Singing with Slavic Soul

Nelson Daily News Sept. 17, 1999

By Stephen Fowler

Beverly Dobrinsky grew up as a fairly typical third generation Canadian. She didn't speak Ukrainian, the language of her parents. "They wanted me to fit in," she says, "to have a better life than they had."

She formed Zeellia, a Vancouver-based women's quartet specializing in Eastern European folk music, in 1991, the centenary of Ukrainian immigration to Canada. The four women, Dobrinsky, Bcssie Wapp, Carmen Rosen and Marion Rose, will be coming to the Capitol Theatre in Nelson tomorrow at 8 p.m. and the Silverton Gallery on Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

In the mid to late 1980s, as the Soviet Bloc was collapsing, the rest of Europe and North America "discovered" Balkan music. The Bulgarian State Women's Choir enjoyed a lot of well deserved attention for a few years.

Dobrinsky studied and sang Balkan music as the director of the women's ensemble Razom Sestre, but she was interested in searching out the Ukrainian folk music of her own heritage. "It partly drew me because of my roots," she says of in Razom Sestre. "I looked around the Ukrainian community in Vancouver. I wanted an older layer of music, an older style of singing. What I wanted didn't exist." Dobrinsky set off to find it.

Spending time in the Ukrainian-Canadian communities around Grand Prairie, Alberta and in Canora, Saskatchewan, Dobrinsky was able to collect the folk songs that have become the basis of Zeellia's repertoire. "I collected a lot of material," she says, "much of which I still have to document and get ready for performing."

The experiences in Grand Prairie and Canora were quite different for Dobrinsky. "In Grand Prairie I was basically a stranger," she says. "I had to go through the process of introducing myself and getting them to trust me before they'd share their music with me. It was a lot easier in Canora. My grandparents homesteaded there. My mother grew up there, so everybody knows who I am."

Zeellia doesn't just do Ukrainian folk music. In fact, Dobrinsky is the only member of Ukrainian extraction. Carmen Rosen is English and Swedish and Marion Rose, who also plays the accordion, is Czech.

Bessic Wapp is Lithuanian on her mother's side. For the longest time. they believed they didn't have any relatives left in Lithuania. Just recently, a relative in the United States who was doing genealogical research discovered a relative in South Africa. It seems his father, who had emigrated from Lithuania during the war, had died and left a pile of unopened letters. "They were from a woman and her two daughters in Lithuania." says Wapp. "He never even opened them. 1 guess, because of the war, it was just too painful for him. But all three of them survived the war."

Wapp is going to Lithuania for six weeks at the end of September to meet the her long lost relatives. "I'm going to learn some Lithuanian songs," she says, "and bring them back for Zeellia."

They also perform songs from Bulgaria, Serbia. Croatia, and Macedonia.

Zeellia released a self-titled debut album a year ago. which has received regular airplay on CBC radio. They've also done some extensive touring throughout Canada.

This past July, they were part of Canada's National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, Manitoba. "It's a tiny little town," says Wapp, "and there were thousands of people there for this festival." Started 33 years ago, the festival was probably one of the first ethnic festivals in Canada.

"The best part for me," says Wapp. "was after the formal performances were over. Later in the evening, a band came on and they were playing polkas. They'd get faster and faster and people all over the fair grounds would hear them and all gather around the stage in a big circle and dance. And people would go into the middle of the circle and do all of those wonderful Ukrainian dances that you see. Young men balancing on one arm and all those kicks. You'd see groups of three or four getting together and deciding what dance to do. It went on and on and on. It was great to see young men and women doing something that challenged them so much and they were so proud of. And you could see they thought this was the best time. There was nothing like that in my growing up."

Wapp did her growing up in Queens Bay north of Ballour and studied voice with Cheryl Hodge at Selkirk College in Nelson. She's also the co-artistic director, along with Carmen Rosen, of Mortal Coil Performance Society, which was in Nelson at StreetFest '98. You may remember the giant T-Rex that wandered up and down Baker Street.

Mortal Coil and Zeellia plan to join forces next summer to create a performance that will explore the history and social impact of immigration in Canada. From the Root Cellar will debut at the Sound Symposium in Nova Scotia.

The word Zeellia is Ukrainian for herb and herbal potion with magic powers.

This powerful mix of traditional folk music with contemporary sensibilities brews up a haunting and powerful experience for any audience.