A chorus of curses from the kitchen

The Flagstone-Denman Island May 1999

By George Oliver

On April 17, Denman Islanders were intoxicated by a Ukranian herbal elixir brewed up by Zeellia, a four-piece women's a cappella mini-choir from Vancouver. The dose was strong enough to transform a tired bunch of fish-fertilizing, seaweed mulching organic gardeners sitting down to watch the usual video into a tired but hearty bunch of peasant farmers, resting on haystacks, listening to three local girls soar to the vocal stars with their weird lamenting, almost yodling, songs.

A delicious banquet of perogies, cabbage rolls, borscht soup and wine was enjoyed by dining spectators before the show. It seems four island women, one of whom was days away from giving birth, commandeered a kitchen for four days to prepare this feast. Elbowed out of the kitchen days ago, one plaintive and hungry-looking husband was elated to be finally getting a taste of something from the gastronomic whirlwind recently endured.

The singing reminded one of wolves howling in unison. First one singer warbled a note, then she was joined by a second just a note below. Then the third caught a note just above to make a mournful chord that could have wafted over the moonlit Carpathian hills.

But not all songs were bittersweet laments. Some were rousing, boisterous shake-off-the-blues tunes that started islanders' rubber boots tapping. Canadian audiences can feel a kinship with this music since many 'coasters' grandparents came overland, having busted some sod alongside Ukrainian Prairie farmers.

In Ukrainian singing, one singer will often end off a line of notes in a high-pitched cry or yelp. Another typical effect is when two voices hold one note while a third holds the note above for a while, then slides back to the same note as the others.

The performers dressed in white blouses embroidered with Easter egg zigzags or swirling flowers, sashes around their waists voyageur-style. They wore traditional peasant dresses, not far off from the loose ankle-length skirts worn by some female islanders.

A male accordionist, filling in for the regular one, joined the trio after the first number, dressed in drag to keep the all-woman choral theme. He clowned a bit in his shawl, cloth skirt and hairy legs to an appreciative audience.

While the primary purpose of this group is to keep Ukrainian culture alive, the second purpose is to let women vent their anger for an evening, pointing out men's flaws and, with humour, letting off steam so that they can face another day's round of clothes cleaning or baby diapering, somehow refreshed. These are women's tuneful complaints about hard times, lost opportunities for love, useless husbands: a chorus of curses from the kitchen.

A joke at my table was, "What do you do when you see your husband staggering in the backyard?" The answer was, "Shoot him again."

One humorous tune from Alberta mixed English and Ukrainian to tell a story about a woman who finds it difficult to deal with an out-of-control husband. She asks a more experienced neighbour for advice, who replies, "In this country you just call the police and they take him away." Two Ukrainian speakers in the audience chuckled heartily over this one.

One sad but weird love song was translated as being about a man who is sitting by a fire when a spark jumps onto his clothes and reduces him to ashes. Some passing women approach, his sweetheart gathers up the ashes, and while carrying them along, a last remaining ember catches fire and burns her up as well.

The second half of the show featured immigration songs composed by Ukrainians as Prairie homesteaders. This is a specialty of Beverly Dobrinsky, the head musicologist in the group, who likely plucks these original tunes from bedridden elders.

A Carpathian mountain lament, much like Appalachian mountain music, contained this line: "Mother, please don't curse me for dying so far away. These foreigners will embrace me so I won't cause you any trouble."

Most of the audience of 50 souls was entranced by the spine-chilling sadness summoned up by this trio. In the back of the hall, two women waltzed slowly in a dark corner. A double bill at the movie hall across the street may have waylaid some Denmanites, but no film could give you goosebumps like these Ukrainian warblers.