The Inflatable Ram ~ ShekBand Ukraine

Some stories play out quietly while others are thrown into sharp relief against a tapestry of upheaval. ShekBand is from Ukraine, and as missiles fly about them, it is tempting to place their project solely within the context of the unprovoked invasion. That would be a mistake. While the horror is inescapable, there is a bigger story at play here and ShekBand tells that story eloquently through their music. It is not usual to see musicians this young touring and recording, but their achievements are a testament to their dedication, a supportive home environment and the quality of a Ukraine Jazz education. Wars destroy, musicians create and the human spirit is bigger than war. This is an album to inspire; it is a beacon of hope.

Yesterday I wished Shekband’s drummer Maksym Shekera a happy birthday. He turned 12 years old. Along with his sister, Anna (14) and Artem (16) they are about to leave Ukraine. Their first album The Inflatable Ram has just been released and they have a tour of Europe ahead of them. The itinerary will take them to Warsaw, Berlin, Leipzig then back to Warsaw and on to Lithuania. They have been looking forward to getting on the road. Attend a gig if you can.

The album is filled with delights and as the respected bass player, Jeff Ballard commented, “All the compositions are well thought out. They are full of invention and cover a very large range of expression – very dramatic and sensitive qualities. Great stuff.”  Among the 9 tunes on the album, you will hear original compositions, Ukrainian folk references and their arrangement of a Wayne Shorter Standard.

Having fled Kyiv without their instruments they sought practice instruments along their escape route: old drums, town hall pianos, gaffer taped double bases. Emerging from air-raid shelters they focused on the tunes and to tweaked the arrangements. They eventually found a haven in the southwest, but they must now undertake some perilous journeys. Last week they drove back to Kyiv and were able to retrieve some instruments. It was a dangerous place to be. Today they face the missiles again as they drive towards the Polish border. 

Credit is also due to Patricia Johnston, co-owner of Taklit Artist and Concert Management in France. She came across these musicians during the 7VirtualJazzClub competition and her company awarded them an honourable mention. That company is behind the release on HGBS Blue/Black Forest Sounds. Patricia and I are fellow 7VJC judges and so I offered my assistance. The English version of the official press release is my small contribution. Yours will be to listen to the album and when physical copies are available please purchase one. From today it will be available on all major streaming platforms. Search for The Inflatable Ram or ShekBand on Spotify, Tidal, AppleTunes etc. Give likes, share and post comments. With our help, this will be the first step on a long and rewarding journey.

Anna Shekera: piano, chant – Artem Shekera: contrabasse, chant – Maksym Shekera: Batterie, chant 

For more information on the plight of Ukrainian musicians during the invasion, refer to my two earlier Ukraine posts which are available on this site.

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.

Part Two: Ukraine ~ A Jazz Story

It took me a minute to recognise what I was looking at. It was a picture of a burnt piano after a missile attack. No musician should ever need to post a photo of a bombed piano but Lyudmila Shekera did. It is now her Facebook banner. A symbol of defiance, loss, and perhaps of hope. While instruments can be targeted, music is impervious to shelling.

However, there are no photos of her family’s sewing business, which lies in ruins after a Russian missile fell. Non-combatants, the elderly, heavily pregnant women and babies, are mere collateral damage in the minds of the aggressors.  

This is a continuation of my earlier post because the story is ongoing. The families I wrote of have yet to escape the horrors of the invasion, and the journey across Ukraine is fraught with difficulty. It is snowing and bitter cold. Bombs and missile attacks dog their every step. At last writing, they had formed a small convoy and were moving from town to town. Sometimes they were able to stop and Lyudmila would dutifully message me. It is hard to sleep in an air-raid shelter. Relatives who lived through the blitz told me that.  

I am continuously anxious for their safety, but there is something else besides. I am captivated by the other stories, those of happier times.  And I love hearing about Ukraine’s musical history. Lyudmila is keen to share these stories and we should listen. Telling stories is how we survive and listening to them is an act of solidarity. They are essential for her and necessary for us, especially while the fabric of Ukrainian culture is under attack.

