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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“We sincerely believe in what we do”

Leader of the band KOZAK SYSTEM Ivan Lenio on music image of modern Ukraine
10 December, 2013 - 09:54
IVAN LENIO IS IN RAPTURE OVER DEN’S LIBRARY / Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

“No one will lift his hand against his own people! / A brother won’t say bad words about his brother! / He will bear the blow, go to torment / Brother for brother, for his own people!” This is a refrain from the informal hymn of the Euromaidan, recently recorded by Ukrainian musicians and writers (lyrics by Sashko Polozhynsky, music by Kozak System band).

Actually, we talked to Ivan Lenio about the music image (and not only about that) on the eve of current events. Below is the information from original source.

Larysa IVSHYNA: “I very much liked the performance of the Kozak System within the framework of the Days of Ukrainian Culture in London. Everyone was dancing to your music, even coevals of The Beatles. I must say, they looked perfectly consistent.”

Ivan LENIO: “We have toured practically the whole world. We have recently performed in Canada, at Bloor West Village Toronto Ukrainian Festival, which was attended by many interesting people. We got acquainted with Ukrainian Canadian billionaire Yevhen Melnyk (by the way, he is one of the wealthiest Canadians). He saw us at the festival. At 1 a.m. he came to listen to our performance to a club, where he stayed up till 4 a.m. I am telling this to prove that people aged between 15 and 70 enjoy the drive we produce live.”

L.I.: “We need to have a music map of Ukraine, to contact with those who are full of spirit and who create interesting things.”

I.L.: “Let’s start with the fact that the map won’t contain many performers and bands. We don’t have a full-fledged show business; therefore we don’t have many interesting and powerful bands. Correspondingly, few music styles develop. Let’s take, for example, punk in some West European country. Up to 300-400 bands perform and give concerts successfully in this style. As a result, there are plenty of festivals; there are big venues (open-air festivals) and small venues (clubs). And here, in Ukraine, there are hardly three quality bands. For some reason, Ukrainian modern culture missed punk, reggae, trance, dub, and metal. Pop-music is preferred here, especially the singers and bands which have been accepted in Russia.

“For a Ukrainian band to become a headliner on world stages, its music videos must be shown by European MTV. And to be shown on European MTV, you need to write English-language songs. But when you sing in English, you won’t be able to reveal a real Ukrainian ‘message,’ some sacral things will be lost. Here is an example. Our friends from Moldova, unmatched Zdob si Zdub, have invited a German producer for cooperation and recorded an album in English. However, for me personally this album instead of usual and full of drive Zdob si Zdub has something sleek and manicured, what is the worst, artificial! Zdob si Zdub in English is like a Russian-speaking Nina Matviienko.”

L.I.: “I have seen many times when people got tempted by English, which is strange to them, to tell the world about something. But if it is made in a talented way in one’s own culture, can’t it break the language barriers?”

I.L.: “The only band in the world which broke these language barriers you’ve mentioned and became a megastar like Metallica, The Rolling Stones, Muse, Limp Bizkit, RHCP, is Rammstein, a German band which sings in German. For a Ukrainian band to reach the same level one needs to have serious ambitions and ground – music, ideological, psychological, as well as a team of partisan professionals. Plus big money to create such a show.”

L.I.: “What about the cultural things?”

I.L.: “In Ukraine there are so few experts in real authentic music that their knowledge and studies are not enough to serve a cultural-research ground, so that we could venture to create a world-scale product. And I personally do not know any stage directors who would create such a thing, except for maybe Vlad Troitsky.”

L.I.: “We lack many things to be cool and to impress everyone, like Mel Gibson’s Brave Heart. But at the moment we need to retell our main national trends in a modern language.”

I.L.: “At the moment we are cooperating with the best Ukrainian writers of today, such as Zhadan, Izdryk, Lazutkin, Polezhaka, Karpa, who ponder over the image of modern Ukraine they want to present and present it in Europe. Actually, our next album will include many compositions which use their lyrics.”

Anna SVENTAKH: “Was it hard to build up a new brand from scratch?”

