From fiery underground hip-hop to the band that should have been Ukrainian Radiohead
Much has been said about Ukraine in 2022, and most of it has been awful.
We constantly hear of new attacks on the nation as Russian forces continue their deadly and devastating invasion.
Music does very little in such critical and catastrophic situations as this. It does not save lives, repair wounds, or change the minds of those coordinating and executing the attacks.
But Ukraine deserves to be known for more than war. Like most places, this is a country filled with artists who are passionate about creativity and telling the story of their modern culture.
We reached out to Serge Zuzkovjournalist and musician living in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, for some tips on artists that will help us better understand the country’s independent music scene.
“Most of the bands and musicians on this list are actually pretty big, at least by Ukrainian standards,” Kuzkov says.
“Each of them has enough talent, quality and uniqueness to be considered part of Ukraine’s independent elite.
“So if you’re looking for exclusive underground/experimental content, or wondering what the name of the drunk kids who destroy their neighbor’s kitchen at 4am, you probably need to look elsewhere.”
Here are 13 artists he thinks you should have on your playlist:
Let’s start with the Beatles. Or at least what the Beatles would have looked like if they were born in post-Soviet Ukraine.
Some might say, ‘Ah, yeah, it’s just another guitar trio. But the truth is, despite a slightly silly name and a certain nostalgia for all those legendary rock bands we know and love, the band’s music doesn’t smell like grandpa mothballs at all.
Another sign of quality is that they are much better live than on tape.
To finish, Love’n’Joy are among the few independent Ukrainian artists brave enough to step out of their comfort zone and regularly tour abroad, mostly across the EU.
Interesting fact: all the original members of the group are actually from Yalta, Crimea. And if – God forbid – you dare to tell them that Crimea is part of Russia, the least you can expect from the boys is a burst of laughter in your face.
Next on our list is a Kyiv-born one-man band, a guy named Kostya Pochtar (pochtar = postman in Ukrainian).
Kostia is the former leader of a local indie-pop band 5Vymir (“5th Dimension”), which was very popular in the mid-2010s with hipsters and students in the Ukrainian capital.
Compared to his former band, Kostia’s solo work is much less hipster, less teen-oriented, more technically diverse, and therefore – in my opinion – much more interesting musically.
Like Love’n’Joy, it tours actively in the EU, mainly in Poland. It may well be that there is not a single village in Poland where Kostia has not yet performed.
Sherpa The Tiger
I first met these guys a few years ago and loved their krautrock/electro-pop sound and somewhat geeky approach to music.
Of all the acts on this list, Sherpa The Tiger are perhaps the only ones better known outside than inside Ukraine; they are even quite obscure in their hometown, Lviv.
Since there isn’t much information about the band, let’s stick to what the guys have to say about themselves:
“With an arsenal of cheap and decrepit Soviet synthesizers, this quartet combines a love of minimalist ambient music and the cosmic grooves that came out of Eastern Europe in the 60s/70s.”
Blooms Corda is an indie-pop project led by Danylo Halyko.
A bit of melancholy, a dash of snobbery and soft, funky grooves add up to a charming musical mix, which young Ukrainians – mostly Kyivans – love to listen to with their headphones while sitting in traffic jams or sipping their favorite drink from their favorite cafe on a drizzly fall day.
This music belongs to the capital. He has the style and grace of a well-educated, middle-class young man, fully aware of who he is, where he wants to be and what life he wants to live, with a clear idea of his wishes, desires and even sexual fantasies.
Here is some criminally underrated music from these veterans of the Ukrainian indie scene and descendants of the once-thriving experimental indie project Esthetic Education.
8LIS5 understand Yura Khustochka (low), Andrii Nadolsky (battery) and Louis-Franckhalf-Scottish, half-Belgian singer and artist.
Frankly, there isn’t much difference, if any, between 8LIS5 and Esthetic Education in terms of music. Basically, it’s the same old story that’s been playing out, on and off, for 15 years. It’s a story of high hopes, real talent and colossal musical potential, but also of disappointment.