There are pictures of the Family factory in happier times, the Shekera children being shown how the sewing machines work. There is nothing left of the factory now as Russian shells razed it to the ground.

The best person to flesh out this narrative is Lyudmila. She speaks many languages but her English has a poetic resonance. It reminds me of what a critic said of the author Joseph Conrad. ‘Born in Ukraine, he didn’t learn English until he was in his twenties. He thought in his native tongue but wrote beautiful English prose’.  

Lyudmila wrote: ‘Girls, happy spring holiday! As my good friend from the local defence says, the weather is for us – the targets are not visible, the saboteurs leave traces. But you know how much I love snow. Since it is a holiday I will start my morning, not with coffee; every decent young lady has to throw a cosmetic bag into an anxious suitcase and find time to use it. Everything will be for Ukraine’. 

The above post appeared on Lyudmilas’s Facebook page in Cyrillic script. I pushed translate and gained a sense of it, I asked her to render it into English and she did. The tone is that of a haiku or an imagist poem, each word conveying a subtle subdivision of mood. And as she reassures her children and friends, she channels her anger into something of greater utility. Gentle defiance wrapped up in nostalgia. It is a plea to remember and hold the joy close before it sinks from view. 

Musicians never abandon their instruments, but what was previously unthinkable, is now overrun by necessity. For musicians, the lack of instruments brings another calamity, they can’t practice. To non-musicians, this might appear a small thing, but I assure you that it is not.  

Lyudmila: ‘Oleksii Proschenkov our music teacher and Anastasia his spouse joined us in Fastiv. But then Fastiv was attacked too. Russian troops keep trying to drag the city of Kyiv into a ring of human catastrophe, cowardly destroying everything in their path with shelling and tanks. We moved south, first to Vinnitsya where a Jazz festival is often held. Friends gave us a place to sleep. It was our first night without air raid alarms and bomb shelters. Then the airport was bombed, destroyed, so we decided to find a small town without important infrastructure. 

Our friend who organises the Vinnetsya Jazz Festival (and an opera festival) recommended Tulchyn, the motherland of a famous Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych who wrote Carol of the Bells. He founded a music school there a hundred years ago, (and when we arrived) they kindly opened the doors for us. Leontovych was killed by the NKVD in 1921 (Stalin’s secret police). 

They had a fantastic grand piano and drum set, and some friends even found us a broken double bass which the defence officer fixed with striped yellow defence tape. It was very kind of the Chief Manager of Culture Ms Natalia Tretyakova and Mr Vasyl Fedorivych the director of Tulchyn Music school to let us practice there. 

Mykola Leontovych

My children, ShekBand, held a concert in the hall before we moved south again. In Ukraine, that particular music school and the composer/founder Mykola Leontovych are symbols of freedom. Now we have to protect freedom once again.

It is important to be busy so that we don’t go crazy. War kills not only the body but the soul. My children keep working on their music arrangements, making a website. They want to be ready for future contests and Jazz festivals. It helps us to stay brave and to find strength. Ahead of us, gigs are waiting in Leipzig, Munich, Dublin and Nice.

It is safer now we are in the south but we can’t cross the border. Our teacher is not allowed, so we will stay awhile. We will check the news each morning so we can decide. In case of big danger, of course, we must leave to save our children. But my heart is here. 

I pray for peace and a strong beautiful Ukraine.

Many of us watch helplessly from afar and do what we can. We write and we donate cash to Ukraine Rescue, UNICEF,  Medicines Sans Frontiers, Ukraine Animal Rescue. And if like me, your childhood was filled with cold war dread, you feel that familiar nemeses return. A madman with bombs and chemicals is on the loose again.  

To Lyudmila Shekera, her husband Alexander and ShekBand; who are Maksym, Artem & Anna. The Jazz world sends love and best wishes. Please stay safe.

