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‘I feel like we are all Ukrainians now’: Minnesota musicians rally for Ukraine with a slew of benefit concerts 

It’s a chance for musicians and storytellers from the diaspora and their allies to bring Ukrainian music and some humanity to what’s been going on since the invasion.

Ukrainian Village Band
The Minneapolis-based Ukrainian Village Band’s live gig schedule has ramped up considerably since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, people from all over the world have mounted countless benefits, fundraisers and awareness campaigns. In music-happy Minnesota, the crisis is being met by musicians of every genre — from Replacements/Golden Smog drummer Chris Mars’ paintings and T-shirts to Hibbing-based songwriter and author Paul Metsa’s Duluth benefit and many others — and the docket gets underway in earnest this weekend and next week.

First up is Saturday’s “Fundraiser for Ukraine” at the Ukrainian American Center in Minneapolis, where the serious festivities will feature music and local beers and food, including gig sponsor Kramarczuk Deli’s Ukrainian brats.  

“In its raw form, we are a party band,” said John Bryn of the Minneapolis-based Ukrainian Village Band, who will perform Saturday and whose gig schedule has ramped up considerably over the last two months. “Having fun playing music and dancing is a large part of Ukrainian culture. Having been stunned by the invasion, we all collectively could not even think straight. We were just about getting out of the most recent COVID outbreak and were looking forward to our rescheduled gigs when [the war broke out and] the entire mood of the band sank. There was a solemn feeling amongst us. I mean, how can we play party music when everyone’s family in Ukraine is being blown apart? We took a break from playing altogether and concentrated our efforts to help with logistics and benefits.”

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Now they’re up and running again, as are many others. Sunday at Christ Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, it’s “A Cabaret Concert Fundraiser for Ukraine” with singer/pianist (and first-generation Ukrainian American) Natalia Peterson and pianist Jayson Engquist; also on April 24 it’s “Benefit for Ukraine” at the Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis with Jimmi & the Band of Souls.

Monday at the 331 Club in Minneapolis, it’s “Duets for Ukraine” with Lev & Olga, Soul Trouvere, and Natalie Nowytski and Scott Keever. The event is part of KFAI radio’s monthly “Womenfolk Radio Presents” concert series, whose host Ellen Stanley noted, “I had been wanting to celebrate and honor Ukraine in some way as we have done on the radio show and knew I had to reach out to Natalie Nowytski — a longtime favorite on ‘Womenfolk,’ one of the most talented singers in town, and one of the most connected to our local Ukrainian community. I reached out to her to see if she’d want to perform or do some kind of benefit and this is what she came up with — the kickoff to a whole new series she’s doing.”

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My parents are both Ukrainian refugees,” said Nowytski, who launches her “Musicians for Ukraine” series this month. “A lot of us here in the community, on this side of the ocean, we’ve just been feeling like no matter what we do, no matter how we help, we’re just not doing enough. I’ve definitely been feeling that, even though I’ve been doing what I can and raising money and participating in rallies and supporting in other ways. But my wheelhouse is in music and there were several opportunities that kind of got dropped in my lap. When the invasion happened, several venues and presenters reached out to me within a couple of weeks and said, ‘Hey, if there’s anything we can do, we would just really love to help, just let us know.’

“The whole idea with the series is that it’s intended for English-speaking audiences and not necessarily people who are connected to the Ukrainian community, but it’s an opportunity for the Ukrainian diaspora and our allies. It’s a chance for the musicians and storytellers from the diaspora and our allies to bring some Ukrainian music and some kind of humanity to what’s going on right now.

Natalie Nowytski launches her “Musicians For Ukraine” series Monday at the 331 Club.
Natalie Nowytski launches her “Musicians For Ukraine” series Monday at the 331 Club.
“I’m going to be sharing some translated poems from poets currently in Ukraine, and I want there to be so many different musical genres attached to this. So I’m asking performers to, whatever your style is, whatever your genre is, do your thing and do your set, but at least incorporate a couple of Ukrainian songs. They can be folk songs, they can be covers of rock tunes from Ukraine, it can be hip-hop, it can be electronica, it can be classical, it can be choral — anything that was written by a Ukrainian composer whether they’re still in Ukraine or whether they’re part of the diaspora. It’s just a very broad opportunity to reach people with a variety of Ukrainian music, and I’ll be sharing poetry from a radio station in Ukraine called Gala. 

“They’re a 100 percent Ukrainian-only station that focuses just on Ukrainian content. Since the invasion, all the stuff they’ve been playing has been a lot of these very morale-boosting sorts of lyrics and messages from the popular culture and songs that people would know, but they’re specifically curating a playlist that’s really intended to keep people’s spirits up there.

