Belarusian musician and activist Siarhei Douhushau was in Chicago in March of 2019 on a U.S. tour presenting folk art and music from his eastern European home. Nadzeya Ilkevich, then a second-year graduate student at Ohio University, caught wind and lured her friend and fellow countryman to Athens, Ohio – an Appalachian foothill college town of about 40,000 – to perform traditional Belarusian songs using flutes and a hurdy gurdy, which is a hand-cranked hybrid of a violin and small piano.
Brett Hill was at Jackie O’s – a popular “uptown” brewpub – that night. Hill is the frontman for Hill Spirits, a modern Appalachian folk quartet based in southern Ohio.
“We asked Siarhei if he wanted to jam the next night,” Hill said. “Fortunately enough, he did want to…The evening was spent feasting, drinking, singing, shouting and growing to learn of each other’s traditions for the first time.”
Among the Madness, Someone Yelled, “Slavalachia!”
That evening, the namesake was born as both an Appalachian-Slavic folk ensemble and a cross-cultural folk alliance.
“As a cultural manager, this is the kind of collaboration I would like to see continue,” Ilkevich says.
She immediately grew the project, adding Maria Chichkova, of Torban Folk Band, from Lviv, Ukraine, to the Slavalachia lineup. Torban is a traditional ensemble that creates new arrangements around traditional Ukrainian acapella songs. “This is our traditional song transformed for a modern listener.”
According to Chichkova, traditional music in Ukraine is alive and well. But in Belarus, the health of traditional music, along with Belarusian culture, has long been tyrannized by centuries of Russian encroachment. Ilkevich says most families speak Russian as the primary language. The 2009 Census says about 70 percent of the population speak Russian at home.
“During Soviet times, and before Soviet times, the Russian government – and I’m not accusing the people – [was] trying to absorb…the Belarusian language and culture, and replace it with theirs,” Ilkevich says.
People grew disconnected from their traditional and folk music as these customs were increasingly portrayed through a Soviet lens, Ilkevich says.
Ilkevich says the situation in Belarus has only deteriorated during dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year reign. He is partial to the Soviet influence, she explains. “He changed the flag and symbol of the country. He tried to remove [the] Belarusian language from [schools].”
But in 2020, the political tension hit a climax when Lukashenko proclaimed himself the winner of what opposition leaders called a fraudulent election. Citizens poured into the streets in August last year for weeks of demonstrations, and neither the United States nor the European Union recognizes Lukashenko as the legitimate leader.
But Ilkevich says the uprising amidst a pandemic has stoked a fire of curiosity about Belarusian folk traditions among the people.
“Thanks to the revolution, we have a [real] boom of traditional culture,” she explains. “People started speaking [our] traditional language. They started being interested in their roots, to value the land they are from. Not just the culture, but even the land is endangered.”
Douhushau has been at the cultural front lines of the revolution. He says the COVID-19 pandemic is back-seat fodder compared to the revolution in his home country. “The pandemic became a good excuse for the current government to manipulate.”
Douhushau sarcastically says the borders are closed in Belarus because of COVID, but the government is allowing concerts to continue.
Douhushau explains the uprising in Belarus initially started with people rallying around a foreign song and a generic flag of white stripes, but has shifted toward the traditional songs and the historic flag of the country – symbols and songs of a country before Russian influence.
“We find our identity in a traditional culture. Everything is in there: our songs, our language, our genetic code,” Douhushau says. “Traditional song accompanies all the people’s protests and uprisings – the most powerful, the most emotional and the most influential.”
From Slavic Traditions to Appalachia – A World Away
Two months before the world locked down and seven months before the Belarusian revolution began, Appalachian musician Brett Hill and his Hill Spirits bandmate Benjamin Stewart flew to eastern Europe. The January 2020 trip was the first full meeting of Ilkevich’s Slavalachia brainchild.
Ilkevich, Chichkova, Douhushau, Hill and Stewart met in the airport in Lviv, Ukraine, where Chichkova held a white markerboard with Slavalachia inscribed on it.
“We were trying to film, but the guards wouldn’t let us,” Ilkevich remembers. “Siarhei started playing flutes, and the guards kicked us out.”
It was during this trip, Hill says, he started to understand how both Slavic traditional music and Appalachian traditional music were so closely tied to one another. They are less about sonics and more about connections to their respective cultures-at-large.
Over the following weeks, members of Slavalachia deepened their connections with one another and each other’s respective folk traditions. They traveled around eastern Europe, practiced in small villages near the Białowieża Forest of Belarus, deep in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine, and ultimately played their first live concert (remember those?) at Lviv’s Dzyga, a major cultural center.
Douhushau opened. Hill and Stewart played next and even taught a Georgian men’s vocal choir a moonshiner song.
“They just loved that stuff….It just lit the room on fire. Absolutely lit it on fire,” Hill says.