Like Shekband on YouTube

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.   

The Invasion of Ukraine ~ A Jazz Story

John I am in bomb shelter and have received advice to leave as soon as can. I want you to have these photos and my story to tell the world  – one teacher can grow a new generation’.

The teacher who the writer alludes to is Alexey Proshenkov and as I write this his exact whereabouts are unknown. Ukrainian men under sixty are unable to leave. He is a gifted Jazz educator. Lyudmila Shekera (who left me the above message), is the mother of three talented children who are musicians. All are being tutored by Alexey and the results of that tuition are noteworthy.

Lyudmila’s children are young. Two began lessons at the age of five, the other at age three. The above was Lyudmila’s last message to me.  I have not heard from her recently and I worry about her every minute. 

The invasion of Ukraine caught most of us off-guard and it has severe consequences for the entire world. It is a living nightmare for those in Ukraine. What I have written arises from online interactions with Jazz industry people and musician friends from the Ukraine region. I write this at their request. 

Everyone and everything in Ukraine is adversely impacted by the invasion. It is an unimaginable horror in technicolour, playing out in front of their eyes. With missiles flying and landing amidst the civilian populations, communication is difficult and sporadic. For them, more immediate concerns must take precedence. I have omitted some names and altered a few details at my friends’ request. They are defiant and brave, but it is prudent to be cautious when confronted with a vengeful and tech-savvy superpower. 

I have long had contact with Baltic and East European Jazz people, but my contacts list grew bigger while judging the 7 Virtual Jazz Club International Competition. As the New Zealand judge, I was placed among a group of European and American judges: journalists, publicists, broadcasters, jazz educators and industry professionals. We introduced ourselves, participated in a Zoom call, read each other’s bios and friended each other on Facebook. Message comments would light up day and night as we were each oblivious of the other’s time zones. Out of that new friendships grew. 

The entries were of a high standard and they came from every corner of the earth. I loved seeing entries from countries traditionally regarded as jazz outliers such as Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine, Estonia and Taiwan. Non-aligned multilateral diplomacy was at work, Jazz style. 

The Jazz community is highly interconnected and as the covid peak faded, Jazz festivals reopened throughout Eastern Europe. Events were advertised, albums proliferated and the old rhythms of life seemed possible. Ukraine in particular has a growing Jazz community. Sadly, that is now under attack and the creative arts will soon struggle to function. Gigs and livelihoods are disappearing as the inhumane bombardment wrecks havoc.  

In the days following the invasion, I contacted my Ukrainian Jazz friends, not to talk music, but to see how they were. The initial reaction was disbelief. That was soon replaced by anger and resolute defiance. I asked fellow judge Anna Russkevich if she was safe and thankfully she was. I asked her a day later if she was leaving and she informed me that she couldn’t, as a semi-paralysed parent is in her care. She has little option but to stay as the horror descends. Cluster bombs and other munitions regarded as unlawful are falling on schools and civilian populations in that region.

At another Ukrainian friend’s suggestion, I made contact with a Jazz promoter in Kyiv, who in turn suggested that I talk to a musician on the other side of the city. That interaction was no longer possible as the musician is now active in the citizen’s defence militia. The idea of a peace-loving musician having to put down his instrument and pick up a weapon filled me with unutterable sadness. I was saddened, but I understood.

Some sent me clips of missiles destroying city buildings, the footage of a missile attack on a respected university is particularly horrifying. Nothing symbolises authoritarian aggression quite like an attack on culture and learning. I have many pictures but I have been asked to hide the geolocations. Screenshots will tell the story just as well. 

Lyudmila is the mother of three extraordinary young Jazz musicians. She speaks eight languages (including Russian). Her family were holed up in a forest hotel outside of Kyiv with forty others, mainly musicians. Instruments had been left behind as there was little room for anything other than clothes and toiletries. 

