Rootsy Zeellia Plays Up Music of Ukraine

Georgia Straight: Nov. 25th – Dec.2 2004

By Alexander Varty

It’s a sound that’s as old as the fields and as wild as the forest; a woman’s voice, raised in exultation, answered by a chorus of similar voices. Although the words are foreign to these ears, it's obviously a song of celebration, and of community; it rises up like green shoots in the spring, yet it speaks also of the plenty to come.

"Zelene Zhytto", the title of the piece in question, translates as "Green Rye". It's a traditional Ukrainian song of welcome that might be sung at a wedding feast or harvest-time party; it signifies that the table has been set and the wine has been poured, and it makes a perfect opener for Willow Bridge, the new CD from local Ukrainian-music specialists Zeellia. Appetizing though it is, however, it's not entirely indicative of the banquet that follows. Zeellia—which hosts a CD-release party at St. James Hall on Saturday (November 27)—started out as an all-female vocal group but has since morphed into a coed ensemble that incorporates accordion, violin, upright bass, and percussion, in addition to some very accomplished singing.
The mix is fabulous. All over the world, young musicians are looking for ways to combine their grandparents' culture with modern forms of expression, and Willow Bridge is as accomplished a back-to-the-future move as anything that's come out of such cultural hotbeds as Scandinavia, Ball, or Brazil. The disc is sweet and fierce, deeply moving and eminently danceable, passionate and smart, and that it is all these things is no doubt a tribute to its founder and leader, Beverly Dobrinsky.

A UBC music-department graduate and Kodaly teacher, Dobrinsky could easily have pursued a career in opera or art song but has instead spent the past two decades researching her Ukrainian heritage—and, especially, its musical component. As she explains it, music surrounded her as a child, but it was only once she became an adult that she recognized its true value.

"I grew up in Winnipeg, and I'm third-generation Ukrainian-Canadian," she explains. "So people sang around me, especially on my mother's side. My mother comes from a homesteading family in Saskatchewan, so when we would visit the Saskatchewan people we'd get together and sing. But I wasn't taught to speak Ukrainian; we spoke English in the home.”

Eventually she became intrigued by this other language, this other culture, and started documenting it. “First I went to the area where my mother grew up, and got people singing, and recorded them and learned a lot of music from them," she explains. "I also did the same thing in Alberta, and then I just got involved a little bit with what's going on within the Ukrainian community here, 'cause I've been living in Vancouver now for about 30 years. So I looked for what was here, but I didn't really see exactly what I wanted. I wanted to do more village roots music—bilij holos, which translates as 'white voice', or 'pure voice'—rather than concertized music. So I started Zeellia in 1991."

Dobrinsky characterizes the bilij holos sound as being "rougher" than the svelte harmonies most people think of when they think of Ukrainian music, if they think of Ukrainian music at all. "The style is more direct; it's coming out of people being able to sing across the fields," she says. "Basically, you can really direct the voice—as though you're going to call somebody from across the street. The more westernized singing is generally lighter."

And it's this rough, immediate quality that makes Willow Bridge so appealing. This is not state-conservatory music, but a sound that's as attention-getting as the blues—even if, as Dobrinsky allows, some of the music's microtonal edges have been smoothed out by exposure to the North American norm. "I have some early recordings of singers from the Prairies, and you can really hear the difference between then and now," she explains. "It's like going from country-eastern to country-western."

Some of that difference can be heard on Willow Bridge tracks like "Zavjazalom Sobi Ochi", which includes such neologisms as hazbend, policemana, and jailyu. Further explanation will come when Dobrinsky finishes her next project, a personal narrative that could wind up part stage show, part musicological treatise, and part travelogue.

"I'm interested in putting it all together," says this self-described product of the Ukrainian Diaspora. "There's this whole roots and reclaiming aspect to it, and then there's all the songs. And to end it by going to Ukraine—which I have not yet done—would be a great story, so that's how I see the big picture."
Having survived a different but no less disruptive passage to the New World, that's a journey I'd certainly want to hear more about—as would many others in this polyglot town.