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Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus and Kent State poetry project express support for Ukraine

Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus
Stanley Shelton
Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus
Members of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus performed a benefit concert recently in Detroit.

Bandura players have shared stories through song for centuries, and the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America intends to keep it that way. Members serve as ambassadors of both the music and culture tied to the Ukrainian string instrument.

“It's kind of odd to hear someone say this, but this has been an instrument, a musical instrument, that has been persecuted,” said Oleh Mahlay, conductor of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, adding that the threat for bandura players living in Ukraine escalates now the country is at war.

“This puts a bigger onus on us here in the free world as members of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus to be guardians of this instrument and help our colleagues [in Ukraine] and get the message out that this is not just the war against people, this is a war against culture,” he said.

The ensemble features about 40 bandura players and singers living in the U.S. and Canada, including nearly a dozen musicians who call Northeast Ohio home.

Meet the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, Sharing Culture Through Music

The group will come together in Cleveland Saturday at Severance Music Center for a benefit concert to raise awareness and support for Ukraine. Musical selections will include songs from prior wars, such as “The Guelder Rose in the Meadow,” written during WWI.

“Music has always played a very important part, not just to document, but to express what's going on,” Mahlay said.


In addition to the music, Saturday’s event will feature poems written for Ukraine, with an invitation for audience members to submit their own as part of a project from Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center.

“We believe poetry is a powerful tool, a very simple, not expensive, powerful tool to help people slow down and have deeper conversations with themselves and with each other and with the world around them,” said David Hassler, director of the Wick Poetry Center.

The center recently launched “Dear Ukraine,” a community poetry project that provides a space for people to read and write poems reacting to the war. A poem by Ukrainian-born Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach serves as a model to prompt other responses.

(an excerpt of “Dear Ukraine” by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach)

Dear Ukraine, you are snowfall

and ash. Your water vapor and smoke

hang heavy in the air.

Even here, they soak the earth.

Take shelter, if only in this

song and soil, if only

for a moment, take shelter here.

At the project website, there are responses from community members in nearby places, such as Parma and Youngstown, as well as participants from other states and countries. The website also offers optional translation into Ukrainian or Russian.

“I think one of the themes [in the responses to date] that's not surprising is this feeling of, ‘Ukraine, you are so distant,’” Hassler said. “’What do I do with my own sense of frustration and anger and fear and sorrow? How can I express it in a way that can be of value to you?’”

The Wick Poetry Center and Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus only recently became familiar with one another, and they have embraced their shared desire to do want they can to support Ukraine.

After all, bandura players “were poets with music, right?” Mahalay said. “This really was a natural link.”

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.