Who are the Ukrainians?

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Established in 1991, the British band the Ukrainians managed to combine Ukrainian folk with western rock even before that begun in Ukraine. During its 30 years of existence, the band with only 2 people with Ukrainian origins became famous in many countries around the world and gathered followers in the United Kingdom.

It was 1989. The famous John Peel show goes live on BBC In Great Britain. The Wedding Present rock group performs on stage. Peter Solowka, the guitarist, plays live Ukrainian folk songs in his arrangement. Len Liggins, a graduate of Slavic philology, who Peter met a bit before, is singing.

That show was very successful and has been repeated twice. Those three radio performances formed the album “Ukrainian John Peel Sessions recordings”. Shortly after this album (fully in Ukrainian) charted 22 in British charts, and sold 70 thousand copies. Peter and Len have decided to create a new band and name it The Ukrainians.

In 2021, this British band celebrates its 30 years, just like Ukraine celebrates its independence anniversary. The musicians gathered together for a rehearsal in Lester for the first time after a long break. Due to the pandemics, they haven’t done so for two years.

The Ukrainians have six members: Len Liggins (vocals), Peter Solowka (guitar and sometimes backing vocals), James Howe (bass guitar), Woody (drums and percussion), Paul Weatherhead (mandolin), and Steve Tymruk (accordion). Among everyone, only Peter and Steve have Ukrainian origins.

Natalka Myts, a Ukrainian from Poland, came to the rehearsal. She says she knows the group from 1997 when they performed in Przemyśl at the Ukrainian Culture Festival, and she had already gotten excited about their music back then.

Ukrainian Culture Festival in Poland is organized once every few years by the Community of Ukrainians in Poland in the cities: Przemyśl, Sopot, and Koszalin.

“The Ukrainians is a unique ensemble. They sing in Ukrainian without having any relation to Ukraine as such. They just learn Ukrainian and sing in it. They perform Ukrainian music, and they combine it with western punk-rock. Various generations listen to their music. These generations include not only people who knew the band from the 90s or the beginning of the 2000s, but youth listens to them, as well as children of those who listened to them before. As for me, the Ukrainians is one of the best, if not the best Ukrainian ensemble outside of Ukraine.”

The history of the band

Peter Solowka has been the guitarist for Wedding Present in Leeds since 1985. One time he was playing Ukrainian folk songs on guitar and mandolin when the band’s drummer Simon Smith told Peter about his friend Len. Len played the violin and was interested in Easter Slavic languages. Soon Smith introduced Peter and Len, after which the musicians played together at Peter’s house and began to write their own songs.

Peter says he was looking for records with Ukrainian music back during the tours of Wedding Present. These records soon became the source for their art:

“At that time, the GDR (German Democratic Republic or East Germany) still existed, and when I had time, I went there specifically to go to a music store. There were old vinyl collections of folk music from all over Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. Many of them had the label “Melodia”. I knew I would not find them in the West.”

In Bradford, 10 miles from Leeds, Peter and Len met members of a Ukrainian club. They provided the musicians with rehearsal space and shared their video and audio archives with numerous cassette recordings of performers of Ukrainian songs from Great Britain. The musicians listened to them, found lines and motifs that inspired them, and then created their own lyrics and music.

Ukrainian clubs in Great Britain served as cells of the Ukrainian diaspora. Members organized Saturday schools, where kids learned the Ukrainian language, history and culture.

Peter and Len remark that what they heard from Melodia’s records was what was left after censorship; many lyrics were replaced. Instead, the diaspora’s archives opened many authentic things for them.

Melodia was the Soviet state music and sound recording company-monopolist, which produced records.

The musicians took Ukrainian folk songs as a basis and gave them a special sound. Since British rock, funk-rock and punk had the greatest influence on both of them since childhood, they decided to mix those genres with Ukrainian folk.

After the successful performances at John Peel’s BBC radio sessions and the respective album going live, Peter and Len decided to create a new band and started looking for a new name. In the end, they came up with The Ukrainians.

“We thought “The Ukrainians” would be quite a good name because it’s the English way to say Ukrainians. So at the same time the term “the Ukrainians” is both Ukrainian and British. It says all about who we are, doesn’t it? The remixed group.”

The name “The Ukrainians” appeared when Ukraine wasn’t an independent state yet:

“That was quite a radical revolutionary thing to do. It was like saying: “Here are the people called ‘the Ukrainians,’ we exist.” And just as soon as we released the album a few days later Ukraine declared independence.”

The first mini-album, ‘Oy, divchyno’ was indeed released in 1991. The video for the song with the same name was shot at the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life in Pyrohiv, on the outskirts of Soviet Kyiv.

