Dobrinsky Revives Traditions

Local Motion-The Georgia Straight July 13-20, 2000

By Tony Montague

There's a pattern of behaviour that, by and large, repeats itself in immigrant communities throughout the world: the first generation nurtures the language and culture it brought from the old country; the second generation, wanting to be assimilated, turns away from that heritage; and the third generation seeks to reclaim the lost or neglected roots.

Ukrainian-Canadian singer Beverly Dobrinsky sees the pattern in her own family. "My grandparents came to Winnipeg with the first wave of Ukrainian pioneer immigrants, at the turn of the last century," she explains, interviewed in Vancouver. "My father's family stayed in Winnipeg, which is where I was raised. Neither he nor I spoke Ukrainian. My mother's family homesteaded in North Saskatchewan and it was on our regular summer visits to the farm that I experienced Ukrainian culture most strongly."

After moving to Vancouver in the '70s, Dobrinsky studied in the music department at UBC. "Voice was my major instrument, and I was very attracted to Balkan singing because it hearkened back to what I'd heard in my childhood," she recalls. She became the musical director of Razom Sestre, a Balkan women's group, and also sang in two Ukrainian church choirs. "A small amount of the material they performed was in a style known as bilij holos or narodnij holos-both terms mean essentially the same thing: the people's voice. It represents an older layer of Ukrainian music, a rawer village sound, and that's what I really wanted to do."

The centenary of the first large-scale Ukrainian immigration to Canada, in 1991, also marked the foundation of Zeellia-a mainly a cappella group that Dobrinsky put together to explore the music of her Slavic heritage. "We do some pieces from Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Croatia, but most of our songs are of Ukrainian origin," says Dobrinsky. "I draw from my involvement with the community here, from recordings of people like the Veriovska State Folk Chorus and Nina Matvienko in the Ukraine, and also from the researches I've undertaken in the Prairies, around Grande Prairie [Alberta] and Canora [Saskatchewan]. I collected a lot of material, much of which I still have to document and arrange."

In addition to Dobrinsky, Zeellia-which appears at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival this weekend (July 14 to 16)-comprises singers Carmen Rosen and Bessie Wapp, with accordionist Stevan Knezevich providing instrumental support. The women specialize in the two-part folk polyphony still found in eastern and central Ukraine. The beginning of a verse is often sung by one or two of the singers (the zaspiv) and then the rest of the verse is taken up by everyone (the pryspiv). The solo lines are more ornamented and improvised, and the overall style is strong and open-throated.

Dobrinsky and her colleagues in Zeellia (which is a Ukrainian term for a magic potion made with herbs) have carefully arranged their material to respect the tradition while giving it a more contemporary appeal. Songs reflect the strength of rural women, dealing with subjects like marriage, a difficult husband, or the pain of leaving their family for an uncertain future. The lyrics are often poetic. One melancholic and beautiful song from Zeellia's self-titled 1998 album tells of a young man sitting beneath a burning tree who is incinerated when a spark falls on him. His sweetheart, mourning him, gathers his ashes and clasps them to her breast, only to catch fire as well.

A great deal of traditional music in Ukraine was lost in the 20th century through the cumulative effects of war, Joseph Stalin's agricultural collectivization, rural exodus, and rapid industrialization. But the interest shown by a new generation provides hope that what remains will survive in some form. "Things have really opened up since the collapse of the Soviet Union," Dobrinsky points out. "There's much more travel back and forth between North America and Eastern Europe."

"There's a definite revival happening here too, as exemplified by groups such as ourselves or the Kubasonics, who are based in Edmonton," she continues. "When Zeellia performed last year at the Ukrainian festival in Dauphin [Manitoba]-the biggest gathering of its kind, which has been going well over 25 years-it was evident that more and more young people in the community are sharing our passion for this music. But my thing is also to take it beyond the ethnic ghetto, to be an acknowledged part of the Canadian mainstream."