Savannah Music Festival Review: DakhaBrakha's 'Earth'

“I’VE NEVER seen anything like that before” is typical of the audience response in the stunned aftermath of Saturday afternoon’s performance by the Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha.

While more well-known for their raucous live shows combining all kinds of Eastern European folk and world music traditions, this day DakhaBrakha was onstage playing their own original soundtrack to the 1930 Soviet silent film “Earth,” by Ukrainian filmmaker Alexsandr Dovzhenko, projected onto the big screen behind them at the Lucas.

The quartet took the stage in their usual traditional Ukrainian garb. They are all skilled multi-instrumentalists, but their heavy and imaginative use of percussion was particularly impactful in this performance.

As the group followed the film’s action with a monitor of their own at the lip of the stage, they tightly choreographed their accompaniment in real-time, frame by frame, their vivid dynamics matching the film’s own onrushing climax.

The heart and soul of this performance, however, was the trance-like and almost indescribably gorgeous cello playing of Nina Garanetska. Using a variety of techniques, she brilliantly used the full sonic and emotional range of this instrument, so accurately described as being the most similar to a human voice.

Speaking of human voices, DakhaBrakha’s use of the distinctive harmonies of the Russo-Balkan tradition was in fine form and again, almost defies description.

Though technically dissonant in the view of the Western music tradition, your ear soon adjusts and finds the sheer emotive beauty in this unique vocal style, sung to perfection by Garanetska and the other two women in the group, Iryna Kovalenko and Olena Tsybulska.

It’s easy to see why DakhaBrakha were inspired to conceptualize music for this hypnotically compelling film. Like much Soviet-era cinema from the Revolution to World War II, the film is in many ways ahead of its time even today.

Shot with the innate eye for beauty and composition typical of the genre, “Earth” is a cautionary – and for the time quite subversive — tale of the impact of Stalinism on the Ukrainian steppe, with a more universal message about the folly of human politics in general.

An ancient Ukrainian farming community, deeply religious and hewing to the old ways of their agrarian society, is visited by “modernization” in the form of mandatory Soviet collectivization of their family farms and the officially atheist government’s eradication of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Personifying the advance of collectivist industrialization is a single tractor. Like the monolith in '2001: A Space Odyssey,' the kulaks of the village puzzle over the machine and its mysterious impact on their lives.

We see the impact in visceral form as the tractor replaces the village’s oxen and literally tears apart their world. The scene where the tractor aggressively tills this ancient “Earth” in close-up plays more like a murder scene in a gangster film – and that’s the message.

The fact that this film – whose “counterrevolutionary” message about communism was barely even a mixed one – was allowed to be released behind the Iron Curtain, where it was well received by Ukrainian audiences, is a testament to Dovzhenko’s skill.

Like all great silent films, you don’t miss dialogue at all. The cinematography and emotive silent acting, accompanied by DakhaBrakha’s intense and deeply compelling music and vocals, are more than enough to rivet your attention. Indeed, at the end of a performance like this you are left wondering why there aren’t more silent films made today.

Ironically, the film remains a bit subversive to this day, though maybe for different reasons. While at the time its critique of Soviet state atheism was controversial, today its embrace of simple religiosity might be seen as subversive in our time of almost totally secular media and pop culture.

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