Along with Peter and Len, Roman Remines, who played the mandolin, was also a member of the band at the time.

The first trip The Ukrainians made to Ukraine, 1993. Photo from the archive of band members.

First concerts in Ukraine

The recently created band was warmly welcomed not only in Great Britain, where it directly got many listeners but in Germany and Poland as well. At one of the performances of The Ukrainians in Poland the audience started to sing along with “Chy znaiesh ty, moya rodyna…”, and the musicians felt their music resonated with people. The Polish newspapers started writing about them:

“There was an article in the Polish national newspaper “The Ukrainians: bringing music from the East into Poland”. You know, the bunch of guys from the West taking music from further East and bringing it over to Poland. And I couldn’t believe this: they were taking it so seriously and for us, I don’t think we ever had that experience in Britain.”

They managed to tour around many countries, including France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, Monaco, the USA, Canada, Belarus and others.

The band first visited Ukraine in 1993. They were on stage together with Vopli Vidopliasova and toured around the country. The members tell that based on their experience with diaspora, they imagined Ukrainians all dressed in national costumes, proficient in folk songs but haven’t seen that. Peter notes that the language of the songs of The Ukrainians was the one preserved by diaspora for years:

“I remember two reactions to our music. One was: “I like this music. My grandmother sang such songs.” We tried to bring the music back to life. And other people said, “You talk like my grandmother, because you keep these fragments of speech”. The language is constantly changing, each generation speaks differently… So, we sang like a group of grandmothers, grandmothers with electric guitars.”

Joint music tour with «ВВ» («Воплі Відоплясова») around Ukrainian cities, 1993. Photo from the archive of band members.

Other visitors of The Ukrainians concerts were people, who expected to hear Ukrainian folk songs with folk dances: for people unfamiliar with the group’s style it is associated first and foremost with Ukrainian folk.

They have a decent amount of folk songs in their discography, but in a new arrangement (they are all included in the earlier albums). The Ukrainians also translated to Ukrainian and arranged well-known British hits. They even released an album with The Smith’s songs in Ukrainian — «Pisni iz The Smiths» (1993). Most of The Ukrainians’ repertoire consists of original songs.

Peter and Len tell that in 1993 there were no groups in Ukraine who would perform in Ukrainian based on Western music, inspired by the British rock scene.

The musicians were even asked in Ukraine: “Why do you sing in Ukrainian? You should sing in English – you will make far more money”. But The Ukrainians never did perform in English in 30 years. Len says they were attracted by writing specifically in Ukrainian:

“[Ukrainian] is not the language that we speak every day. It’s special, it’s exotic and it sounds very poetic. English, which we speak and read, doesn’t sound as lyrical and poetic as Ukrainian.”

'Tavriiski ihry" festival poster, 1993. The Ukrainians are part of the lineup.

The next time the band came to Ukraine was in 1995 to the Alternatyva Festival in Lviv. Then the British guests felt themselves more accepted and saw a stronger feeling of identity in the audience. Hence, the music and innovation of The Ukrainians received a better response. Peter says:

“Other bands, already well known in Ukraine at the time, told us they liked us a lot. They said that it’s the first time that they have seen the Ukrainian language combined with rock music, and that we have been an inspiration for some other bands in Ukraine to move forward.”

The Ukrainians always followed Ukraine’s agenda, including news regarding the Orange revolution, and the Revolution of Dignity. They have been invited to perform during the Euromaidan, but they didn’t manage to come:

“It was so difficult to get there. Even if we did that, I’d feel quite guilty because I don’t think we would be helping anybody by doing that. It would almost be arrogant, wouldn’t it? Two British people try to make some big statements in Ukraine and fly away when it gets dangerous.”

Band members

Peter Solowka was born in Great Britain, but his mother is Serbian, and his father is Ukrainian. Peter’s father comes from Gavryliak village, close to Kolomyia. He was one of the Ostarbeiters, workers from the eastern Nazi-occupied territories who were deported to Germany in 1941 for forced labor. His father told Peter he had «Untermensch» (inferior people) written in his documents, which depicts the treatment these workers received from the Nazis. Despite that and hard working conditions, Peter’s father didn’t look to go back to his village, since life there was not easy either. Later on, he moved to Great Britain.

Peter grew up around Ukrainian families and attended the Ukrainian Saturday school in Middleton close to Manchester.

“I hated Saturday school. All my friends went to football or swimming, and I got up early and went to Saturday school. But what I remember is the music. I loved this music, even as a child I memorized melodies. And these rhythms stayed with me. Not language, not dancing, but music itself.”