The Ukrainians went third, and the full supergroup – all three acts – played out their inaugural set as the closer to the first official Slavalachia showcase.
Ilkevich, the manager and producer of the project, was thrilled.
“They were jamming. Some other musicians came to the stage. The concert was one hour longer than we were supposed to have. It was big!”
Hill witnessed the health of Ukrainian traditional music as a major component of Ukrainian culture, but in Belarus, he saw the polar opposite. Instead of being celebrated, in early 2020, traditional Belarusian music wasn’t really known by its people.
“Appalachian traditional music finds itself between these two in terms of their stages of cultural health,” he said. “Appalachian folk music is not going anywhere, but it has not earned respect that it might have even 100 years ago, when Bascom Lamar Lunsford was performing for the Queen of England.”
In other words, Appalachians aren’t exactly sitting around the dinner table singing traditional songs like Ukrainians might, but no dictator is trying to sweep their heritage under the rug like in Belarus either.
“I still get messages from Ukrainians…asking when we’re going to come back and perform more of that music,” Hill says. “[The result has been] my musical project, Brother Hill, being about three times as listened to in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and eastern Europe than in the U.S.”
“That solidifies it, too. The foreigners dig this Appalachian music a little more than the Americans do!”
Before Slavalachia, Douhushau says he knew nothing of Appalachian music.
“If I was searching this on the internet, I would never be interested in it. When I met [Appalachian musicians] personally, it opened this music for myself. I started to understand it and feel it. We started to improvise with that music and that opened my soul towards it. “
Chichkova echoes that she had zero previous knowledge of Appalachian music, but she says there is familiarity with her Ukrainian traditions. She hears it as music of the mountains, of nature, and “…about people and relationships. We are very connected to each other. And now our music is connected…The spirit is the same…All traditional music speaks one language.”
Before the Americans Returned to Ohio, Slavalachia Began Carving its Next Cross-cultural Exchange
But then Ilkevich says, “COVID f*@!ed everything up – beautifully!”
Plans were in the works for the next collaboration in the U.S. when the virus essentially shut the world down. Athens, Ohio, Mayor Steve Patterson invited Torban to showcase Ukrainian music in venues throughout the college town where Douhushau had played the year prior. She says the City of Lviv was ready to sponsor the trip to promote Ukrainian culture abroad. The Americans started scheming their return to Ukraine to record an album with Douhushau as the full Slavalachia outfit.
Even with COVID, the project has not been fully put on hold.
During 2020, the musicians had what Hill calls a light-medium success recording remotely in response to Lukashenko’s controversial re-election in Belarus. Musicians half a world away used digital platforms to continue communicating and practicing, even recording tracks that were sent back-and-forth – tracks that were a direct response to the political uprising in eastern Europe, a resistance piece.
“We utilized a song that I have been singing since I was a little boy, called ‘Which Side Are You On?’” Hill says, a song widely known for its use during various protest movements throughout history, especially in Appalachia. “My father was a union man, his father before him was a union man, workers carpenters, elevator operators…This song is a song that reins true in hills of Appalachia or streets of Belarus.”
Filmmakers in Ohio, Belarus and Ukraine gathered footage, and a music video for the song was cut and released in support of the uprising. The video, like the song, was cut and assembled from three remote locations. It’s been viewed nearly 9,000 times.
Despite kicking out one track, the musicians are much more eager to play together in person rather than in a virtual space. They have recently put the videoconference practice on hold.
“Unfortunately, a monitor does not give energy,” Chichkova says. “I like to feel live bodies…I think it’s normal because it’s an energy.”
Ultimately, the hybrid of styles among these differing folk traditions presents an opportunity for tangible collaboration and ongoing camaraderie, Hill says of Slavalachia.
“The point of Slavalachia is to band together, make super dope music that has never been – as far as we can tell – made before by the fusion of these three traditions, and also help support each other’s not only musical projects…but support each other’s folk traditions.”
Hill says he hopes to travel to Ukraine to perform once coronavirus restrictions begin to loosen up – and when Douhushau can find time to travel during the Belarusian revolution.
For now, Ilkevich is awaiting a transfer from Lviv to Prague, where she will continue to work in cultural promotion in the Czech Republic. One of the many productions on her post-COVID to-do list is Slavalachia. She wants to keep filming and compile the footage into a documentary – her husband is a documentary filmmaker.
“I’m keeping everybody together and watering Slavalachia-land for them to grow.”
Chad J. Reich is a freelance journalist, multimedia producer and MFA candidate at the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. His MFA documentary “A Monolithic Folly: Fracking Colorado’s North Fork Valley,” was named a Finalist in the Student World Awards. In June 2021, Chad will join Western Colorado University as the official photographer and videographer.
This story was featured on an episode of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia. Listen to the episode here.
Editor’s Note: Two characters in this story speak English as a secondary language, and one speaks only Belarusian. Quotes have been edited for clarity but retain accuracy and authenticity.