I.L.: “Incredibly hard. Psychologically it was very hard. The thing we got used to did not let us go, for we created the name, filled it, and were thinking in terms of it for over 15 years without compromises. But I am glad that it happened this way. Having received a new name, we received a new life. People started to look at us differently. And we started to see in a different way. Music is also a business. The only thing we lack is managers, who would take care of this business, instead of the musicians. Unfortunately, at this stage almost all the musicians from Ukrainian bands are involved in their promotion.”

A.S.: “But when you were creating the Kozak System, you relied not only on yourself, but on Ukrainian writers and musicians as well.”

I.L.: “Many intelligent people, intellectuals were touched by our story of re-branding. Sashko Polozhynsky agreed right away that we could make two or three songs using his lyrics. Serhii Zhadan, Irena Karpa, Andrii Sereda from the band Komu Vnyz, Dmytro Lazutkin, and Yurko Izdryk were quick to help as well. I am afraid that I will forget to name someone. And not only did musicians and writers help us, but also people who are far from music business.”

Nadia TYSIACHNA: “They say solidarity is not typical of Ukrainians.”

I.L.: “Those who do not dig deeply or haven’t experienced this solidarity say this. Ukrainians are a friendly, kind, and united people. It is not simply the majority of them.”

N.T.: “You often go on tours abroad. Can you say what people there know about Ukraine? How the information about us is spread, for we don’t have any cultural centers?”

I.L.: “I will be honest: they know very little. Although there have been some positive trends over the past five years, there is still only a handful of music bands that are known and appreciated abroad. It is much harder to make a European listen than a Russian, because Russians understand the language. So, if you write good lyrics, you will a priori be understandable for Russians, and they accept your music easily, if it is talented. And Europeans perceive you via vibrations, message, energy, and image.”

N.T.: “Vibrations, message, energy – are these the secret of Kozak System’s success in European countries (and not only there)?”

I.L.: “Maybe we succeed in better conveying the cluster of masculine Cossack energy. The most important thing is that we sincerely believe in what we do. We are honest. We do not simply play the concert. We get a thrill out of it. And the audience feels this.”

A.S.: “Let’s come back to Russians. Okean Elzy has been fined in Russia for violating the migration legislation. Do you see any hidden content here, especially in the light of recent events?”

I.L.: “I think there was some hidden content. Okean Elzy has been giving concerts in Russia for ten years, it has delivered numerous concerts based on certain terms, and suddenly they hear a question: ‘Guys, do you have a permit to work in Russia?’ Why did not they ask this before? Apparently, it is a political action, which was supposed to make Ukrainians understand: don’t be flirting with the EU, or we will turn the screws on music level, too. You will have to get permission even for a club concert. But there is nothing bad about this. We regularly get this kind of permissions. To perform in Europe, any music band should get a working visa. This is much more difficult, but it’s normal.”

A.S.: “How do your Russian buffs treat you?”

I.L.: “If you perform in a professional and inspired manner, the audience feels this, and you will be perceived adequately in any country. There are more restrained nations, which react in a restrained manner. However, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans react to music very stormily. Americans, Canadians, or Russians are not different from Ukrainians in this respect. Anyway, a band should not go on stage in a bad mood, moreover, with even a tiniest bit of disrespect for the audience. The stage does not like falsehood.”

N.T.: “What do you do before a performance?”

I.L.: “We are left alone. Before the performance we stand in a circle, hug one another and stand this way as long as we need to feel united. In such a way we try to feel whether everything is balanced, whether we don’t have a broken energy zone.”

N.T.: “What market is more interesting for you in terms of creativity, Russia or Europe?”

I.L.: “We are interested in Europe in one way or another, because it is big and variegated. Going there and giving concerts also means learning the mentality of every people, its habits, seeing the architecture, visiting the museums. We are interested in Russia, too, but how can we put on the same scales Russia and a bunch of European countries. Yes, Russia is interesting. I studied there for two years in Voronezh Conservatoire. We have many friends in Russia.”

