is the result of hard work as well as belief in and passion for what you do. I had to go a long way before playing in the best clubs. The first time I ever played in Europe was in 2008, when guys from the Belgian label Meakusma invited me to dj at their party. When I first came to Moscow there were a lot of things to mix before I got to mix records. Besides, Soundcloud is also not always the first site to begin with. Mixing cement on the building sites might be quite a possible start too. It is important to remember, though, what was there at the beginning and to appreciate every further step you take.

Unfortunately, at the moment I don’t play in Russia anymore. I canceled some of my gigs because, although they say that politics should not interfere with art, it is impossible for me to hear and read about how some people in Russia define the situation we are in. I have a lot of people writing to me about how they like my music but don’t share my view on the Ukrainian rebellion. Some of them also tell me that I provoke an international conflict. Well, what can be more provoking than armed soldiers who take away your land and kill people? I am definitely not going to be silent about that, and if some people choose to keep calm and party, then they should probably stop talking about being different from the mainstream and not following the crowd.

Today I live in Ukraine. It is a very spiritual country that carries a powerful pagan energy which comes from the times when people used to jump over bonfires and enjoy what they were given by nature. I am proud to be a part of this, and I feel sorry that we are losing the relation to those mystical times. My grandfather, Oleksandr Kovshar, was a well-known Kobzar (travelling bard). He travelled with his bandura all over the Western Ukraine, where there is still a connection to the past glory, and ancient traditions are still preserved. Maybe it is also because of him that I feel so strongly connected to the Ukrainian land and its culture, and I often transmit some of its elements into the music I create. This is my contribution to the glorification of my cultural heritage. Of course, I do not do this globally, but I make a certain circle of people aware of the place I come from and of the situation we found ourselves in. And I certainly know that these are thoughtful people who are used to differentiating between truth and bullshit.

Belief is the strongest power one can have. I feel like we spend too much time trying to fill the emptiness inside ourselves by buying a lot of unneeded stuff, rushing around, and panicking. We got too far away from god—and I don’t mean the gods that are offered to us by different religions. Religion is just a form of discipline that some people need; a set of rules one can choose to follow. It is important to listen to your inner self and keep track of where you are going. Nothing called art really matters to me if it does not touch the soul and bring me to the level where material things make no sense anymore. Nothing that we enjoy to only entertain ourselves should be called art. It is just another medium to fill in the emptiness.

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  • manolo

    is funny how defend maidan banderit shit, whos killing civilians now?Putin??? hahahaha ukraine is banderistan now, failed country full of armed militias and oligarcs, take your country and pull it in your ass looser

  • Mariana

    has Nina Kraviz written this comment? hm.. interesting!

  • michael hartman