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Ruta Rules! A national rock triumph

KYIV, May 25, 1997. Katya Chilly’s kohl-blackened eyes and banshee voice may have sent chills down the spines of those looking at the 4-meter high video screens on Maidan Nezalezhnosti – but she did thank her parents and Jesus for helping her win best rock soloist at the fifth Chervona Ruta Festival. And that about summed up the extremes of this competition for the top newcomers in Ukrainian pop music.

This year’s event wound up May 25 with a mega-concert, complete with dazzling light show, dancing teens in cages, an intrepid parka-clad interviewer, and a dred-locked Emcee with glamorous brunette sidekick. While VIP’s and their friends stomped around the stage and seating platform up front, the street and plaza opposite were a sea of young faces and swaying arms for the entire four hours of the concert.

Red-bereted soldiers and grey-capped police stood in a cordon behind a fence against which hundreds of thousands – estimates were up to half a million fans – of bodies were pressed, a scary sight had Ukrainian crowds any tendency to the kind of eruptive violence that, say, West European football games or Indian high holy days are wont to result in. But other than hundreds of crushed and broken bottles and a rumored 27 broken ribs, there was no violence or damage. By Sunday afternoon, most of Khreshchatyk had been quietly scrubbed up again.

The fact is the Chervona Ruta ’97 Mega-Concert was something Ukraine had never seen brought together before: not the technical values, not the music, not the crowds, not the approach. And this is the kind of effort that might catapult Ukraine out of the morass of post sovietism into the forefront of modern Europe.

Bridge to the Future

The rock ballad Chervona Ruta, written by Volodymyr Ivasiuk in 1968, was the one of the earliest attempts to break out of the soviet mold of derivative pop that dominated the young soviet music scene in the 1960’s and 1970’s – and in many ways still dominates today in its Alla Pugachovas and Leonid Agutins. And that spirit lay behind the formation of the original Chervona Ruta concert series in 1989.

“The idea was to make Ukrainian culture contemporary, to bring it into the modern world, away from provinciality and from all that is rural,” says founder Taras Melnyk, “of changing the attitude that Ukrainian culture and being a Ukrainian is something low-grade and undesirable. In the past, everybody wanted to be something else, usually Russian.”

Ploshcha Svobody in Russian-speaking Kharkiv is one of the largest plazas in Europe: during the war, German planes used it as a landing strip. For three days in May 1997, more than 50 years later, it echoed with the final rounds of electric music. “Ruta brought the music that young people everywhere in the world are interested in: hip-hop, rave acid, sabre punk,” says Melnyk. “We want to get rid of the dust and bring in some of the energy and beauty of young music.”

The Art of Making Art

There is no doubt the dust is being shaken off. This year’s Ruta was probably the most cutting edge of all. “These kids are listening to European stuff, like the Cranberries, an Irish band, who are taking their folk elements and combining them with rock, and they’re doing the same with Ukrainian folk elements,” said Roman Schwed, an American businessman attending the Kyiv concert. “It’s great!”

That seems to be the whole point, as far as the festival organizers were concerned. “We’ve been able to find something uniquely Ukrainian in each performer, whether it’s the vocals, the movements and gestures, the instruments like sopilka and trembita, or the rhythms,” says Melnyk. “For young people to see something high-quality that is exciting and matches the standards of what they see in the rest of the world, and at the same time is truly Ukrainian – that’s critical.”

Yet Melnyk and other organizers are not only beating a nationalist drum. They are people with a savvy eye to the business advantage and were able to attract some heavy guns as sponsors. In fact, for Coca-Cola, this was the biggest such promotional project for 1997, and they and the other major sponsor, Kraft Jacobs Suchard, clearly found it worth their while to make a professional stake in Ukraine’s youth. Although the exact amounts given are not for publication, Melnyk has no doubt of the value: “Our youth and our culture are the benefactors of that gamble.”

Melnyk is not so impressed with the commercial sense of the city of Kyiv, however. “If the city looked at this right,” he says, “they’d make such a spectacle of Chervona Ruta! They’d promote it as a tourist attraction, sell souvenirs, T-shirts, music CD’s – you name it. Instead, they’re afraid of all of it and we had to fight for everything that we got.”

Bit By Bit…

Security was a particularly tough nut. Understandably concerned with crowd control, Melnyk wanted to try some western techniques. “We had special barriers and suggested that they section off the open area to contain the numbers more safely,” he explains. “But the police didn’t understand what we were talking about. They wouldn’t try it.”

