Monday, March 17, 2014

Russia/Ukraine: Koroleva Ne Pomerla (The Queen is Dead)

The Ukrainians: Koroleva Ne Pomerla (The Queen is Dead)

Punk and traditional folk music are far from strangers. Bands like the Pogues or Flogging Molly have married their brand of rock to Celtic music. And Uncle Tupelo and their disciples fused punk sensibilities with American folk. You can find other examples in probably every culture, from Mexican, to Indian to Japanese and African.

And why should Slavic music be any different? I’ve never been in a band, but I have read my share of stories about bands, and it often seems that something that happened at a sound check leads a band into a direction that it never expected. Whether it is a different version of a song, or a killer cover that later becomes part of the set list, or an unexpected cameo by a roadie, it seems that the looseness of the sound check opens up possibilities.

The Wedding Present were formed in Leeds, England in the mid-1980s, and were grouped with other, similar jangly guitar bands of the day as part of the “C86” scene. They achieved some popularity in England and a little fame in the US, mostly on college radio. One day, spurred by guitarist Pete Solowka, whose father was Ukrainian, they started playing the traditional Ukrainian song “Hopak,” during rehearsals and sound checks. After a well-received performance of the song on the influential BBC DJ John Peel’s show, the Wedding Present added a singer and violinist (“The Legendary” Len Liggins) who actually spoke Ukrainian, and a Ukrainian mandolin player (Roman Remeynes), to create a series of Ukrainian Peel Sessions. I’d note that is definitely the most times I have ever written the word “Ukrainian” in a single paragraph.

Flush with enthusiasm for his roots rock, Solowka decided to leave the Wedding Present and formed The Ukrainians with Liggins and Remeynes, and in 1991, they released their self-titled debut. The next year, they released an EP of Smiths covers, one of which, “Koroleva Ne Pomerla (The Queen is Dead)” also appeared on their second album, Vorony (“Ravens”, I think).

On a side note, my grandmother Frieda was born in a shtetl called Solutvina in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She and her family fled when she was a young girl to escape the violent anti-Semitic pogroms of the early part of the 20th Century, so she was long gone before the town was essentially wiped off the map during World War II. That part of the world bounced between Ukraine and Poland, and is currently in Ukraine, near the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, a couple of hours' drive, when traffic and civil unrest allow, from Lviv. So, I have roots in that country, even if I am not ethnically Ukrainian.

Remarkably, The Ukrainians turned out to be more than a joke, releasing five studio albums and a number of live albums and EPs over the years. They continue to gig, and their website currently has a message, and a couple of songs, in support of the Ukrainian people and their struggle. So, check them out, and Рок на! (which according to Google Translate, means “Rock on!”).

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