Ukrainian Folk Singing Offers a Path Through Trauma

Nadia Tarnawsky (Photo by Irina Ivanova for Voices of NY)

Nadia Tarnawsky (Photo by Irina Ivanova for Voices of NY)

The workshop in a church basement started, as workshops often do, with a circle of introductions.

“Hi, my name is Al, and I’m a tenor.”

The goal? For singers and non-singers alike to put on an impromptu performance and sing communally, perhaps uncomfortably. That included singing without instruments, teaching tenors to sing the bass and soprano parts of a song, and teaching non-singers to abandon long-held notions about how well they sing.

“Singing together is something we used to do all the time, and at some point we stopped doing it,” says Nadia Tarnawsky, who flew from Seattle to New York to lead a folk music workshop on Oct. 19 in the East Village. “I think people miss it.”

Tarnawsky has devoted her 25-year career as a performer and teacher to preserving a bit of her people’s collective memory. Tarnawsky, who was born to Ukrainian parents in Cleveland, grew up in the folk scene. She attended Ukrainian Saturday school, learned singing and dancing and to play the bandura, a traditional Ukrainian instrument.

She didn’t particularly like it. “I’d say, ‘What’s the point?’ Ukraine will always be part of the Soviet Union,” recalled Tarnawsky. But a year after the USSR dissolved in 1991, Tarnawsky got the opportunity to visit Ukraine, where she learned the traditional way of singing from villages in the country’s central and northern regions. With the fall of trade barriers, she was also able to get her hands on old ethnographic recordings that had been harder to collect under Soviet rule.

Loosening up before singing (Photo by Irina Ivanova for Voices of NY)

Loosening up before singing (Photo by Irina Ivanova for Voices of NY)

She described some of these singing techniques at the workshop: Push the sound to the front of your mouth, so the sound is sharp and clear. (North Americans are more often used to singing from the back of the mouth or the throat, she says.) Stretch beforehand. And sing with your whole body: bend your knees and use your ribcage and your pelvis to amplify your voice. The technique, which Tarnawsky learned from stage performance, protects the voice from burnout.

“I want to have a raspy blues voice when I’m old,” joked the singer, who is 42. “But I’m not ready for that yet.”

After leading the group through introductions, stretches and back massages, Tarnawsky started with a classic folk song about a widow looking for her lost husband.

Singing Ukrainian folk songs (Photo by Irina Ivanova for Voices of NY)

Singing Ukrainian folk songs (Photo by Irina Ivanova for Voices of NY)

It’s a quirk of Ukrainian history that older songs, particularly those about death and war, periodically return to relevance. With the one-year anniversary of the Maidan protests in Kiev approaching, Tarnawsky used a singing workshop to educate visitors about recent Ukrainian history and to bond over that history.

“Most of the time, the saddest songs are the most beautiful,” she says. “My mom still calls it ‘bellyaching music,’” she said — for the songs’ particularly achy, piercing quality, especially when sung without instrumental accompaniment.

Though Tarnawsky lives in Seattle, she has been flying in and out of New York for the past six years. In 2008 she helped start a singing group, now called Ukrainian Village Voices, that performs and teaches traditional songs in and around New York. Half of the workshop’s attendees were singers from Village Voices. Some others were unexpected fans.

“I wasn’t planning to participate,” a man named Volodya, who joined in after watching for 20 minutes, told Tarnawsky. “I just wanted to hear you sing.”

Listen in on the workshop below.

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