Zeellia's 10th year ends on a high note

CONTACT (KOHTAKT)-Ukrainian Canadian Congress-B.C.Provincial Council Winter 2001

By Paulette MacQuarrie

As one of the final acts at the Sacred Music Festival held in Vancouver November 10-12, Zeellia charmed another, new audience with a magical mix of earthy folklore and divine splendour.

The festival was held in three different venues-at St. Andrews Wesley Church on Saturday, the Temple Sholom on Sunday, and the First Nations Longhouse at the University of British Columbia on Monday. It featured a variety of folkloric artists representing a broad cross-section of the world's religions.

The atmosphere at the Longhouse on Monday evening reflected everything that is best about Zeellia; it was warm, intimate, inviting, and utterly professional. The acoustics were superb, and the performance captivating-during the 45-minute set, which focused on the seasons, there were gasps of delight, whoops of laughter and wild applause throughout.

Narration was evocative, often humorous yet always illuminating, making their musical journey through the four seasons smooth sailing. All three singers-Carmen Rosen, Bessie Wapp and Artistic Director and founder Beverly Dobrinsky- took turns regaling the multicultural, multi-faith audience with descriptions of Ukrainian agrarian civilization and the human elements that comprise it.

The trio began by singing acapella in the traditional Ukrainian bili holos (pure voice) style. Gradually, they introduced "the band," a new team of musicians assembled this past spring- Alison Jenkins (accordion), Russell Sholberg (bass) and Sarah Shugarman (violin). Like the singers in Zeellia, they are all professionally-trained musicians with a deep respect and affection for folk music.

To many in the audience, this (Ukrainian music) was a new and unfamiliar sound, but it clearly intrigued them. Starting with Blahoslovy Maty, an ancient song from pre-Christian times about the mother goddess (or perhaps just Mother Nature), spring's focus was on awakening sensuality and the promise of fertility in both agricultural and human terms, while summer's was on the fulfilment of those promises. Songs for these two seasons told stories of romance, betrothal, and the antics associated with Kupalo (summer solstice) festivities. Autumn's focus was on the harvest, with a rarely-heard but beautiful song called Mayalo Zhytachko, mayalo (Rippling Rye). Winter songs, not surprisingly, consisted of Christmas and New Year's carols-koliady and shchedrivky.

An unusual but delightful "audience participation" approach in two carols added an interesting dimension. The phrases chosen were relatively easy for a non-Ukrainian tongue-chudo, chudo po vitayut' and shchedry vechir, dobriy vechir-and closing my eyes for a moment, I could almost believe I was in a Ukrainian church on Christmas Eve

One of the most pleasant surprises for me was Zeellia's rendition of Nova Radist Stala. The addition of instrumental accompaniment to this soul-stirring Christmas carol created a dramatic and awe-inspiring effect that added an element of mysticism, and raised goose bumps. Schedryk had a similar effect, and was one of the loveliest renditions of this New Year's carol I have ever heard.

Since its inception ten years ago, Zeellia has been consistently offering audiences a refreshing and honest musical portrayal of Ukrainian cultural life. They rarely back away from controversial topics, addressing them with sensitivity, respect, and in some cases, even humour.

Asked how she would characterize Zeellia's first 10 years, Beverly explained that it has essentially reached a "coming of age." The relationship between the three singers, who have been working together during most of the past decade, as well as the musicians, is close and harmonious.

"Artistically, it's very satisfying for me," said Beverly. "It's almost like Zeellia has its own life now and I can see it getting more refined and polished. I find it a very rich place and it's a place that feeds my soul."

Zeellia released its first CD in 1998, and is considering launching its second decade with a new CD in 2002, which will include the songs performed at the Sacred Music Festival. The group is also looking at a cross-Canada summer tour as well as a collaborative concert or two featuring local and visiting artists. There is little doubt that with Zeellia's ability to charm audiences in any setting, the next decade has some exciting musical surprises in store for us all.