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A Voice from Far Away

img  Tobias

No matter how far Mariana Sadovska roams, she always finds people have been expecting her. „Very often I felt that they have been waiting“, she enigmatically explains, „There is an old aphorism that says ‘the witch can not die, before she gives her wisdom to somebody else’. These old women were so happy to share their music with somebody. This is maybe why they can sing for 5-6 hours, forgetting about all everyday work and troubles. They know when you are coming with real interest and they consider it as a chance for the tradition to be continued.“

For years on end, Sadovska has travelled on the trails of this tradition. She has made the lonely planes, empty highways, windswept fields and forgotten villages of her native Ukraine her home in an effort of preserving what decades of genocides, desasters and dictatorship couldn't kill. She has sought for songs about „Betrayal, Separations, Life, Death, the Elements and Nature“ and found love and inspiration on the way. It is an ongoing journey into realms where the world of the arts and of quotidian life are merging into a single, perfect sphere: In a mesmerising twist, her own life, torn between the East and the West, spent on the road and in her cozy „nest“ in Cologne, has turned into a story which deserves to be told on its own account.

The smell of the earth in spring

You don't hit the street for nothing. A neverending tour is always the result of some personal revelation. In the case of Mariana Sadovska, her moment of truth arrived when she travelled through the Carpathian Mountains. All the way up in the hills, far from urban- and suburban life and remote from the noises and hollers of the city, she heard a woman singing in front of her house. Sadovska stil remembers this scene as vividly as though it occured yesterday: „Her voice was for me like a fairytale-well – you were able to hear so many things in her ‘untrained, rough’ voice: the wind, the smell of the earth in spring and the echo of thousands of years of history. I did not have any recording equipment with me, so I wrote the words and the notes on a piece of paper and tried to learn them by heart, to remember the way she was singing. I simply followed the impulse – I didn’t want to forget this experience.“

She didn't. Instead, she knew there was a vast potential waiting to be tapped – in fact, waiting for her to tap into it. Others collected stamps and postcards and she was going to collect songs: It was as simple as that. Of course, there were practical difficulties: „In the very beginning, 16 years ago, I was travelling with all kinds of transportation“, she recollects of her first forrays into the unknown, „At that time, many villages had only one bus going there once a week. So – many kilometres of walking, riding horses, hitchhiking on motorbikes. In the meantime, I became able even to rent a car or a minibus for such an expedition.“

Embracing one region after the other
It helped that she enjoyed travelling alone and that her first contacts were positive and encouraging, providing her with a basis of friends to fall back upon. Increasingly, her work received attention outside of academic circles and die-hard sceptics found it hard resisting her relentless enthusiasm:“I organized lots of different expeditions – bringing into villages musicians, performers, writers, and ethnomusicologists from all over the world. Very often, I had the impression, that the old women were waiting all their life, until somebody would come and would learn from them. Or simply would listen to them. It happened that the young generation in the villages started to be interested in their elders’ singing, because we came to the village from far away, from the USA, Sweden, Israel.“

Systematically combing through the country, she tries embracing one region after the other. Sometimes, she will travel hundreds of miles just for one song. Sometimes, the singer has died before she arrives. And then again, what was supposed to be a short session turns into a week-long visit. Planning is essential here, and yet it is impossible: „Sometimes, I am ready to leave“, Sadovska smiles, „and Ulana Kuslo, will tell me: ‘Oh, I completely forgot to sing this one for you….’ And I know, I have to come back…“

Saint-Exupéry’s idea of “responsibility
Coming back means: Leaving her temporary haven of Cologne, where she now lives with her husband , German director and actor André Erlen. The two met in Poland and spent years travelling between these countries. Sometimes, Erlen, who has been converted into a fervent supporter of her projects, will also join her on the road, on one occasion even bringing along their 10-month old son.

Establishing a quasi-permanent residency in Germany now allows for both to enjoy the relative safety of a real home and of translating their experiences back to new audiences: In conjunction with her experienced and tight Borderland band, she is regularly on tour through Europe, visiting venues as diverse as the Jazzschmiede Düsseldorf, taking part in events like the Kölner Musiknacht or setting classical concert halls on fire.

Her journeys have certainly implanted a sense of urgency into her heart and soul: „On the road I understood Saint-Exupéry’s idea of ‘responsibility’“, Sadovska admits, „I was always deeply fascinated by life's enormous strength – when you spend the night among 9 women, who are all widows, who will be singing without stopping, ritual songs, wedding songs, lullabies, ballads, laments, who will be joking about their dead husbands in one moment and who will be crying while singing a very sad song just in the next, who will be drinking Horilka (a traditional Ukrainian Vodka), while singing very erotic verses, who will, finally, combine at one time so many elements of LIFE.“

Sadovska starts giving workshops, teaching other singers what she has uncovered. She also starts work on a seminal summary of her experiences, an “Anthology of Ukrainian Traditional songs”, which will feature songs, transliterations, translations, musical notation and stories. As a special treat, it will contain descriptions and biographies of the people she met on the road, who originally sung the pieces to her.

I sung to you all my life

More and more, her work and her personal life are becoming intertwined. Letters are sent hence and forth between Germany and the Ukraine. When one of the singers marries, she gets invited. When one of them dies, she mourns with the relatives. She now refers to the vocalists as her „teachers“ and they will call her „grandchild“ or „daughter“. And all the while, the ties between the past, the present and the future are getting tighter.

If all goes well, there is no end to this process, with following generations picking up the pieces Sadovska will have left. Maybe this is even the most important and remarkable aspect of her endeavours: The idea that singer and recipient need not be separated. „In Ukraine (and not only there) people believe that each person has an own song. The song is like a guide, like a talisman. It protects you, it gives you instructions, and it helps you to go through all good and bad. So very often women will tell me very a personal story, which they will connect to the particular song“, she elucidates, „I often repeat what Halina Popko from Kriaczkivka village once told me: “I sung to you all my life.”

Picture by Tomas Karas

By Tobias Fischer


Homepage: Mariana Sadovska
Homepage: Kölner Musiknacht

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