When I first heard DakhaBrakha from Ukraine, I was in Los Angeles, driving in my car and listening to NPR (National Public Radio). I was mesmerized by the ethereal, folkloric, timeless sound of their music, even more so because I had visited Ukraine in 2012.
Later, in 2019, I’d revisit Ukraine to film. I’d meet and film their sister band Dakh Daughters on two subsequent trips to Ukraine. Seeing their musicianship live and in person at an intimate rehearsal spot pounded home that these were no novelty acts. These are classically trained, top-shelf musicians.
Then when DakhaBrakha toured the Americas and made a stop in NYC, I trekked out to Brooklyn to see them in the beautiful Murmrr Theatre. That experience was like no other musical event I’d ever witnessed.
I had a catbird’s seat at this event because, again, I was filming and would get to interview Marco, the lone male of the quartet (and sole English speaker fluent enough to give an interview to me) after the show.
That experience in 2019, with memories of Ukraine freshly in my mind, changed my life. There were moments during the concert during a sentimental melancholy melody or two that I was moved to tears.
Unbeknownst to me, I had just begun to cry for Ukraine.
My trips to the Russian-occupied territory of Ossetia in the country of Georgia and Ukraine had somewhat prepared me for the brutality of Russian aggression.
I witnessed the raw fear and hatred people in Georgia and Ukraine had for the Russian government’s war machine (but importantly – not necessarily the Russian people). I began to understand what Ukrainians knew. So many of us in the US did not, including apparent members of western governments at the time… that Putin and Russia were the biggest threat to world peace since Hitler.
When I visited Russia in 2010, I had a completely different experience. I remember connecting with so many Russian people and observing how hard-boiled they appeared on the outside but genuinely soft and friendly on the inside once you got to know them. But the FSB (former KGB) was another story. They were on my ass at Red Square and rudely harassing my guide.
My guide was genuinely afraid. So we frantically split, and it was not until we’d reached several blocks away that she felt safe enough to relay to me how close we’d been to getting arrested… for simply filming at a known tourism site.
I would later contrast that with Ukrainians who are more open and friendly off the bat. But most notably, my interactions with their soldiers or police were all positive, friendly.. genial even.
I’ve made friends in both countries, and as far as I can tell, all of my friends are anti-war, anti-Putin, which is to now say anti-war criminals. My friend from Moscow, Dima, lead singer of the legendary punk band Tarakany! is now in exile with his wife, unable to return to Putin’s Russia because of fear of arrest.
I knew something was afoot in Russia in July of 2021. When traveling in Croatia, I received an email from Dima that seemed desperate as he tried to fend off harassment and threats from Putin’s goons and FSB (former KGB) lackeys. Over 30 years of playing in a punk band, this was the first time this thing had happened so consistently and systematically.
This was a change. He knew what I suspected. Something was up, and a dark change was in the air in Moscow.
Ironically, when I received the email on my phone, I was walking back to my apartment after meeting a young lady in Zagreb, Croatia who, in the course of our conversation that evening, admitted she was a bit of a fan of Putin for “standing up to the power structure of Europe.”
The following day when she and I met up to film (she had volunteered to guide and help me film around Zagreb since I was solo on this trip), I showed her Dima’s email and asked her if she was still a fan of Putin. She was understandably a bit embarrassed and backed off her pro-Putin stance.
Still, I was perplexed. How could someone seemingly above-average intelligence and empathy support Putin? Well, Russian disinformation is pretty powerful. Just ask kooky musician Aaron Lewis of the post-grunge band Staind. More on that later.
I wonder how embarrassed she is now that Putin’s brutality is on display for the entire world to see? Ukrainians have known of Putin’s brutality for decades. Georgians (the country, not the state) as well.
Our own leaders “Looked into his eyes and saw his soul,” – George W. Bush, or “I knew then, the cold war was over,” – Condoleezza Rice on Putin’s cooperation after 9/11, or “Cut it out,” – Barack Obama, “He said he didn’t do it (interfere in US elections), and I have no reason not to believe him,” – Donald Trump.
I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point. Not coincidentally, the person most hardcore on Russia, Hillary Clinton, was the one who was perhaps the biggest victim of Russian disinformation (with a big assist from her domestic enemies and Comrade Tucker at Fox News Channel, of course).
