Slava Vakarchuk is the leader of Okean Elzy, a famous Ukrainian rock band. He is often called a “Ukrainian Bono,” but this comparison is neither accurate, nor fair. Besides being a gifted musician and an outstanding performer, Slava also succeeded in popularizing the Ukrainian language in modern art and became an ambassador of Ukrainian music and culture. Slava is a member of well-known Ukrainian family. His father, Ivan Vakarchuk is a professor of physics at Lviv university and the former Minister of Education and Science in Ukraine. Slava was an active supporter of the Orange Revolution and is involved in many social and cultural projects. In 2005, Slava became a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Development Programme. He is one of the most successful musicians in Ukraine and has a degree in theoretical physics. His concerts are immediately sold out, not only in his native Ukraine but also across the U.S and Canada among other countries.
During his latest North American tour, the New York concert in late February was sold out within several days and Okean Elzy was forced to add an additional performance day in order to satisfy an army of fans. You don’t have to be Ukrainian to appreciate Slava’s talent and energy; his music transcends geographical frontiers and political views – it is an art in its purest form. However, in order to understand Slava’s romantic, daring, and heart touching lyrics knowledge of Ukrainian is definitely a plus.
I attended this concert together with a group of friends as diverse as Okean Elzy’s geography of supporters. A married couple from Russian-annexed Sevastopol in Crimea and another couple from Moscow and small Belarus’s town of Gomel, and finally myself – a native of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. In view of the current crisis, one might think that such a diverse company, as ours would have a hard time agreeing on anything in regards to politics. The reality in fact is complete opposite since all of us are decisively pro-Ukrainian.
We arrived in the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan, while being greeted by the sea of awaiting fans in vyshyvankas, traditional Ukrainian clothing, containing elements of ethnic embroidery. It seemed that for that night a city block in Midtown Manhattan have transformed itself into something out of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, a classic short stories by Nikolai Gogol. Ukrainian flags and warm smiles were on the proud display.
While waiting for performance to start I was chatting away with my friends and telling them about a non-profit I am involved with that provides vital assistance to refugees from war-torn Eastern Ukraine as well as to Ukrainian Armed Forces. Apparently a young girl who’s also involved in similar activities overheard me and she joined our conversation. She started to ask me questions in Ukrainian but seeing my awkwardness, linguistic difficulties, and butchered responses she quickly switched to Russian. We exchanged ideas and shared experiences in working with volunteers. Apart from admiring Okean Elzy’s music, the most common theme that united the crowd was concerns about Ukraine’s defiant struggle against Russian aggression. The theme that was equally shared regardless of the citizenship status and background.
The concert was delayed and many in the audience realized the reason for it. When visibly shaken and pale Vakarchuk appeared on stage to a roaring welcoming applause, the mood quickly turned somber. Somewhat unusually, Okean Elzy did not open the concert with a high-tempo, crowd pumping song, but with a tearful greeting. A couple of hours before the start of the concert tragic news arrived from Moscow about the murder of Boris Nemtsov. In dedication to the memory of the late Russian opposition leader, Slava switched to Russian and said the following:
“I am extremely shocked by what happened in Moscow. I knew Boris very well and we have spent a lot of time together. What just happened is a very personal loss for me. I will not talk about politics today; it just does not make sense. What is more important is that he was good and very decent man, perhaps one of the most honest people in his sphere (politics) that I ever knew. Apparently, that is why he was killed. Such tragic events these days should unite all good and decent people…”
The concert proceeded with the mixture of songs from various albums and it seemed that Slava’s tolerant, and open hometown Lviv descended on Hudson. A girl volunteer was feverishly translating Slava’s words between the songs to my friends. The upper balconies of Hammerstein ballroom were decorated with Ukrainian flags and Vakarchuk’s energy galvanized the crowd.
Two hours have passed like an instant. After the concert we decided to drive by the Russian embassy and light candle lights in a makeshift memorial for slain Boris Nemtsov. During the day over a hundred people created this memorial of candle lights and flowers for a politician that represented honesty and decency in a dirty political landscape of today’s Russia. To our shock and disbelief, the memorial was quickly removed and sidewalk was meticulously cleaned just as it was at Nemtsov’s murder site in Moscow. Back in New York, I was pleased to see my friends receiving a taste of Ukrainian culture and they seemed to enjoyed it as well. “I wish to learn Ukrainian so I can appreciate even more Okean Elzy’s music”, was their common thought after this night.