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“There were kids of various ages sat in rows of beer stained tables. The smell of boiled cabbage and garlic competed with the shouts of the teacher. ‘Shche’ he cried pointing to a shape (I think it was a letter),‘shche’ we replied in unison. The Ukrainian language lessons had no positive effect, but the music that surrounded all our activities stayed with me.
While I spent my Saturdays in this version of Ukrainian culture, my friends were listening to rock and punk music. In the mid-eighties, for the first time, these musical worlds met and the roots of ‘The Ukrainians’ were formed” - Peter Solowka
For over three decades ‘The Ukrainians’ have been performing their unique mix of Ukrainian roots and western rock music all over the world. Here are some of the milestones of their musical journey, including their origins in UK indie band ‘The Wedding Present’.
'Ukrainski Vistupi V Johna Peela' – 1989
The Ukrainians grew out of a project instigated by guitarist Peter Solowka of 80s band ‘The Wedding Present’, when they decided to make one of their sessions for the BBC's John Peel Show a Ukrainian one! Peter's friend 'The Legendary Len' was drafted in because he sang, played a scratchy, authentic village-sounding violin and was a student of Slavonic languages. The group recorded the first BBC session which was duly broadcast, and then John Peel played it several times over again! It’s still being played to his day, most recently by Gideon Coe on BBC R6…
This lead to two further BBC sessions at Mr Peel's request, where Ukrainian mandolinist Roman Remeynes was recruited to play and also sing occasional vocals. These were also broadcasted numerous times, and consequently the first two sessions were released as an album by RCA records and “Ukrainski Vistupi V Johna Peela” was born. The Wedding Present with Len & Roman played an 8 day UK tour to promote the album which sold almost 70,000 copies worldwide. The record is famous as being the only Ukrainian language to feature in the UK album charts (no.22)!!
'The Ukrainians' - 1991
Peter and Len had written their first song in Ukrainian, 'Oi Divchino', and together with Roman they flew out to Ukraine in October 1990 to make a video for it. Shot in Kyiv's outdoor 'Museum of National Folk Architecture and Way of Life', it was the first pop video to be produced entirely in the east for a western band.
Meanwhile they had also begun to write and record songs for their first album. Five tracks included the whole Wedding Present line-up and the other five were recorded by Peter, Len and Roman on their own. 'Oi Divchino' became the title track of The Ukrainians' first release (a 4-song 12" vinyl EP) and the NME, Britain's long-respected arbiter of musical taste (!) made it Single of the Week. Three weeks late in October 1991 the Ukrainians began their first UK tour, and the NME said of the band's live performance: "this is POP and it blows your trousers off".
The self-written first album which followed simply called “The Ukrainians”, established the group as the only major exponent of a hybrid of traditional Ukrainian folk and Western rock music. It received such good reviews in the UK and beyond that they were subsequently booked to play festivals and tours throughout Europe. In fact, word had even begun to spread to the US, where the band where approached by NIKE to record the soundtrack for a 30-second TV advertisement for training shoes! The music accompanied footage of the world champion pole vaulter Sergey Bubka, working out at a gym in his home town of Donetsk, Ukraine. The ad was screened in the UK by ITV, Channel 4, MTV and the Sky Sports channels and by countless TV stations in Europe, America, Canada and Australia.
'Pisni iz The Smiths - Vorony'- 1993
In early 1993, the group released the hugely successful Pisni Iz The Smiths EP, which included thoroughly re-worked Ukrainian language versions of 4 classic Smiths songs. A month later saw the release of the inspired second album “Vorony”, featuring 12 new emotionally-charged Ukrainians' original compositions plus a beautiful and optimistic version of the Velvet Underground's dark & moody 'Venus in Furs'. This album extended the Ukrainians' popularity to almost every country in Europe.
By way of promotion, the group played an extensive 110 date tour ranging from Leon in Western Spain to Kharkiv in Eastern Ukraine, covering most of the countries in between. These included festivals at Glastonbury and WOMAD in Britain and a host of Indie, World Music, Folk and Rock events throughout mainland Europe. They also made their first incursion into the US playing the enormous Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle, USA.
Then in August 1993, The Ukrainians undertook their first tour of Ukraine as guests of Ukraine's Ministry Of Culture. The tour culminated in a performance in Kyiv's Independence Square before more than 50,000 people, an internationally-televised event to celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union. The band also recorded a live album which is a compilation of various performances in Germany throughout 1993. This limited issue record was available on 10" vinyl only and all proceeds went to 'Shelter' for the homeless.
The Ukrainians’ third studio album 'Kultura' was released in October 1994. The subject matter was heavily influenced by their experiences while on tour as guests of Ukraine's Ministry of Culture the previous year. 'Polityka' described the new breed of manipulative politician who had appeared in the country, cynically exploiting a naïve and inexperienced electorate; 'UkrainAmerica' anticipated the effect that multinational corporations and advertising would exert. Now Ukrainians would be taught to consume certain brands of Western soft drinks, beef burgers and cigarettes - and to think of them as 'cool'.
Also between 1993 and 1994 there were major personnel changes when both Roman and Luddy left the band, and were replaced respectively by Mick West on mandolin, guitar and backing vocals and by Stefan 'Mr Steff' Tymruk on accordion and backing vocals. And then when Paul 'Dino' moved to Germany, bass playing duties were subsequently shared by the two Als, first Alan Dawson and then Allan Martin.