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“One of the segments they’ve been doing is they’ve been inviting regular citizens to send in a poem, some favorite about kind of what’s going through their minds during this war. And there’s obviously a lot of grief and tough stuff, but also incredible spirit happening there. So what I want to do with the series is bring some of that content to English-speaking audiences.”

Wednesday at the Granada Theater in Minneapolis it’s Koncert for Kyiv” with The Good the Bad and the Funky, Drums of Navarone, and Batucada Do Norte. The same night at the Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis, it’s “Ukrainian Village Band Benefit for Ukraine,” which also features violinist duo Soul Trouvere.

“Our group has been called upon to play or asked to inform non-Ukrainians about our feelings and state of things,” said Bryn, of the Ukrainian Village Band. “I used to get upset having to answer the same questions or correct people who had opinions but absolutely no idea about the situation nor anything leading up to the war. Now, it’s simply a matter of trying to be an ambassador of sorts, trying to piece the puzzles together concisely. 

“There have been so many people who are struggling to wrap their heads around this. As much as needed cash will get in the hands of vetted nonprofits, one day of bonding together may give an oasis for people to shake off an inexplicable nasty feeling this war has triggered, at least for a few hours. That holds true for not just musicians but the audience and all participants. Everyone’s gotta get rid of that ick feeling and perhaps a gathering of this sort is what is going to help emotionally for some.”

On May 6, Bryn and the UVB take to the Dakota Jazz Club with Orkestar Bez Ime and SlovCzech for “Musicians For Ukraine,” followed by the largest Minnesota-based Ukraine music benefit to date — “Band Aid for Ukraine” at the Minnesota Music Café in St. Paul on May 8. 

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“In the same way that JFK once said, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ I feel like we are all Ukrainians now,” said Nate Dungan, who will appear at the MMC with his band Trailer Trash, and who will be joined in Ukraine solidarity by the likes of Curtiss A, Davina (of Davina & the Vagabonds), the Hypstrz, and the Ukrainian Village Band. “This is an attack on all freedom-loving democratic people everywhere. Democracy is under attack around the world. The global economy is tied to geopolitics and social movements and personally, I feel we have a debt to repay to [Ukraine president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy after the way our last president jerked him around. And if we don’t take action, Vlad the Invader will go after Poland and the Baltic states next. We have to understand that the world is changing fast. We have to stand together and start pulling for the Ukrainians with everything we’ve got.” 

“Many musicians I have spoken with who are willing to play this benefit have that same understanding because they have gone through similar [hard] times,” said Bryn. “People right now do not know how to react to such barbarism in this day and age. Perhaps it’s because the indiscriminate bombing and destruction, torture, rape and sadistic treatment is so heinous, there are no words to express the horror going on.

“When Ukraine Village Band played our first benefit, I balled my eyes out. That hadn’t happened since the first news of the attacks. There was no reason. It simply happened. I connected [with the music and its history] and can relate now. In the past couple of weeks, for the first time, I referred to myself as a musician. I now know what that feeling is to be one.

I was born in the USA during the Cold War. Ukrainian is my first language. Like most first generation-born Americans, I didn’t speak English until I was in kindergarten. Growing up, I was taught to be proud of my Ukrainian heritage but at the same time was called ‘Russkie,’ ‘Commie,’ ‘Red’ and other such niceties.

“I have visited what is left of my known family in Ukraine many times. I developed a bond with them and still keep in almost daily contact. They need it. Our family here needs it. You can feel their stodginess in conversation. Ukrainians are strong-willed and simply want their own autonomy. The West does not understand them. I don’t quite either as I did not grow up in the Soviet society, but I feel the connection. It’s somewhat inexplicable. I mean, I’ve stayed in the nicest hotels and resorts but there is something about pumping water from a well, hanging clothes to dry in the wind, digging up soil to plant vegetables, canning those vegetables for the winter in the outside underground cellar, using an outhouse without running water and taking a shower in water from a tub filled with rainwater, which grounds me to Ukraine and its culture.”

“I think music is the great connector, honestly,” said Nowytski. “Just the right melody or harmonic structure can just tug at your heartstrings and you can’t put your finger on why, but it’s something that touches you on a really human level. I’m mostly known for Eastern European village music, most of the stuff I do is not in English, and a lot of the performances that I’ve done are with these really striking traditional vocal styles and I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I have no idea what you said in that song. But I felt a connection to my ancestors. I felt a connection to the earth. I felt something deeply in my soul that I don’t understand, but you brought it out in that music in you.’ So it really has this amazing, almost subliminal, very foundational aspect to it that just I think it has the opportunity to bring out the humanity in us and having our own humanity touched, whether or not we recognize that that’s what’s happening.”