The secret of Kateryna Pavlenko, Ukraine’s enigmatic Eurovision singer

Kateryna Pavlenko during the performance at the Eurovision 2021 Finals. Screenshot from video 

Culture

Article by: Alya Shandra

Ukraine’s electro-folklore band Go_A took fifth place at Eurovision-2021 with Shum, an archaic pagan song calling to awaken spring. One of the distinctive perks of this performance was Go_A‘s enigmatic soloist, whose hypnotic gaze was compared to that of a shaman’s. Her name is Kateryna Pavlenko, and in an interview with Ukraine’s Public Broadcaster, she told what lies behind the solemn stare: a childhood of homelessness, an illness that led to the removal of a lung, and the will to persevere, despite all odds.

[The video is with English subtitles]

Did you know that Kateryna Pavlenko, the soloist of the Go_A band which represented Ukraine at Eurovision this year, had to learn to sing anew after a part of her lungs was removed?

“My sound isn’t formed in my lungs nor in my bronchi as there is not much space there, but somewhere, somewhere here. Especially, this concerns high notes.

 

It vibrates somewhere here in me, I don’t know how it gets there. You can hear me gasping it all the time. There’s a charm to it because you can hear me gasping, though I have no problem at all with this manner of singing. I can take a note and sustain it for a very long time, and I don’t even know how it works.”

Kateryna grew up in Nizhyn, a town of under 70,000 in northern Ukraine and was raised by a militarywoman mother. Her father never contacted her; she only sought him out when she was 17. Her love for music manifested itself from early on:

“I’ve had this desire to sing since I was a little girl. But no one noticed it for a very long time.”

She studied in the local music school, where she was on track to become an opera singer, before a rock studio opened up there. Rock became her life for three years. Then she moved to Kyiv, and started searching for musicians who wanted to make music, not only to express themselves. Kate got a job at a McDonald’s restaurant to earn money for a guitar and laptop for as long as she studied at college. Finally, she found Go_A.

From there starts Go_A‘s love with the folk tradition, which ended up getting them to Eurovision:

“We are proud of what we do. We like folklore, we like songs, we sing them all the time during rehearsals, in dressing rooms… we sing in four voices, and we bliss out from the process.”

GO_A’S OFFICIAL EUROVISION MUSIC VIDEO

But all of that could have not happened, were Kateryna less lucky. At the age of six, during the wild 90’s she and her mother became homeless when her grandfather died. They lived from couch to couch at a time of drastic economic crisis when most Ukrainian families were barely making ends meet. Her mother worked at odd jobs; Kate missed school.

Eventually, they ended up living at an unfinished construction site. But Kate hid her troubles from everyone: she came to school at 7 AM in the winter to wash her head in the school’s girls restroom, as the water bucket in their home had a layer of ice on it.

“Somehow, I just got by and no one knew about it. They suspected that not all was good but nobody knew how bad it was. That’s why, all were a bit shocked. 

 

I remember being very upset because I didn’t want anyone to know about it. And then I realized that … Well, I was afraid that they would laugh at me, and people would despise me.

 

But then I realized that people actually felt sorry for me, and it was even worse. Pity is the last thing I wanted to evoke in people.”

Why was Ukraine’s Eurovision performance by Go_A so mesmerizing?

Constant colds from the bad living conditions is why she thought the pains in her lungs were nothing special. Until it turned out that it was a tumor. Kate underwent two surgeries; a part of her lung was removed. The chances for her surviving were so slim she didn’t plan her life further.

“The doctor fed me with a spoon, as far as I remember. He turned out very kind. And they didn’t take money from us.

 

Chances were so slim that I didn’t even plan my life further. I just walked along Kyiv, watched the boys snowboarding. I listened to music, played the guitar and tried to get the most out of the time I had.

 

And then I woke up at night in the emergency room after the surgery and realized that I was alive.”

Listen to the rest of Kateryna’s interview here.

Some more songs from Go_A worth noting:

Ukraine’s Go_A makes it to Eurovision grand final with archaic pagan tune to awaken spring

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