By Elizabeth Piper, Reuters
Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, March 14, 2004
KIEV (Reuters) - The rock music fans are glued to their seats, frightened
to move due to the presence of the khaki-clad women patrolling the aisles.
Graying men, women in a fur coats holding young children and hundreds
of young girls obediently adhere to the strict no-dancing,
no-drinking, no-enjoyment policy.
But by the first of many encores, the fans are up and partying in the
aisles, standing on seats to cheer and scream at their idol, Slava
Vakarchuk of rock group Okean Elzy [Elsa's Ocean], who struts
cross the stage.
The tubular lights at Kiev's "Palace of Ukraine" shudder as the
audience join in the songs which, for once, portray former Soviet
Ukraine in a favourable light -- a world away from perceptions that it is
a home of disasters.
"We want to make people all over the world know more about Ukraine,"
said Vakarchuk, lead singer of the group, a five-piece guitar-playing
band from Lviv, the heartland of nationalism in western Ukraine.
Cover of the "Welcome to Ukraine" magazine, Issue 3, 2003 shows Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, Okean Elzy rock group frontman
Photo by Oleksandr Morderer
(Click on image to enlarge it)
"Like now the situation is, all of the people over the world know
about Ukraine only through sport, and some people know about Chernobyl
and all of that stuff. We are sick and tired of that and we want to
present some culture and some spirit."
During the almost three-hour concert, the spirit is there -- much to
the annoyance of the khaki-clad women more used to disciplining
comrades at Communist Party congresses.
All tight trousers and flowing, pink scarves, Vakarchuk is Ukraine's
number one pop idol. Girls queue up to hand him flowers, chocolates
and teddy bears. Even Ukraine's main opposition leader heads
backstage to give him a hug.
CORRUPTION, POVERTY, DISENCHANTMENT
Bordering both Russia and three prospective EU members to the west,
Ukraine has long been a borderland, fending off invading armies
and fighting to establish an identity.
About half of the country speaks Russian, not Ukrainian, discouraged
but not crushed under communism. The nationalist west has little in
common with the Russian-speaking east.
The capital tries to tie the two halves together, but with a territory the
size of France, it is not always easy.
Scandal-tainted President Leonid Kuchma stands accused of corruption,
poverty is widespread, apartment buildings lie in disrepair and
after a poor wheat crop, bread prices are rising.
Many Ukrainians feel the chance of a better, democratic future after
the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was wasted.
Okean Elzy [Elsa's Ocean] has given back at least some pride.
Songs like "I am going home" have been used for advertisements for
locally produced chocolates, others like "Pussycat" and "911" have
become regular features on Ukraine's equivalent of MTV.
The group, which formed 10 years ago and cornered the Ukrainian
market selling platinum albums despite pirating, wants to persuade the
West it has what it takes to conquer new markets -- eastern and then
western Europe and the United States.
And they are willing to give it a go in English.
"We started to think about it approximately a year ago and what we
have done now is to have tried to translate some of our old Ukrainian
songs into English and hopefully we will write some new songs and I
will try to make the lyrics in English," said Vakarchuk, 28.
"And I think the next stage for us is to sign some agreement with
major labels, some of them are interested in us and we are interested
in some of them...we want to present our music for people in eastern
Europe first...and then also in the West."
In Soviet times, the group grew up listening to a diet of the
Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
Dreams of fame in the Western world are high.
"Our language has taken us to the top of the Ukrainian industry so
when we try to translate our texts and it sounds a little funny at
first but you have to get used to it, and we hope the music will help do
that," said keyboard player Dima Shurov.
"We were raised on English music, we listened to all kinds of English
groups when we were kids and they were all the same groups for us.
Wouldn't it be great to get popular in the West and then go back to
the Ukrainian language. Can you imagine?"
But first they will tour their homeland this year, regaling Ukrainian
audiences at a range of auditoriums.
"It was a tough audience at the beginning," said guitarist Pavlo
Gudymov after the Kiev concert.
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