Music From Nowhere: The Underground Scene in Kharkiv, Ukraine from the 80s and 90s

Kharkiv is a large industrial city in East of Ukraine. In a comparatively short period of time, a unique independent music scene emerged here and began to rapidly develop. There was a number of reasons for this, which had to do both with urban traditions of avant-garde art and with the transitional character of those years. The complicated period of the final years of the Soviet Union's dissolution and of the establishment of a new state in the early 90s was accompanied by a deep and multifaceted crisis, but also with a sense of a freedom of self-expression and creativity, previously impossible. On the Soviet periphery and in the cities of the national Soviet republics the limits of what was allowed, set by the authorities, were significantly narrower than those in the capital cities, and the pressure on the sub-legal culture had still been reaching absurd levels in recent memory. In such conditions the new music, quickly evolving, was taking on sometimes quite unusual forms.

Some of the most outstanding evidence is the underground music of two biggest cities of Ukraine: Kyiv and Kharkiv. Both scenes had some common traits, but differed depending on links to cultural traditions that coalesced back then in each of the cities.

There was no possibility to publish independent music. It was recorded "by request" in recording kiosks and similar "studios" of varying degrees of legality and equipment quality. Or, in the best tradition of the Soviet underground, it was copied from acquaintances. One should mention that the geography of the distribution of such recordings was sometimes truly astonishing.

In the beginnings the most understood and acceptable definition of almost any strange music for the wide public was the word "rock". In view of this multiple rock festivals and events, perceived through the prism of this cliche, had a quite eclectic character.

This had an eventual effect also on our podcast where we have gathered tracks by performers who constituted Kharkiv's music scene in the late 80s and early 90s. Most of them had a direct relation to the Novaya Scena (literally "the New Scene" in Russian) association which then was busy promoting "noncommercial and avant-garde music". Festivals organised by Novaya Scena included concerts in different genres, ranging from fairly traditional post-punk to contemporary academic music that had in Kharkiv its own traditions in Kharkiv.

A significant achievement of the early 90s was the issuing of Novaya Scena compilations by several independent German labels, especially the CD release on What So Funny About Records in 1993. These compilations represent the recordings of Kharkiv bands from 1989 to 1991: aggressive and uncompromising music, somewhat close to the New York No Wave.

Since Kharkiv music was at that time, as if to catch up, quickly changing, in the podcast I tried to present recordings that piqued my interest from various periods. Here we have the peculiar psychedelia of the first rock bands of the city, just out of the underground in 1985; the "hardcore" period itself; also some later recordings marked by influences of musical traditions from Central Asia and from the European Middle Ages. All the same, it was impossible to include into the podcast absolutely everything, and a number of performers were inevitably left unrepresented.

The making of the Kharkiv independent music scene in the 90s is an exceptionally bright period linked to radical changes in culture and society. It was happening in a special atmosphere and as the years passed by many legends grew around it. The majority of albums and concert recordings where tracks that make the podcast were taken from were never released and stay inaccessible for the wide public, or spontaneously distributed via the Internet. I would like to take the opportunity to express sincere gratitude for the materials presented here to Sergey Myasoyedov, the director of the Novaya Scena who preserved some rare recordings, as well as to Alexander Shchetynsky, Aleksander Panchenko and to Andrij Orel for translating this text.

NB. In the aforementioned German releases an uncommon latinization was used. Here we use standard latinization to avoid further confusion. The titles' translations are not proper English versions of the song naming. All mentioned albums are self-released (or, to be honest, unreleased) unless the label is specified. Some info can also be found at "Novaya Scena" CD Booklet and here.

Words & mixtape by Alexander Klochkov.
Cover picture: Kazma Kazma performing "The clay goblet for a golden-haired girl". A still from a video filmed for Andrei Borisov's "Exotica" TV program in August 1993.

Tracklist:

  • Alphonse de Montfroyd - Je Fille (Demo 94)
  • Казма Казма/Kazma Kazma - Оратория Петр/Peter, an oratorio (Пляски трубадуров - 92)
  • Эльза/Elza - К вопросу/On the topic (Live)
  • Товарищ/Tovarishch - Конспект письма/Abstract of the letter (Live 92)
  • Сергей Низкодуб/Sergey Nizkodub - Песчаные миражи наа асфальте/Sand mirages on asphalt (Clarinet solo, live 90)
  • Игра/Igra - №41 (Два 89)
  • Утро/Utro - Утро/The morning (Процесс 85)
  • Чужой/Chuzhoy- Трава/Grass (...as he saw the girl in love) (Live 91)
  • Черепахи/Cherepakhy - Море!/The sea! (Вид на город Изюм с высоты птичьего полета 91)
  • Игорь Пахомов (Раб.Фак)/Igor Pakhomov (Rab.Fak) - Залило на горло/Wetted Its whistle (Live 89)
  • Alphonse de Montfroyd - Suite en D-moll - part I (Tabulatura Nova 1994)
  • Казма Казма/Kazma Kazma - Томление/Languor (Катакомбы любви 1993)
  • Александр Щетинский/ Alexander Shchetynsky - Glossolalie (1989) performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Tadaaki Otaka
  • Чичка-Дричка/Chichka-Drichka -Размен Монет, Хейнц Харантын Хантын Бол (Спирохеты против Грудной Жабы, 90)
  • Фоа Хока/Foa Hoka - Ніхто не заплаче/No one will shed a tear (Музика без Хазяїна, Кока 94)
  • Товарищ/Tovarishch- Любовь/Love (Death in a likeness of a chunk) (Live)
  • Казма-Казма/Kazma Kazma - Track-1 (main theme) (Комедія Антона, Koka 95)

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