'Kultura' was performed live over the next eight years throughout the UK, Germany, France and other north / western European countries, and was responsible for extending the group's popularity to Poland in 1996 where the band toured extensively over the next 14 years! There were also extremely enthusiastic responses from college radio stations and Ukrainian emigre communities in the USA and Canada, where The Ukrainians also visited to perform live in concert.
In 1996 they played a further twenty gigs, touring Canada, Germany and Poland to promote a limited issue single 'Radioactivity', a cover of the Kraftwerk song, in order to raise money for the 'Children of Chernobyl' charity, marking the 10th anniversary of the nuclear disaster. By this time Dave Lee had left the band after leaving England to live in Kiev, Ukraine, and Stephen Woods was recruited on drums - 'Woody' as he’s widely known.
The group undertook a further tour of Poland in 1997 ("partly because we love Poland and partly because we could bring back suitcases full of Bison Grass vodka at £1.50 a bottle" - Len).
'Anarchy in the UK' and 'Respublika'- 2002
In 2002 The Ukrainians released their Anarchy in the UK EP, four tracks by he Sex Pistols done in a Ukrainian style, followed by the critically-acclaimed fourth studio album 'Respublika'. This contained well known traditional Ukrainian tracks done in Western style.
About the EP, metal mag Kerrang! says: ‘More vodka fuelled mayhem and anarchy by The Ukrainians, '
'Diaspora' - 2009
‘Diaspora’ is an album of songs focusing on the problems and benefits of immigration. It was the first album of original, band-written material since 'Kultura' in 1994.
The lead track 'Diaspora' is the most played of The Ukrainians’ YouTube videos - a pleasing achievement as it was made entirely by the band members themselves. The album also features the most popular Ukrainians’ track on Spotify, 'Vykhid'.
'20 Years' - 2011
A compilation album of the best tracks from the first 2 decades of the group was supported by a UK tour of Ukrainian clubs. The '20 years of Independence' tour of Ukrainian clubs in the UK marked the band's and the country of Ukraines’20th anniversary.
The Ukrainians continued to play at prestigious music festivals around the world - the most memorable of 2013 being Dauphin, near Winnipeg in Canada. Here, the band was chosen from all the world's Ukrainian cultural musicians to perform at Canada's biggest Ukrainian Music Festival.
'A History of Rock Music in Ukrainian' - 2015
In 2015 The Ukrainians released a vinyl album for Record Store Day, 'A Short History of Rock Music in Ukrainian' closely followed by an extended version on CD, 'A History of Rock Music in Ukrainian'. The idea was to re-write classic western rock songs and perform them as if they had been written in the East. The album features well know songs such as 'California Dreaming', 'Smells like Teen Spirit' & 'Hound Dog'
The album was an opportunity for 'The Ukrainians' to do a 10 date back to back UK tour to promote the album.
'Shchedryk - (Carol of the Bells)' EP - 2017
Carol of the Bells is one of the most famous Ukrainian songs. Its often sung now as a Christmas song, but it traditionally is sung at new year to wish people health, good fortune and happiness. The band decided to take this back to its pre-christian roots and give it a punky - pagan flavor.
The EP has a great video to support it, full of bonfires, totem poles and dancers.
'Summer in Lviv’ (Літо у Львові)' - 2019
This year saw the release of the bands latest studio album of new material. ''Summer in Lviv' is made up of songs that are inspired by recent visits to Ukraine. 'Our first gig there was in 1993 - just after independence - and the changes in the 25 years since then have been tremendous. Not only is the country beginning to thrive economically, it is also having to deal with the modern issues of national identity, migration & immigration.'
The songs reflect the mix of modern and traditional that still influence Ukraine today.
The album was recorded at Eiger Studios in Leeds over a two year period. Again, we worked with Will Jackson as engineer, production & mastering.
The Ukrainians had recruited Monika on accompanying vocals for some of these new songs after meeting her at a gig at the Edinburgh Ukrainian Club in October 2011, She performs with an all-female eastern european acappella group called 'Davno' and she impressed everyone with her vocal range and style. Summer in Lviv has two reworked tracks, Cherz Richku, and Chi Znaesh ti in which her vocals feature strongly.. (she is also on the Shchedryk EP).
The band also recorded videos for most of the songs and released them on YouTube between 2018 and 2019. There are videos for main tracks like 'Zvidky Vi', and 'Lito y Lvovi', plus for the first time, a completely animated video for 'Koli ya Tantsiuyiu'
'The Muzikantes Festival'
In 2018, the band extended one of its Leeds gigs into an all day event at the Wardrobe, Leeds. The line up was made entirely of eastern European artists with musical styles from Klezmer , Polish, Romania, plus folk dancers and food. The event is headlined by The Ukrainians and has become an annual event.
'The 30th Anniversary'
2021 will be the 30th anniversary of the formation of 'The Ukrainians'. If all things g0 to plan, there will be lots of opportunities to celebrate. They are planning the predictable special releases, gigs and merchandise. As well as this, the band are collecting an archive of photos videos, and interviews. These will be available both to see and contribute to as the year advances.
The band will be releasing a Christmas single, a career-spanning DVD collection of 30 extraordinary videos, and a brand new t-shirt!