Ukrainian Block Party — Huun-Huur Tu and DakhaBrakha at Royce Hall


The following entry originally appeared on the Amoeblog

We’re spoiled for entertainment choices here in Los Angeles; sometimes I feel almost paralyzed by cultural options and end up in an almost catatonic state listening to old episodes of Dragnet. That almost happened the other day, when I was torn between whether to go to KDAY’s Fresh Fest or Center for the Art of Performance‘s Ukrainian Block Party. South Los Angeles’s Westside or the Westside WestsideUCLA territory or USC? The 2 or the 92?

Royce Hall at Sunset
Royce Hall at Sunset by Karan Mehta

I was leaning toward the Fresh Fest because how often do New Orleans legends like Juvenile and Mystikal share a Los Angeles stage? But then how much time would either have when other performers included Too $hort, Kurupt, Twista, and YoYo? It all came down to Ja Rule. I inhaled deeply and put on a video for “Between Me & You” and maybe lasted for fifty seconds. First I was confronted by Ja Rule, the yapping Scrappy-Doo to DMX‘s Scooby; then there was the prerequisite soulless soul of actress Christina Milian. Finally, there was the aggravating production of Irv Gotti, which sounded exactly like the torments my fever dreams. I was already on the verge of a summer cold and sweating out a set, no matter how mercifully short, would be akin to sitting in the middle seat on a cramped airplane in front a grunty, runty, brat in a do-rag kicking my seat for the flight’s duration. So Ukranian Block Party it was.


The night was originally billed as the Soviet Bloc Party, a frankly pretty clever play on Soviet Bloc and the “block party,” I thought. However, when your country is being the prize being hungrily eyed by Vladimir Putinreminders of the bad old days don’t seem as funny and so, apparently, the event was rechristened the Ukranian Block Party. Only one of the two main acts was Ukranian but early arrivals were treated on the patio to the sounds and dancing of Ukrainian-American Firebird Balalaika Ensemble


The show opened with a performance by 
Huun-Huur-Tu (Tuvan: Khün Khürtü), the legendary throat-singing group from Tuva. Huun-Huur-Tu have been around since 1992, when they were founded by  brothersAlexander and Sayan BapaKaigal-ool Khovalyg, and Albert Kuvezin. The group’s line-up is currently comprised of Sayan Bapa, Khovalyg, Radik Tülüsh, and Alexei Saryglar. Like a lot of Westerners, my introduction to throat-singing came after the 1999 release of Genghis Blues, which followed Americanblues musician Paul Pena‘s trip to Tuva and collaboration with the late Kongar-ol Ondar. I discovered Huun-Huur-Tu in those heady days of Napster, Aimster, and Limewire, when I could just type in the name of a country and find music by artists whose compact discs never graced the shelves of most music stores, certainly not the Penny Lane at which I then worked. I’m no authenticity hound nor a self-appointed cultural watchdog who likes his “world” (or “global”) music to be unspoiled by fusion elements but I’ve always preferred Huun-Huur-Tu when they eschew electronic instrumentation so I was very pleased by their performance at Royce Hall, which for the most part relied on hand-made instruments and was really wonderful.  


After an intermission, DakhaBrakha (Ukranian: ДахаБраха) and their hats took the stage. Unlike Huun-Hur-Tu their performance incorporated all sorts of musical elements but synthesized them in such a way that they mostly felt quite fresh. The very name of the band is derived from Ukrainian verbs Давати аnd Брати, meaning “give” and “take” and give and take they did. Although the presenter noted that someone at the LA Weekly (Gary Fukushima) referred to their sound as “minimalism with a saucy swagger, as if Philip Glassdecided to write a Russian song-cycle for The B-52s” I found little about the performance that reminded me of either Glass or The B-52s other than the fact that, as with the band from Athens, the women in DakhaBrakha also have tall things on their heads. My comparisons might very well be as head-scratching to others as Fukushima’s were to me but at various times I thought of Dead Can Dance, K.U.K.L., Mala Rodríguez, Sixteen HorsepowerTsinandali Choir, The Creatures, and Crime & the City Solution.

Although I’m still sorry to have missed Juvenile and Mystikal I hope some day to see them share a stage, maybe joined by Mannie Fresh, Precise, and KLC — but I’m glad to have chosen Royce Hall, where I’ve yet to be let down and practically the only reason I’d construction hastened of that Purple Line Subway. Both of the main acts transformed me to another state of mind (gently aided by DayQuil and a hastily drunk Anchor Steam) to a dream state untroubled by anyone yelling “Holla holla!”

*****

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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