Art & Entertainment

Substrata: Creating Soundtrack For Ukrainian Resistance

A DJ duo, ProBass and Hardi, is creating song and music to support and enable Ukrainian fighters and volunteers to maintain high morale in times of war

Loud AND Clear: A ProBass-Hardi concert at Dnipro, Central Ukraine
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One disadvantage of government propaganda is that it is rarely cool. Leaders ordering soldiers to kill people, and be killed, in another country requires extensive top-down propaganda to justify such a decision. This often results in counter-cultural movements, especially among young people that can eventually undermine popular support for the war/invasion effort. Cultural production occurring as Ukraine resists Russian invasion is not only reflective of an individual artist’s emotions but also of a widespread desire to feel a sense of unity and purpose in the face of violent destabilisation. The result is ‘meme propaganda’ that reorients popular culture around the mobilisation for collective defence, valorising and making heroes out of the armed forces and anyone helping with defence efforts. This largely spontaneous cultural support has been a key factor in enabling Ukrainian fighters and volunteers to maintain high morale. And such cultural coming together from the bottom-up, unlike government propaganda, channels genuine, popular emotions and gains currency rapidly and with minimum effort.

‘Dobroho Vechora My Z Ukrainy’ (‘Good Evening, We Are From Ukraine’)—one of the most pervasive memes that emerged from popular music—demonstrates this phenomenon. The DJ duo ProBass and Hardi first recorded a track by this name in 2021, with the chorus sampled from a song by DakhaBrakha, perhaps the most well-known Ukrainian indie-folk band to gain popularity in the wake of the Euromaidan protests of 2013, when they would use ‘Dobroho Vechora My Z Ukrainy’ to begin performances abroad. I last saw DakhaBrakha perform at the Holodomor Memorial in Kyiv in 2020, the sombre, haunting beauty of their folk music, a part of the collective remembering of the violence that would again be unleashed by Moscow on Ukraine. The inspiration from DakhaBrakha reflects in the mixing of Ukrainian folk melodies with fast electronic beats and thumping bass lines, part of a Ukrainian cultural renaissance that has been underway since Euromaidan and the start of the war in the Donbas in 2014.

I sat down with Artem Tkachenko—or DJ ProBass—and other members of the group after they performed at a charity gig in Kyiv in August 2022 to raise money for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. He explained how the track began with a search for cultural identity:

“Our goal was born in 2021, before the war, an idea for a special type of musical track—electronic Ukrainian music, a new scene. Why? Because before, when I was touring, I didn’t feel like a Ukrainian DJ. When I played music in the club—and it was the same in Ukraine or other countries, most people didn’t even know I’m from Ukraine. So I wanted to create a form of music that would make everyone feel and understand that ‘I am from Ukraine.’ A way of saying, ‘Listen to me!’ Like this. We started searching for this sound, sorting through many tracks but we couldn’t find what we wanted to hear.  It was in our heads, and we just started recording. Several demos were released and then ‘Good Evening, We Are From Ukraine’ emerged.”

It is astounding to consider that only a few years ago, many people largely consumed Russian-produced or Russian-influenced media and music. Not anymore.

Soon after the war began, the track, featuring a hard-driving bass line directly following the sampled chorus, was paired with video footage valorising the Armed Forces of Ukraine. This completely changed the meaning of the phrase “Good Evening, We Are From Ukraine” and made it wildly popular. Rather than just an exploration of cultural roots and identity—as ProBass and Hardi’s music had intended initially—it now became an affirmation of resistance. The track was used extensively as the soundtrack for combat videos and footage of drone strikes, with blasts set right after the now iconic chorus. By one account, the track was the soundtrack for over 200,000 TikTok videos. T-shirts with the phrase were sold widely, and in several restaurants that I frequented, all the staff were wearing them. I have also seen the phrase adorning civilian cars and SUVs adapted for duties at the front.

When the invasion began, Tkachenko was in his native Kremenchuk in Central Ukraine.

“When the full-scale invasion began, in the first few days, I didn’t even understand what it was, what to do, how I was going to live. We simply made barricades, carried sand and poured Molotov cocktails in Kremenchuk but we realised that this does not help much. Then, in the club, we made something like a headquarters where we helped refugees. We distributed clothing, food and everything for children (diapers, baby mixtures, hygiene, etc).”

Tkachenko then began creating music to aid def­ence efforts, not just by raising funds for the arm­ed forces through concerts but also creating music to inspire resistance, along with many other artists.

A good example is the song, ‘To The Battle,’ released in May 2022, featuring KHAYAT, a Ukrainian singer. Part of the English translation of the song’s description on YouTube reads:

“‘To The Battle’ is not just a wartime release. This is the sound of today combined with the fervour and fury of our ancestors! Together with KHAYAT, we have united our creative worlds to create truly militant music that will inspire every Ukrainian to fight the enemy on all fronts. So let this track lift your spirits and encourage you to defend our land to the last drop of enemy blood!”

Tkachenko continued, “We have no choice. We need only victory. The most important thing now is to work, to do everything for Ukraine…We have more ambitions now here than just writing music that already exists. We want our music to have cultural weight. We want our music to be a contribution to the culture of Ukraine. This is now important for us and that is why we want to make our own style that already has a new name, ‘UkroBas’ (Ukrainian bass), because we use strong bass lines. We even plan to make a short film about what ‘UkroBas’ is for us and we collaborated a lot with other Ukrainian artists. The work is going on. This work is fundamental, because we lost that cluster of Ukrainian music, everyone equated it to pro-Russian music, it occupied a dominant position, and now we want to make them imitate us, and we can do it.”

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Tkachenko points to a cultural void that has emerged as Russia’s influence in Ukraine collapsed, marking the end to centuries of Russification. It is astounding to consider that only a few years ago many people largely consumed Russian-produced or Russian-influenced media and music. Not anymore. The void that emerged in the wake of the invasion is being filled by artists like ProBass and Hardi, channelling emotions invoked by the invasion to refashion Ukrainian culture into an identity of resistance. In doing so, Ukrainians have reinvented what it means to say: ‘Good evening, we are from Ukraine.’

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