One boost was that the Culture Ministry decided not to cut the festival back, although many other programs were ditched. As in previous years, the money allocated by the Finance Ministry was a bit slow in arriving, but the government chipped in a substantial Hr 400,000 (about US $200,000) directly, in additon to considerable organizational support from the Ministries of Culture and Family & Youth. Hr 100,000 was allocated for the rental of the Kharkiv Opera House – most of which went to pay off back wages to its employees. Surprisingly, support came from deputies in the Verkhovna Rada, who did everything they could to push financing through in time.

And President Kuchma sent an official greeting to Kharkiv. “This festival of young music is extremely important,” said his address. “It contributes to the development of a modern music culture and at the same time it involves the younger generation in the process of nation-building.”

On a budget of nearly $800,000, the finals of the festival ran for two weeks with 350 musicians who passed the eliminations. “The sound alone took 1.5 megawatts of power to play,” says Melnyk. “In Kharkiv, we had to bring in a small generator to keep it all pumping – it was no small feat, especially since local officials weren’t prepared for that kind of thing. They just saw us as a big bother!”

Other officials were more forthcoming, such as the Mayor of Kyiv. “Mr. Omelchenko let Chervona Ruta perform on Independence Day in 1996, and he supported the festival this time by letting us to play after 22:30,” Melnyk explains. “We really needed that, because without the darkness, any effects become pointless. When he gave the go-ahead to play until 23:30, we were thrilled – though the police weren’t too crazy about it.”

…Putting It Together

For many, Chervona Ruta is becoming the main support for Ukrainian composers, musicians and song-writers, and the festival was handled almost exclusively by Ukrainian techies and Ukrainian companies, all using western technology and western approaches. The lighting was by Clay Paky, an Italian company and the video screens were especially brought in from Belgium. “Everything was what the kids have learned to expect from their TV hit parades,” Melnyk comments, “only now it’s here, in their own front yard. That’s our basic philosophy, to bring what’s the hottest and best and show everybody that it can be done. The last thing we want is the old guard, the merited artists and all that, all the mothballs of soviet Ukrainian culture.”

The first stage ran in Kharkiv Apr. 27-May 11, selecting winners in four genres: ballads, dance, pop and rock music. With eliminations involving 2,600 competitors from 24 oblasts and Crimea, Ruta is unique in both its broadness of range and the popularity it has among the young in Ukraine. Some 20,000 spectators were entertained by nearly 6,000 songs at the oblast competitions. By the final rounds in Kharkiv, it was down to 94 competitors playing eight concerts before 1,500 spectators in the overcrowded Kharkiv Opera House.

The rock category was won by DAT of Cherkasy oblast and Faktychno Sami [Mostly alone] of Ivano-Frankivsk. Tanok na Maidani Kongo [Dancing on Congo Square] of Kharkiv and Tartak of Lutsk were tops in dance music, while the Kharkiv group Radoslav and Kyiv’s Katya Chilly won the pop competition. The two top prizes for ballads were not awarded. Performers from the east and south did the best, reflecting a serious new trend: Crimea, for example, was represented by a record 28 rock groups, probably a direct result of the fact that Chervona Ruta played in the Russian-speaking cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol in the past.

Over 300,000 spectators, a festival record, attended the three final concerts where participants and winners of past Rutas – Iryna Bilyk, El-Kravchuk, Maria Burmaka, Skriabin, VV, Komu vnyz – joined the newly-crowned winners. Voice of America’s Kharkiv correspondent, Viacheslav Novikov, commented afterwards that the Ukrainian-language Chervona Ruta had set Russian-speaking Kharkiv on its ears. Something Taras Melnyk and his artistic director Anatoliy Kalynichenko would say was very much the point.


Over the years, thousands of musicians have left Ukraine for greener pastures. Chervona Ruta is perceived as one way of stemming that tide. Since 1989, the festival has brought 13,000 young Ukrainian-speaking musicians to the stage. With only about US $800,000 – a very small budget by western standards – Ruta ’97 covered expenses for stylists, designers, folklorists, choreographers, arrangers, professional studio recordings, staging and costumes for each participant. The work of 24 composers who created 150 new songs was also paid for practically all performers. In fact, Kyiv’s Vasyl Tkach composed a record 34 songs for the festival. Early estimates are that each performer cost the organizers US $1,200.

While some complained that the elaborate staging prevented performances from being as raw and original as they might have been, the polished, professional result – all of it live and not lip-synched – was completely justified. And if trip-hop, Django, goa, and tan-trance say little to those over thirty, they kept nearly half a million young Ukrainians glued to the fence on May 25 in Kyiv. •

Published in Eastern Economist #175, June 1997

Published on 23/09/2009


 © L. A. Wolanskyj

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