N.T.: “What is the difference between the former Russia and Russia today?”

I.L.: “They have become less indifferent. There are intelligent people, who appreciate their book publishing, pay much attention to filmmaking. You should look at everything objectively, without filters. Pick up the positive things they have, invest energy and money in good things you have.

“In a word, it is interesting to perform both in Russia, and in Europe, but the proportions are different.

“The question of the lack of Ukrainian musicians in European venues is caused by borders, visas, distance, and Ukraine’s negative image.

“Some 10 years ago a policeman stopped us in the Czech Republic. When I asked him why he did this, he said: ‘You have a Ukrainian license plate.’ Later he said that people from the town of Buchach, Ternopil oblast, occupy many pages in his registry of violations. So, he thinks it refers to the whole country, when of all the violators from European countries only Buchach residents take half of the book.

“The same happened to us in every country. There was even a moment when we bought a bus and left a Polish registration plate, so that we could move freely across Europe and not to have this stain. Now we have returned to Ukrainian registration plate, not because their attitude has changed, but because we want to show to everyone that Ukrainians are normal people. And the ‘trading’ as for where we should go, to the EU or to the CU, looks absolutely disrespectful and hypocritical to me. We are Ukrainians some ways or other. If we enter the EU, the level of corruption will curb, and we will have to live by the European laws. Of course, not all of these laws are good for us, as well as for the humanity. They have their problems, too, but not elementary!

“I think it is quite cynical to ask what the Europeans will give us if we join. I think we are not in the position to blackmail.”

N.T.: “Please, tell us about your cooperation with Taras Chubai.”

I.L.: “We will soon release an album, but I cannot say what its title will be, because it’s too early. But I assure you, it will be interesting. We very much liked the outcome. And if you like it too, we will be happy.”

N.T.: “Your Wikipedia page reads that you like to travel. Please, name top five places to travel in Ukraine.”

I.L.: “I don’t imagine my life without traveling. When we go on a concert, I read – of course, if we go along a highway, and there are dull landscapes outside. If it is not a highway, I look and enjoy; I think and I come up with some ideas.

“I also like to ride a motorbike. A motorbike is like a horse for a Cossack. When you ride it, you can feel a range of smells. And this palette can be different. Even if you go just 40 kilometers away, from Kyiv to Chernihiv (not along the road, which goes across Brovary, but along the parallel one, near to the Desna), when you cross the Kyiv Sea and go across the Khotianivka village, there you can feel, first, the fall of temperature by about eight degrees (it gets colder when you go across the forest); second, you feel the whole range of smells: it is the smell of freshly-cut grass in summer, the smell of burnt leaves and weed gathered in towns in autumn. These are incredible smells. You won’t feel them in a megalopolis. After all, a motorbike allows you to deviate from the main road and to take, for example, an earth path.

“We, the Kozak System, are also cyclists. We like to go to some interesting and symbolical places on bikes. Because you go slower, the impressions get into you slower and deeper. This is a special thrill!

“As for the top places, these are the Dnipro hills near the Trypillia village, Staiky, Vytochiv, Hryhorivka. The second place is the Carpathians. I could divide them into Bukovynian and Hutsul Carpathians. They are different, starting with the mentality of people living there and finishing with the landscapes. Third is Lviv. Fourth is Volyn. And Kyiv, where I have been residing for 20 years, is the fifth.”

N.T.: “Was it long time ago that you acquired such constructive and positive life guidelines? Dovzhenko said that when some people see a puddle, others see the stars in it.”

I.L.: “I don’t ascribe myself to those who see only stars. I see puddles, too.

“This is not my merit that I try to see positive things in everything. This is the merit of my parents and my kin. I think everyone, even those who don’t have in their DNA the ability to analyze the world via positive things, can understand one thing: it is pleasant to be good. And trying to find positive things in everything is simply rationally better than seeing only the negative side of things.”

Interviewed by Larysa IVSHYNA, Anna SVENTAKH, Roman HRYVINSKY, Nadia TYSIACHNA, The Day
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