A light serving of Kyiv culture and politics. (Cue laughter.)

Memoir: The concert in my flat.

The following is the first in a short series of memory entries—which is to say, things I should have written a long time ago but was either too lazy or too distracted to do so.

 January 14th through 22nd, 2011

I ended up in Paris for one night. I’d been flying home to Miami for winter holiday last December, too late for western Christmas, too early for the Orthodox version, when I landed an hour late in Charles de Gaule airport. As a heavily agitated Air France attendant worked to get me home (by way of the French Indies and Haiti, as it turned out), I scored a hotel room in Paris. Several hours and a hundred euro in cab fare later (yeah, I got shafted), I was toasting French wine at an old friend’s apartment, a little piece of Cuban Miami in the wintry French capital. As for Haiti, the most I can say is the absence of lighting above the land at night leaves a peculiar impression, somewhere between pity and nostalgia.

And then I was back. Old New Year, the Slavic holiday based on an extinct calendar system, happens to fall on my birthday on the 14th, which happened to be midnight when I returned. A chatty taxi driver pointed all this out to me, along with the concert being set up on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). There was snow on the sides of the road. But not much. It was cold. Much.

I am sure his name was not actually Suzuki.

Concerts defined that first week back. A friend took me down to a little basement spot near the maidan, tucked behind one of the narrow roads that feels its way out beyond the now advertisement-laden façade—just past the restaurant “Le Borsch.” It was an art gallery turned into a slam poetry/folk music jam session. A petite, blonde journalism student threw down in Ukrainian that was way too advanced for me, and the bandura players struck up a woeful playlist “enhanced” by electronic music blasting from speakers in the background. One player’s instrument featured the face of Taras Shevchenko printed on the cover. The highlight was clearly a Japanese player who happened to become initiated in the Ukrainian tradition, whom another band playing with more traditional instruments greeted with a rendition of “Suzuki the Bandit,” in which they thanked the Japanese for their wonderful electronics and automobiles. (Political correctness does not exist in Ukraine, and quite possibly not outside of America, either.)

Just like back in high school. Except, underground, because there are no basements in Miami.

Then, my birthday party.

My apartment is very old-Kyiv, with Soviet encroachments built up over the years. That means, in the living room that is my roommate’s bedroom, there are high ceilings, massive drapes, a cheap chandelier, rugs everywhere—especially the walls— and a grand piano. And through the connections of friends, two bands performed a nightlong concert.

I put the cumulative body count at over 50.

Jim’s group went on first. He and some of his buddies arrived early to do a sound check and eat (read: fry kolbasa and down cognac). Jim (not his real name, I think), is an artist with a workshop on Andreivski Spusk, the main tourist trap of Kyiv that consists of a winding cobblestone road leading from the area around St. Sophia’s cathedral to the old Podil section of the city. He showed me some of his work once—the only piece I could remember was “St. Bunny,” featuring a psychedelic-looking, rather Donnie Darko zaichik with a cross around his neck. Towering at easily six and a half feet, scruffy and leather jacket-clad, one almost couldn’t tell he’s a starving artist. My grandfather once pulled me onto my family’s porch when I was 9—old enough to have stopped touting “painter” as my life’s aspiration, young enough for my grandfather not to risk my changing my mind again— and explained to me the horrors of the starving artist’s life (and the virtues of an MBA). Looking at Jim, who was far happier with his life than any MBA I’ve met, I can’t help but sadly disagree. My grandfather still knew what his father and grandfather had gone through when they left what is now Ukraine to come to America, and having lived through our Great Depression, I can’t blame him for the lessons he drew.

Once the group was ready and his groupies from Kharkov in the east arrived, we were treated to what for brevity’s sake I’ll describe as a slow Sublime with even heavier reggae overtones. For the Ukrainians reading, Jim named “Pyatnitza” as his main influence. (All of this was broadcast live on the internet).

But as great as Jim’s group was, it was Toporkestra who made that night.

Klezmer music is, I think, considered Jewish, the kind of thing you’d see in Fiddler on the Roof. But at least in Ukraine, and especially around the Odessa region, klezmer can also describe a related brand of gypsy music. Without defining it too strictly, you can expect to find a range of instruments in a klezmer band—violin, clarinet, piano, trombone, accordion, guitar, among those that came first to my mind. Toporkestra formed in this tradition, and after spending more than a few nights in past years crashing in what is now my apartment, they returned to perform one more time.

They showed up with a massive plastic jug of wine, which I and my friends presume was brewed in someone’s bathtub (probably not one of their own—they’re mostly homeless). We obliged them with vodka and cognac. And then they played all night. What more can I say than that? That their musicians embraced me like an old friend? That nobody—and certainly not so many—people have ever danced so hard in my own home? That the music was, as it were, hott?

Such are the things I’ll remember about Ukraine, even as I think more and more that it won’t be too long before I come back.

(For those in Ukraine, Toporkestra’s playing again on the 15th at Sullivan Room.)


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