 Our exchanges have been extensive and often heartbreaking. She was keen for us to continue messaging as she said it gave her hope. It told her that the world was listening. She and her husband Alexander have sacrificed a lot to nurture their children’s talent and recently that has borne fruit. The children’s band, ShekBand, has a recording contract. I will post a clip or two. 

The recording was organised by a fellow 7VJC judge Patricia Johnson. She is the co-founder of Taklit, a successful publishing and production company based in France. She has worked tirelessly on this project and thanks to her efforts an album will be out shortly. Patricia is not someone to mess about and it would take more than an invasion to stop her. She is irrepressible and it is impossible not to like her. When the album’s out we should all click through and listen, and more importantly, we should buy it. It will likely be a digital release. The project can best be characterised as the future voice of Ukrainian Jazz. It is a marker for promise and hope.

It is uncertain if the family will be able to escape as the roads are clogged, a curfew is in place and petrol is scarce. There is also constant and indiscriminate shelling. Patricia and I have been on Facetime calls and have messaged frequently as this unfolds. She told me a few hours ago that accommodation has been arranged for Lyudmila in Poland. My fervent hope is that this Jazz loving family reach their safe haven. They symbolise much of what the world needs right now. Music may not be front of mind in the heat of an invasion, but it should be. In music resides hope and sanity. 

JL32: Lyudmila, I have been worried about you, we care. Are you OK?

LS: Thank you for checking. You and your country’s support gives me hope.

JL32: You have left Kyiv?

LS: We escaped Kyiv. I am now near (name of town withheld) at a forest hotel, with family, husband, kids and friends. We give shelter to music families and their friends. I stay in touch with Patricia from Taklit. She has all info about the ShekBand album which my children have completed. She helps me a lot. On the last evening before the invasion, we had completed recording and mastering the files for the album. 

Now we have a dream which will help us to be strong. You can use my name, my children’s and their music tutor. My children, study Jazz improvisation under Mr Alexey Proschenkov at State Music School #4 Kyiv. Siblings Artem. Anna & Maksym Shekera, Playing together as ShekBand since 2015. 

JL32: Hi again. Is all well with you?  I fear that the invasion is intensifying.

LS: While it is night here, I can tell you some stories. We gave shelter to some Turkish Journalists and they spread the word and now we get journalists from around the world to stay here as they pass through. We are happy to do that because it helps the world to learn the truth. They are very brave to visit Kyiv right now. John, please use my pictures but just make sure there is no geolocation. It is safer for us.

 In Kyiv, my children have been studying music since five years old. The younger Maksym since he was three. He wanted to be with his brother and sister. My husband Alexander is also a jazz musician, but says, that is his hobby: he loves guitar, plays and sings always when we meet with friends. He is the soul of the company. He works hard every day to give a chance for our kids to have the best teacher. Sometimes he plays and puts compositions up on YouTube anonymously. Alexey Proschenkov the children’s teacher has his own teaching method, he teaches all modern trends, history, composition, children love him. His students win a lot of Ukrainian and international competitions. 

One of my sons had been preparing to go to University this year, where my husband and I were students. But yesterday, the occupiers bombed the TV Tower of Kyiv and the University which was next to it. It was the first time that I cried.

The university where the children learn, bombed

JL32: It is so dreadful and heart-wrenching.

LS: I go and make some food. Thank you for listening. 

Lyudmila and I had many more exchanges over the next few days and Patricia and I talked for an hour via Facetime about their plight. Over the course of those four days, she sent me 73 pictures. Mainly of her children and their interesting but interrupted Jazz journey. They connect me to the horror unfolding, but they also speak to hope. 

Footnote: Minutes before posting this I learned that the family had taken to the road again in a convoy of four vehicles. Because it was proving too difficult to reach Poland, they were now heading for Romania. At each stop, missiles force them to move again. And a piece of good news. Today the family learned that ShekBand has been invited to play in Dublin.

Give Likes to ShekBand. Let the music play on. Please let the music play on.  

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites