What It’s Like To Be a Musician in Ukraine Right Now

Sergio Kupriychuk (Pree Tone) on playing shows, organizing a festival, and living life amidst rising tensions.

Kiev. 7 am. Tuesday. Another cold winter day — typical late January in Ukraine. The city is just beginning to wake up, yet the streetlights are still working the night shift, illuminating the streets for those in a hurry to go about their business early.

I just finished my shift as a journalist and I am on the bus, rattling along to the studio where my band Pree Tone is preparing for our first performance with a new line-up, and the recording of a new album. Due to various side jobs and schedules, we all have to jump at literally every opportunity to get together and make music.

I leaf through Zoshchenko’s funny and somewhat sad stories on the way, but sometimes I get distracted. I look at people on the bus or the subway. Those who aren’t snoring, spending their commute in Morpheus’s grip, are certainly passionate about their smartphones. I’ll admit, I do, whenever possible, sneak a peek at what content my fellow travelers are indulging in. Lately, it’s been mostly news.

Anyone partial to social media or reading the news (at least occasionally) knows that the number one topic right now is the possibility of a full-fledged invasion of the Russian army into Ukraine. Everyone’s writing about it — American, British, European media. Ukrainians are also picking up the subject. On any news site, one is most likely to see imagery of tanks, guns, planes, ships, soldiers, the faces of Biden, Putin, Zelensky, Johnson, Macron, and other well-respected ladies and gentlemen.

The most pessimistic scenarios are drawn up by the White House, Pentagon, the Department of State. British intelligence and Her Majesty’s Government also regularly speak of an invasion. This is echoed by CNN, The Washington Post, The Guardian, BBC. Catastrophe, evacuation, invasion, bombardment, shelling, NATO, sanctions, refugees — it’s all you hear in Western and Ukrainian media today. More and more, maps and attack plans are published, Western leaders negotiate with leaders of Ukraine and Russia. Tension is growing daily, as is the number of Russian troops on the border. Sometimes it seems that the eyes of the world are set on the easternmost borders of Europe.

Snow is falling outside, a metronome is rattling in your ears, expression pedals are jumping up and down, strings break treacherously. We’re laughing, pumped up on coffee; we come up with neat little tricks to put into our record. Sometimes it seems like in our cozy studio, we fall out of time and space — the rest of the world with its problems and laws is left somewhere far away.

We discuss an upcoming festival, which we’re organizing for the birthday of our guitarist Zhenya. A band from Germany has refused to come, even though their enthusiasm was very high when we spoke initially. Instead, we decided to put a noisy gang from Warsaw on the line-up. We buy plane and train tickets for musicians, negotiate with the club and the sound engineer. The festival is scheduled for February 19, which has been announced by some politicians as the potential date of Russian army’s invasion into Ukraine.

What can I say, such are the two very different realities people in Ukraine live in today. On one hand, a full-on war awaits, and people must prepare bunkers, clean their weapons, sign up as volunteers for the army, or pack their bags. On the other hand, there is no panic in the streets, people go about their lives, happy or sad, facing each new day with hope. 

Take, for example, the recent Christmas holidays (which the media also named as potential invasion days) — fairs and venues in downtown Kyiv were crowded, with music, sparkling garlands, thousands of people having fun, drinking mulled wine and eating gingerbread. One wouldn’t think that is how people would prepare to face enemy forces. What’s more, journalists recently uncovered that a strip bar has been operating in one of the Kyiv’s bomb shelters for quite some time.

Ukrainian leadership also seems calmer. For example, the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine has stated several times that they have no information showing preparations for a full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia. I also doubt that in the United States and Europe, people are aware that President Zelensky has already twice addressed the nation, urging people to calm down and not stock up on food. The head of state has assured us that next spring we’ll all have a picnic, not sit in trenches, despite what’s being reported by the Western media.

The Ukrainian scene looks calm too. Concerts and festivals are held regularly, recording time in studios is booked months in advance. Literally every day upcoming events are announced — in Kyiv only, for the month of February alone, I counted at least a hundred shows and other cultural events schedule — and seemingly there are no cancellations. Shows by foreign acts like The Drums, Talbot, and even Slipknot, Nick Cave, and Iron Maiden have already been announced this year. Pree Tone has two shows scheduled for February and one for May. We spend a lot of time in the studio, because we intend to release a new concept album this year.  

It may be that, since 2014, we’ve gotten used to living under a negative informational agenda, going about our own business as usual, regardless of external factors. Moreover, little is said about this in the American media, but the slow phase of war in Donbas hasn’t stopped. There are regular shootouts and people dying; over the past year several hundred Ukrainian soldiers were killed in action. But Ukrainians are used to it. As scary as it may sound, the deaths no longer shock.

Personally, I, like most of my friends from the scene, don’t believe in the beginning of a full-scale war. In addition to music, I’m also a journalist, and I read and listen to different opinions regarding the current situation. It seems that the escalation of this situation is beneficial to the government of the United States, Russia, and Europe. Ukraine is simply a chess piece on the board, and this game is not in our interests.

But people here do feel the effects of panic. The Ukrainian national currency has been falling for several weeks now. Until recently, the exchange rate of hryvnia to dollar was 26 to one. Today, it is about 29 to one. Many Ukrainians also panic and participate in weird group activities, like putting the national flag on their Facebook profile pictures. I can’t see this being helpful — well, maybe Mark Zuckerberg will fight for us… But I think that this whole situation will soon come to some kind of logical conclusion, if only because it is impossible to live under such terrible tension all the time.

I am not that old, but I know history well. The current situation reminds me of the Cuban Missile crisis in the ‘60s. Once again, some negotiations about weapons, missiles, security guarantees. Instead of Khrushchev and Kennedy we have Biden and Putin. Instead of Cuba there is Ukraine. 

There is nothing good I could say about us as people, watching all this. Are we so hopelessly stupid as to elect politicians dealing in such heresy in the year 2022? Oh, yes, the perfect time to talk about missiles, tanks, and planes — since we’ve already defeated hunger and COVID-19, and we’ve already won the war on inequality, landed on Mars, and reversed climate change… 

(Photo Credit: Olha Androsova)

Sergio Kupriychuk is a member of the Kiev-based bands Bichkraft and Pree Tone.