US and European leaders mollycoddled a known cold-blooded killer for years (because of energy?), and now he’s making innocent Ukrainian citizens, including grandparents, women, and little children, pay dearly.
So in March, after the invasion’s brutal first blows and DakhaBrakha announced they were coming to Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village of NYC, I was at first just thrilled they were out of harm’s way. Then I bought my ticket. I was not going to miss this show.
By the time the event rolled around on April 7th, I was in a foul mood (yes, most days these crazy days, but especially) the day of the concert, and I now realize why. It would not be that transcendental experience that I’d experienced three years prior at Murmrr Theatre. This was not going to be a celebration of joy and “cool people around the world uniting,” as my friend from Dakh Daughters once aptly put in an interview, but a recognition of injustice, loss, horror, and misery.
At first, I was correct. The crowd mainly felt Ukrainian, and they were waving flags and wearing Ukraine colors but rightly subdued on this rainy, gloomy evening. Compared to the Murmrr Theatre crowd, a more extensive mix with few Ukrainian flags in sight, that I can recall, but with a more festive atmosphere.
When DakhaBrakha took the stage, the emotion and enthusiasm were palpable. This was going to be tough, but we were somehow going to have to make it through…. and we can… if we stay together.
Unlike the Murmrr show, the visuals on screen at LPR, not just the musical elements, costumes, and theatrics of the band were critical components of this show. The visuals combined with the Dakhabrakha’s music were stunning and powerful.
Especially when DakhaBrakha mixed in their haunting, slow, timeless ballads with recent images from the war dedicated to the dead, it was not uncommon to witness people openly weeping. Yours truly included.
This was not a look-back into a past atrocity. This was watching in almost real-time and firsthand your friends, family, neighbors, and all-around good people being brutally killed, wounded, raped, pillaged, and displaced. Even if Ukraine survives (I think it will because they are tough and fierce and virtuous people)… this brutal psychological trauma will last in Ukraine for generations.
Bucha war crimes had just been uncovered. Bucha, a name I predict will be synonymous with some of the world’s worst atrocities, was on our minds and on the screen as DakhaBrakha played their haunting (have I used that word yet?), melodic, rhythmic, ancient melodies and mantras.
After this number, it felt like a good cry. Then the energy picked up, and DakhaBrakha sang of peace and love as they always have. Familiar songs from the Murmrr performance and my own Itunes library came to the fore.
There was a lovely, unscripted interruption when an audience member jumped on stage to give a massive flower bouquet to the blushing and grateful band members. Then another song was followed by an incredibly rousing encore, and the band exited off stage to a stomping, whooping, raw display of gratitude from an emotionally charged and grateful audience.
But not out of town yet.
They had fellow countrymen and women to see and comfort and relate to. The line was long, and the need was deep.
I feel the pain intensely, too, but I am not Ukrainian.
I did not want to get in the way of the lovely little Ukrainian girl who came with her parents, probably for the first time ever to a dark, dingy bar and to see this bit of history unfolding and meet those mythical and somewhat larger-than-life musical creatures from the stage.
I didn’t even try to wrangle an interview. I didn’t need it. Not this time.
I’d already told the world about DakhaBrakha (not that they needed me to do that, their fame has been spreading for years now), and they had informed us about their unique POV about the atrocious events in Ukraine. And they had more work to do, one on one, with their Ukrainian compatriots and fans.
I was exhausted but energized. I decided then and there that I’d be going back to Ukraine as soon as possible to help. Not with a gun, which I don’t know how to shoot, but with my camera, which I do.
Fascism can come from the left or the right. If we look at it with any kind of objectivity, history clearly demonstrates this.
History also teaches us that bullies that are left unchecked will rain down death and destruction on the rest of us indiscriminately, and they will not stop until they are stopped.
Such as their hubris and detachment from humanity and reality.
And such is the arrogance of the ignorance of so-called musicians like Aaron Lewis of Staind. He, who proudly proclaimed on stage just a few weeks ago that “maybe we should listen to what Putin has to say,” and the credulous fools who would amplify this twisted view in the name of “free speech” or “alternative views.”