Peter heard little about his father’s life in Ukraine. His father told him that he had a family there that he could meet someday. However, his father’s letters probably did not reach his relatives, and the only thing Peter saw from his family was the photos kept in the Ukrainian club:

“Housing was not visible in the photos. The background was always just white: people did not want to show how poor they were. It was the same with the photos we sent to Ukraine: there could be no garden or car in them — none of this was allowed. However, they were unlikely to reach the recipients due to censorship… So my father drew the line for himself, and this is where his new life began.”

Len Liggins sings in Ukrainian in The Ukrainians band, although he doesn’t have any connection with Ukraine. He was born in London and had many friends in school with Polish immigrant parents. He studied Russian in school. So, when it came to choosing his major, he decided to take Slavic philology at Leeds University.

Len says he liked the idea of singing in Ukrainian straight away during his meeting with Solowka:

“The Ukrainians was an opportunity not just to play music, which was one of my passions, but the other passion that was languages and Eastern European languages as well. Both those things collided in The Ukrainians and the option to join was just brilliant for me.”

The vocalist also knows his origins. Due to his huge interest in Slavic languages and cultures, his wife Rebecca suggested Len has some Slavic origins and offered him a DNA test. Her expectation was correct: according to the test, Len has some ancestors from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Len comments, smiling:

“So, after 30 years of playing with the Ukrainians and assuming that I had no Slavic blood, I am a Slav!”

StefanTymruk has played the accordion in The Ukrainians since 1994. His father was born in Stanyn village near Radekhiv. He was most likely fighting in the First Ukrainian Division and emigrated to Great Britain after World War II, where he met Steff’s mom. Their son loved music from early childhood, so his parents decided to get him to play the accordion.

Steff was always surrounded by Ukrainians and learned the language, but for many years didn’t have an opportunity to meet his relatives from Ukraine.

The meeting finally happened in 1995 at the Alternatyva Festival in Lviv. Steff’s relatives came for The Ukrainians’ concert and they all visited his father’s birth village afterwards. Now Steff communicates often with his family thanks to messenger and e-mail.

Inspired by diaspora

The Ukrainian diaspora in Great Britain had a huge influence on the work of The Ukrainians. In addition to the fact that Ukrainian clubs and Saturday schools formed Peter and Steff’s interest in Ukrainian music, the diaspora shared their recordings of Ukrainian folk songs with the band, provided rehearsal space and supported them in every possible way. The life of the diaspora in British cities became one of the themes of The Ukrainians’ songs. At the rehearsal, the band performs the song ““Zvidky vy?” (“Where Are you from?”) with an incendiary musical accompaniment:

I’m an honest man,
And a decent worker,
Still you ask me:
“Hey, where are you from?”

Len Liggins says that they write about the experiences that are closest to them:

“What we try to do is we try to write about how you see Ukraine or how you see life in the West from a diaspora point of view. We don’t pretend to know anything that’s going on in Ukraine, we don’t know about it… So we describe the diaspora experience.”

One of the band’s most successful albums is named “Diaspora” (2009). Peter Solowka says that there are Ukrainian clubs in the big cities of the United Kingdom – London, Manchester, Leeds and others. However, many emigrants have assimilated and the number of clubs is steadily declining:

“When we started doing this, there were about 45 different Ukrainian clubs around the country. Now it’s about 18.”

On the other hand, Ukrainians in London, just like before, stay together and maintain the activity of such clubs:

“Many people who come to London to work want to make sure that their families don’t forget Ukrainian roots. So, they come to the London club. They teach their children to dance.”

They teach their children a language on a Saturday morning. Like I was taught too, this is the new generation doing the same thing.

The band members say they haven’t had the opportunity to see each other and rehearse for the past two years due to quarantine restrictions, but now they have a lot of plans. Soon they will perform at Brighton, a Ukrainian club in London, and they plan to hold five concerts before the end of the year and record new songs.

The Ukrainians continue to draw inspiration from Ukrainian music. Peter Solowka says:

“For me, Ukraine is a source of some of the most beautiful, emotional, artistic things that I have ever come across. It’s like an emotional, spiritual home for me, even though I don’t speak the language very well and I don’t know all the music and all the culture. It’s like a little place of comfort, and appreciation, and warmth, and inspiration. If I ever feel a bit down sometimes or not as positive as I’d like to, I turn on Ukrainian music and it lifts my mood.”

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The project “Anthropological and ethnographic expedition by Ukraїner: Ukrainians in Great Britain” is realized within the program “Culture for change” with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Fund (Ukraine) and the British Council (Great Britain). Ukraїner is responsible for the content of this multimedia story, which might not represent the official position of the Ukrainian Cultural Fund and the British Council.

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