Interview: Mariana Sadovska (April 2015)

A few days ago we had the pleasure of talking with one of the most inventive voices of the contemporary music panorama, that of Mariana Sadovska. The Ukrainian actress, composer, musician and, most notably, singer is one of the clearest sounds emanating from that Eastern European country. She embodies the traditions of the past and simultaneously displays a thirst for a brighter future, despite the dramatic present. Although Mariana Sadovska has played music since childhood she is still considered a cutting-edge artist. Fifteen years after the release of her first album she’s still able to lead the way in the Ukrainian music scene and to influence artists from around the world. Perhaps that’s why when months ago she tried to ‘cut the cord’ with her musical traditions (or at least leave them momentarily behind) her tradition restated itself like a flashback or a musical reminiscence. Sadovska discovered she was unable to distance herself from Ukrainian music, her roots and her primary inspiration. On the eve of her UK tour début (the first one in her life, as she confessed to us) we had the chance to interview Mariana and ask her about the recent developments of her career.

MS: “I’ve never toured around UK for so many days. Actually, I’ve never toured before. This will be the first real tour for me and the first time I’ve travelled with my new project”.

Rhythm Passport: Can an experienced and outstanding musician like Mariana sometimes feel the anxiety of a début tour?

MS: “I could say that I’m excited, but also a little bit worried about how it might be. Will I be able to find a connection and a dialogue with the British audience? I can’t tell now what it will be like, so I’m really curious myself”.

RP: As well as being the first time touring a new show she also has a new musical partner (Christian Thoré), and the project could be considered highly original even for an unconventional artist like herself. Does she enjoy a challenge?

MS: “I’m always curious to discover new territories. I don’t like to repeat things that I’ve already done, so for this project I was looking to play with a musician able to explore new territories too, like electronic music”.

RP: With Christian Thomé, a German multi-instrumentalist, electronic whiz, producer and educator based in Koln, was it musical love at first sight?

MS: “Christian is very special. There are many musicians who can mix technology with traditional sounds when they are working in studio, but for me that’s too easy and not challenging enough. What Christian can do instead is combine these things live. He can play instruments and at the same time create electronic music. He can balance digital and the live acoustic performances, which is fascinating”.

RP: It sounds as if this perfectly matches your concept of creativity Mariana

MS: “I like those extreme situations where you’re on the border. I enjoy taking risks, to provoke myself and the audience. It would be easy to take sound effects and use them with my voice, but actually I prefer to use my voice as a sound effect”.

RP: Would you say your creative process is far from conventional?

MS: “when I start working on a song it’s not like ‘ok let’s see how we can transform, change or arrange this’. Usually I try to see what the song is hiding inside and how I can express that. For example, when I sing spring songs I can hear many different sounds in the music. They all mirror the spring, when you observe nature reawakening. You feel all the expectations, atmospheres, moods and emotions connected to the season. That’s what I want to do: to bring all these things into a song, and that’s how all those vocal phenomena and sound effects happened”.

RP: The original title for this project was ‘Cut the Cord’, but the concept behind your new project underwent a complete transformation, did it not?

MS: “At the beginning of this project I said to myself that I wouldn’t do another one related to Ukrainian music. It was like ‘cutting the cord’ with my own roots, something like a maternal cord, but also my vocal cords. So at that time the title was fitting to what I was doing with Christian. In addition, people were asking us to give a name to our project and it’s so hard when everyone pushes you to label an idea. But then we realized that first of all there are many groups with that name, and secondly I don’t like labels, so we set it aside”.

RP: The love/hate relationship with tradition is a crucial subject in your career as well as your personal life, Mariana. Is this a theme that repeatedly comes to light?

MS: “At the beginning of this project I wanted to say no to my biggest source of energy and inspiration, which is Ukrainian traditional music. And then I didn’t manage to do it. Again, I don’t like labels and since they always define me as an Ukrainian ethno-singer I decided to question how far I could remove myself from that shelter, from the places with which I’m familiar”.

RP: So why did things change?

MS: “It’s interesting because, in the beginning I wanted to do something very abstract like vocal art, not something related to tradition. But then when I started working with Christian and started rehearsing together it was really like I was waking up in the morning, and the songs were already there. So I said to him ‘listen, I know that we don’t want to use Ukrainian songs, but have a look at this one. Maybe we could try to do something with it”.

RP: So it was like a revelation: the more you wanted to distance yourself from tradition, the more you became entangled in it?

MS: “It was as if songs were coming to me. They were demanding to be sung. This could sound a little bit mystical, but that’s how I felt. I needed to sing them and Christian was also responding to them”.

The deep artistic mutual understanding that developed between you and Christian Thoré, was that another key factor in the success of this project?

MS: “When I listen to the CD that we have just released and are bringing with us on our tour, I am amazed about how deeply Christian, who is a German musician and has nothing to do with Ukrainian tradition, found his own answers. I was amazed how he understood, felt and recognised something that was in the music. Sometimes it is even difficult for me to do that because the music is really deep, but it was intuitively leading us to a place that we could name much later”.

RP: Give us an example is a song that has become meaningful in your life and for the life of Ukraine:

MS: “There is a song that is fascinating to me. It appeared before everything started in Ukraine, before Maidan happened, before the war, yet it is so much connected to those events that it was as if the music was already feeling what was coming”.

RP: During the last year Ukraine has suddenly stood out on the map, unfortunately against its will. However this has led to an increased interest in its culture and music in particular, which has spread all around the world. So Mariana, how do you feel about this unexpected interest in Ukrainian culture?

