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Rock Star and Thinker Svyatoslav Vakarchuk
Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is hard to get a hold of. Whether on vacation, touring, or recording new albums, the Okean Elzy frontman and well-known Ukrainian is constantly on the go. But with the release of his new album At Night (which came out 1 December), What’s On made sure to track down the former parliamentarian. Ksenia Karpenko met up with Vakarchuk at Volkonsky Cafe to get the lowdown on his brief political career, his new record and why he plays more in Moscow than in Kyiv.
When asked about the title of his new album, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk waxes philosophical. “Night is the most intimate time. You stay up on your own or with your loved one and your thoughts are true and untarnished by the day’s problems. I think night is something invisible, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” he says, adding that the album’s 11 songs were written while he was travelling in Europe and the US. He explains, “I took a break. Like all human beings, I had to spend some time with fiends and family. People can’t just give, they also have to take.”
Svyatoslav says his new album is completely different from anything he’s done with Okean Elzy. “It has different DNA. It’s a tricky thing. It’s not rock music like the guys at Okean Elzy do. It’s a big musical experiment, kind of like modern opera music,” he says. “I released a solo album for two reasons: first, because I’m the author of the main concept behind the album; and second because it would be unfair to Okean Elzy fans. It’s not the music they’re used to.”
Speaking of fans, Ukrainian supporters have had fewer chances to hear Vakarchuk lately, partly because he performs more abroad, including in Moscow, than in Ukraine. I thought that maybe he could just make more money there, but it turns out that Palace Sport (where Svyatoslav often gives concerts) can host 10,000 people, while the Moscow venues he plays are smaller, holding 3,000-4,000 people. “So two concerts in Ukraine equal seven concerts in Moscow,” says Vakarchuk. What Svyatoslav likes is how he and his band are treated in Moscow. “Okean Elzy is loved and respected. We’re considered close to them, but not of the same flesh and blood. I see the way Russians accept us as representative of their relationship with Ukraine: we’re close, but Western in a certain way.”
Slava in the Rada
That may be because of the Orange Revolution, in which Svyatoslav was an eminent figure. Afterwards, to promote the same ideals, he went into politics and served for a short time in the Verhovna Rada. What was it like? “It would be the same if you asked me about things in the circus,” says Svyatoslav. But surely being a deputy had its perks, like reserved parking spaces? “Reserved parking here in Kyiv is a mere myth. And by the way, I never drove a car with deputy numbers. But I don’t regret anything. It was an experience, and an experience of something people shouldn’t do.”
He left the place with no illusions about the functioning of the government. “The problem is that our politicians don’t have shared goals. They’ve been misleading Ukrainians for 17 long years. And it’s not like Moses did in the Bible, it’s just wandering about without any final destination. But I’m not frustrated. Frustration is for weak people. Strong people take advantage of their experience and knowledge. Anyway, it’s not some beau monde in there. I’m more likely to respond to letters from people if they’re somehow being mistreated. Certainly, there were some petitions for increased salaries or pensions that we couldn’t handle, but if someone was unlawfully deprived of housing, I immediately responded to the issue, trying to help and usually succeeding in it. The Rada is not about politics. The way I see it, it’s about helping people who live in this country, and though I quit, I keep helping people.”
Despite his disappointment with the Rada, Svyatoslav is optimistic about Ukraine’s future, but is not sure how much time it will take to make things better. “I would never give up my citizenship or move to another country. I do occasionally go abroad, to relax, to admire other cities. My greatest ambition is to write music for a Ukrainian film that goes on to win an Oscar award,” he says.
Though Vakarchuk is without a doubt one of most popular singers in Ukraine, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who will call him arrogant. At his upcoming performances, he’s promoting a bunch of acts like SKAI, Boombox and Kryhitka Tsahes. Despite the demand for foreign performers, Ukrainians singers do play more in the capital’s nightspots than they used to. “To avoid mass hysteria for foreign performers we should stop simply bringing them to Ukraine and start promoting more our own. We have enough our own good performers, like Ani Lorak. If we don’t hear new groups, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist,” says Vakarchuk. He sees the Ukrainian cultural problem as an educational one that’s reflected in the average level of culture of the average Ukrainian. “We don’t listen to Beethoven or Rimsky-Korsakov, but we do listen some weird DJs. And moreover, people who pretend to be part of the cultural elite exist in their own circles, organise their clubs, publish their own magazines and are completely arrogant toward those less educated. I disrespect such people even more than the less educated with bad taste. The mission of those who are more successful should be to teach and educate, and not to ignore.”
Before he leaves, I ask Slava about his life during the financial crisis. He sounds optimistic. “I can rough it. Money has never been the most important thing in my life.”
v.flinta | 03.12.2008 18:19