The Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha played at Payomet in Truro last Tuesday, challenging the audience with its insistent message about the war in their native country.
At one point, golden-hour sunlight poured through Payomet’s open-air oceanside pavilion. At the same moment, images of war-torn Ukraine were projected onto a screen beside the band, the visual backdrop to their dissonant melodies. My eyes bounced back and forth between these images of destruction and the sunset-drenched scrub pines visible to the side of the stage.
The disconnect between setting and song unsettled me. I felt embarrassed, ill-prepared to digest the band’s message in a place of relative comfort, surrounded by beauty. I could imagine hearing this band in a musty, dimly lit club, with a rainstorm outside. Here, everyone was dressed in their best summer casual. This was the entertainment after a day at the beach, perhaps after a lobster dinner.
The show began somberly. One song was dedicated to those who have died in the war. I could feel the performers’ closeness to the conflict. The band members, three women and one man, were all dressed in towering hats and ornate folk-inspired costumes. Introducing another song, band member Marko Halanevych spoke about how Ukrainians, many spread around the world now, yearned for home. Meanwhile, more images showed drone footage of bombed-out apartment buildings, the carcasses of homes.
Their sounds were jarring, too, a mix of Ukrainian folk tunes, punk, and Arabic instruments. The drummer pounded out beats overlaid with searing notes from the cello. The vocals were odd and otherworldly.
These were more than laments. They shouted defiance. “Russia is a terrorist state,” was projected on the screen. One song, dedicated to the fighters, was accompanied by a video montage of Ukrainian troops setting off rockets. I wondered if anyone else felt my discomfort at this celebration of militarism. I think I’m not alone in being accustomed to sneering at anything resembling wartime propaganda from a comfortable distance.
I found myself starting to leave my reality and dipping my toe into the Ukrainians’ world, pulled along by the power of music. At a different event this week, I had heard artist and gallerist Susie Nielsen speak about art as an empathy-building act. DakhaBrakha might have been aiming for that, but first they were pushing me out of my comfort zone.
“After winter comes spring,” said Halanevych from the stage later in the evening. He and his bandmates began a playful song, creating cacophonous bird sounds. At this point, the people in the audience were dancing and waving their phones, uplifted.
This experience felt almost spiritual to me, echoing religion’s ability to both disrupt self-satisfaction and provide comfort. It left me grateful to be here on the Outer Cape, amid so many opportunities for cultural engagement. At the height of the hedonistic summer season, the concert reminded me of the power of art and the pleasure it delivers, which unlike a sugary-sweet ice cream cone can leave one feeling satiated and nourished. Sometimes the path to illumination requires an encounter with disruption.