MS: “It is a good thing and a sad thing at the same time. I hate to say it, but it is because of the war, the horror and everything that is happening in Ukraine that people are suddenly aware that we exist as a country. It is still common to find people asking me questions like ‘are you Russian? Is your language Russian?’ We are indeed still dealing with questions of identity and national recognition. But suddenly people have realised that there is such a country as Ukraine, and there was also something dramatic happening there. Unfortunately the most of the news about Ukraine is about politics and war, but it is very important to talk about culture too. There is a renewed interest in our culture all around Europe. Suddenly there are many more photo and art exhibitions opening, and also book translations are becoming more common. So in a way we definitely have to use this unwanted hype”.

RP: But Ukrainian music is far from being a newcomer. It is more like a hidden gem only recently discovered and Mariana is a great help in promoting it.

MS: “That’s my aim! I’m really looking forward to more music festivals and I also hope more Ukrainian musicians could travel and play abroad. We have a very strong ethnic scene. There are many young people travelling around Ukraine learning, recording and singing the traditional music that ordinary people sing”.

RP: Folk music is just one of the wide ranges of styles played in Ukraine. Was that the path you took yourself Mariana at the start of your musical career?

MS: “We have also a folk-rock scene and there’s a band that I really like named Cozak System. Then, yes, Dhaka Brakha! They have become very famous and they are absolutely amazing. They have almost become our brand abroad because they are really into Ukrainian music being ethnomusicologists themselves. People are also exploring new forms of musical expression. They are starting to experiment, looking for abstract ways to develop their sound. And interestingly enough, I was recently travelling a lot in the regions where the war is, like the Donbas region, and I was surprised to discover how many underground bands exist there. There are very brave and nonconformist young people who are doing crazy music”.

RP: Does Ukraine have something to offer the more orthodox music listener?

MS: “Of course popular music is still the most widespread style, and we have some really great new pop acts too. For example there’s Jamala, a singer who has an amazing vocal range and a strong individuality. When she started signing I thought that we finally had a big name coming. I really hope they won’t start copying music coming from the States because unfortunately many artists are limited by their producers who want them to sound the same, copying American standards”.

RP: Aside from the US, does the influence of Russian culture limit the development of the Ukrainian cultural scene?

MS: “Since our last Minister of Culture was really bad we still have to listen to some horrible Post-Soviet pop standards which we can’t get rid of. They are everywhere in our media, played on the radio and TV stations in commercials, and it’s very hard for musicians who play different music to come out”.

RP: Even though it’s a long time since she left the Ukraine, talking with Mariana the country’s situation is disclosed in its entirety. We wondered how she feelsabout Ukraine today?

MS: “Somebody once told me that I’m a nationalist and an internationalist in one person. I’m very rooted and committed to my country, but at the same time I feel comfortable in Germany where I live. It was the same when I lived in Poland and in the US. I never felt homesick and I feel very comfortable in the world. Honestly, sometimes when I went back to Ukraine to visit my family or to stay there for a while for some project I felt like I was caged. Ukraine, especially before the Revolution, used to be closed-minded and limiting. Now I realise how little fresh air was moving around the country because of the political situation. So I always felt uneasy being there. When the Maidan Revolution started people finally stood up, so you can feel a renewed energy now. It was as if we’d had enough. We didn’t want to be like that anymore. We finally wanted to be in an open and normal society, and that energy was amazing! Every time I went back to Ukraine last year I felt an amazing feeling. Then the war started and now I very often feel that my place is there in Ukraine, among my people. That’s why I’m going there many times to play benefit concerts for the Donbass Region, to sing for people there whether they are civilian or soldiers. I’ve also done workshops with refugee children. I’m doing this because I feel that people are often alone. We had Russian occupation and aggression from the outside, while inside there are other forces that are using the war to show that they are changing something, but actually they’re not doing it. So people are left behind and alone. But at least Ukrainians have shown they are not passive any more!”

RP: Travelling around the world with her music, Mariana has also become a Ukrainian cultural ambassador: a trustful and sincere voice of her country.

MS: “I feel that playing around England and going to Los Angeles with this project is like spreading a cultural message abroad in an attempt to balance the bad news coming from my country. Meanwhile, when I go back to Ukraine I feel that it is my place now. Yesterday I received an email from a refugee woman who’s also a mother of a five-year-old boy. They used to live in Luhansk, but they had to escape and now they are in Mariupol where we did a small workshop for the children and I taught them Spring calling songs. The boy wrote me a few words about the fact that he’s still singing those songs and I thought ‘this is what I have to do! This is my task. This is what I can do’. So I’m hanging in the balance between these two worlds. I’m living in Germany, I’m also coming to UK to present my project, bringing light and speaking about Ukraine’s culture, but at the same time I’m also there where I can physically share songs and share hope. I never experienced how intensely people can listen to songs as I did when I was there in the Donbass Region. It was amazing, because I’ve never experienced that physicality. I never shared so much beauty before. Those songs are not just entertainment. They also deal with our deep sense of life and our existential questions. That’s why you can feel that songs have physical power too”.

RP: So have you completely rediscovered your cultural origins, building a new relation with your roots too?

MS: “Everything turns around the question’ can you cut the cord or not? And which cord can you cut?’ I don’t want tradition to become a cage for me. I don’t want it to hold me back. It often happens that our traditions become our prisons and I don’t want this. So I want to consider tradition like a source of energy and not a prison”.

RP: Will this also be the path you will follow for your next work?

MS: “I have some dreams. I definitely want to transform everything that is happening now (the situation in Ukraine) into music. But I also want to collaborate with a classical music composer Valentyn Sylvestrov. He wrote music for poetry and I found those songs so inspiring that my dream is to work with them, played by his piano. But I don’t know when because I’m really busy at the moment. First I have to find time”.