Ukrainian audiences may have been unprepared for their level of sophistication at their peak, and now it’s just too late. These guys could have become the Ukrainian Radioheads, but ended up touring on a much smaller scale.
On the other hand, I’m very glad they persisted, and that groups like this still exist in the age of TikTok.
indie-pop act Kryhitka – whose name means “miniature” or “small” in Ukrainian – are almost too famous to be called indie. Unlike many others on this list, they seem to have found their place a long time ago.
To me, it seems like Kasha Saltsova (the band’s lead vocalist/songwriter) and her band have been around for many decades. Yet somehow they still look young and their music is still so relevant and refreshing.
At first glance, the Ukrainian underground hip hop scene seems much less developed than, say, the Polish scene. Yet, about 50 km from the Ukraine-Poland border, you will find Lviv, the mecca of tourism and the glamorous “cultural capital” of Western Ukraine.
Although the city is teeming with tourists all year round, people are mostly concentrated in a small area adjacent to the Market Square while overlooking authentic Lviv neighborhoods where you can enjoy a plate of borscht for one euro fifty.
And, if you’re lucky, you might stumble upon a hidden freestyle gem, like this guy.
If you’ve never seen a group of young high school skaters with all the qualities of teachers fresh out of music academy, check out these guys.
One of the youngest artists on this list, Hyphen are a supergroup made up of members of other local independent groups. Their joint musical endeavor sounds much more interesting and mature than their individual independent experiences.
Zapaska are the living indie legends of Ukraine. Much like Kryhitka, the duo seems to have been around forever.
Known for their love of exotic musical instruments and their experimental approach to live performance, Pavlo and Yana have managed to develop a unique synthesis of traditional Ukrainian folk music and contemporary sample-based indie/rave grooves, making them impossible to beat. confuse with someone else in the sound of the scene.
It’s not a group, but a whole universe, although relatively restricted. When I hear this music, I imagine a house on the outskirts of a small town on a cold, windy day, with a few young people inside – talking, dreaming, smoking weed, playing music together and record it from time to time in their little home studio.
What’s most fun about Tik Tu is that the picture I just drew is almost entirely accurate. My list would be incomplete without these provincial geniuses from Ternopil, in the West of the country, with a big heart and an overflowing imagination.
Like most places on the globe, Ukraine has its own musical talent show, The voice from Ukraine. With few exceptions, the show creates an array of look-alikes and one-of-a-kind wonders, which fade into oblivion as soon as paid promotion for them ceases.
Stas Koroliov is an exception to this rule. Born in the very heart of the war-torn Donbass region, Stas not only went through a turbulent childhood in the dark post-Soviet neighborhoods of a small industrial town, but he also emerged strong, true to his identity, his beliefs and real musical talent.
These guys have enough talent and charisma to break out of the independent scene and become one of the biggest rock bands in Ukraine.
The insomniacs are young, loud, sexy and assertive.
I can only see two reasons why they might not reach the top:
- 1.Russia’s war against Ukraine and the subsequent stagnation of the Ukrainian independent scene.
- 2.Sneaky producers who could take advantage of the boys to make big bucks by turning them into a personalityless zone.
The music of this group has much more depth and philosophy than it seems at first sight.
Kurgan is an intentionally unpolished diamond. Their music is mainly based on swearing, surzhyk (a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian words typical of every small town in eastern and central Ukraine), weird harmonies and god knows what else. It’s not exactly hip hop or lo-fi, but it has characteristics of both.
But the coolest thing about their music is that it’s so deeply Ukrainian it hurts.
If you want to get a feel for the real vibe of Ukraine, you have to check these guys out.
As someone said in the comments section on YouTube, “This song should be played at all airports in Ukraine during passport control – so that when you’re here you really feel like be at home.”
Serge Kuzkov is a musician and freelance journalist from Kyiv, Ukraine
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