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.

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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.