DakhaBrakha, billed as the Ukrainian Folkdrone, Bjork Punk Band, is as fun and far-reaching as such a title suggests. The quartet captivated the full house in Polsky Theater Friday night, presented by the Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College.
Using the Ukrainian singing tradition, but setting folk tunes with an array of music influences, these multi-instrumentalists (playing traditional Ukrainian instruments, as well as African, Indian, Western, and Middle Eastern) gave a grooving, eclectic performance that communicated beyond language. The three women — Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsybulska and Nina Troitskyi — wore impressive, full skirted gowns in beautiful red, black and white design, with heavy beaded necklaces and fur hats a foot high. Marko Halanevych matched in a fitted black jack embroidered in red, with knee high black boots. The performance had a stoic sense of theatricality thanks to these outfits, the group’s engaging, direct demeanor, and the emotive lighting, often turning intensely red at peak moments and receding to blue gray when chill.
Though heavily percussive and relying on the intense harmonies of the fused vocal timbres, each song presented something unique to the ear, within a comfortably meditative framework. This contrast of accessibility and exoticism made the concert approachable, enjoyable and modern, like when a jaw harp twang opened for a spoken line of fierce hip hop swagger, studded with interjects of “hey ho” in “Karpatskyi Rap,” or the snap of the shawm-like horn against a bluesy, swaying hum and walking bass line in “Torokh,” or a particularly rasping, punkish solo from Garenetska on her ornamented cello.
The vocals were the most arresting, a gestalt of nasal timbres, stark harmonies, trills, yips, turns, slides, and hocketed lines. Though each voice took the lead a time or two, the three female voices meshed in close accord and Halanevych’s vocal range traversed the most territory, from harsh, nearly growling lines, to a sweet, rounded tenor, to throat singing.
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Drone was an integral part of the sound, coming from looped cello played by Garenetska and from Kovalenko and Halanevych on accordions, against Tsybulska’s consistent bass drum pulse, culling a variety of timbres from the instrument.
Speaking little between songs and often transitioning right on, the concert had a seamless through line, moving from party-feel to lament effortlessly, sometimes in the same song, like the funky “Monakh” with its high, rounded vocal timbre from Halaneveych and a unison spoken line from the ladies, the accented monotone contributing to the layered rhythms.
The pensive quality was abundant in the pieces which incorporated a sense of the landscape, wailing melodies over vocalizations evoking birdsong, percussion indicating wind and galloping horses. So too was the sliding cello line in “Vesna” over the incrementally quicker ostinato from accordion and vocal patter.
The festive closer, with its scat-sung bridge demanding movement, received a standing ovation, and they followed it with “Baby (Show Me Your Love),” a soulful, doo-wop infused encore.
On their final bow, Halanevych waved a bold blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, saying “Peace and love. No war. Stop Putin.” It was one of the longest statements uttered by the band in an almost entirely music-driven set, and powerful in its simple, firm message.