Say what Aaron Lewis?
This wasn’t a honky-tonk bar where a drunk idiot is spouting nonsense or even a dummy on social media is simply trolling for attention.
This was thought out and planned. Either for attention (have I mentioned he’s a washed-up rock musician switching to country?), or simply because this man has gone down a dark rabbit hole of conspiracy and lies like so many in this once proud nation.
Ironically enough, if Mr. Lewis were to espouse his views in opposite form (against Putin) while in Russia and within reach of Putin, he’d be imprisoned, poisoned, exiled, or worse, he’d fall out of the window like so many Russian doctors who spoke out during covid.
Such a brave position to take in the safety of the very country where you can say the vilest, most hateful, and hurtful things in the name of protected “free speech.”
As witnessed by my previous post about Covidiots and my dormant cyberstalker from this very blog, punks are as suspect as anyone to conspiracy garbage. But not as suspect as the mainstream rock (and country) community with washed-up former celebs like Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, Charlie Daniels (RIP), Ricky Schroader, Scott Baio, Steven Segall, Kevin Sorbet, and a few other former C-listers, now D- Listers wishing to blame anyone but themselves for their choices and downfalls.
Some on the bottom rungs of intelligence or mental health seemingly have a tough time distinguishing between legitimately resisting conformity and embracing loony and damaging conspiracy theories, “questioning authority.” Simply put, they lack intelligence. What we once called stupid, we now indulge. When did kooky, tin-foil hat wearing become in vogue for aging losers? Around the time, social media hijacked the world’s consciousness.
There’s a crisis of cowardice in this world, and Mr. Lewis is the tip of that crisis (and “Birds aren’t real”).
Disguised as brave, he says something provocative, saying “I don’t care” about the repercussions when he knows full well. The only repercussions will be conversation and amplification of his profile. Is he simply trying to jumpstart a stalled musical career? Assuming folks will forget this blatant bit of disinformation spewing?
Well, Mr. Lewis, I haven’t forgotten. I will make sure you wear that moment like one of the many tattoos you have to disguise that you are aging. Those few words of extreme ignorance speak louder than any ink. They will echo for decades and stain (pun intended) your pathetic, attention-craving legacy.
Tattoos don’t make you relevant. Crazy, loony Russian or Chinese propaganda spouting doesn’t make you sound “alternative,” it just showcases your extreme ignorance.
To Mr. Lewis, I say –
You won’t spend years in a prison camp. You won’t even lose your career. You may feel a burst of energy at the attention for a minute. But someday, you’ll ask yourself – at what cost to your soul?
Don’t listen to Putin… Listen to my Russian friend Dima from the band Tarakany!, now in exile in fear of arrest or more because of what Putin has to say.
Listen to the people of Ukraine crushed under the weight of Putin’s aggression.
Listen to the survivors and victims of Bucha, Mariupol, Odesa, and other besieged Ukrainian cities.
Listen to my Russian friends who went deeply into debt to the Russian underworld to obtain a US visa. Mainly so as not to have compulsory service in the criminal conscripts of the Russian army, who, as evidenced by their behavior in Chechnya and Syria, are no strangers to vile acts of brutishness and evil.
Listen to my videographer Anastasia and her little 10-year-old brother, separated from their mother and father for the 2nd time in their young lives because of Mr. Putin’s aggression toward a smaller (but evidently not weaker) neighbor.
Listen to the four million refugees, primarily women, and scared children, displaced because of what Mr. Putin says.
Listen to the grandma trapped behind the arbitrarily and constantly moving barbed wire and illegal borderline of Russian Occupied Ossetia in Georgia (the country), who can’t leave to buy groceries or supplies, or she’ll never be able to return.
Or listen to what Primo Levi, an Auschwitz Survivor, has to say – “Monsters exist. But they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” –
Mr. Lewis: Instead of listening to Putin, let’s listen to someone who walks the walk and hear what our freedom and peace-loving pals from DakhaBrakha have to say.
You are credulous and easily manipulated. You are simply supporting fascism at its most evil.
This, and you, will not age well. Neither already are.
If you’d like to help the Ukrainian people, please visit RawTravelGiveback.com for ways you can help.