When examining diasporic communities, especially in Canada, we can often carve out distinct attributes that will explicitly define a particular culture. While many of us may try to take care in not creating stereotypes, we know that cultural continuity relies heavily on traditional values and ideas that help propel a culture forward, even in a foreign land. Nowhere is the idea of cultural continuity more evident than in the objects people bring with them from their homelands. From this point of view, one can see culture being carried through the commodification of objects and their saliency in society. (Miller, 67). As individuals, we identify ourselves from our neighbors, friends and even kin by having different personality traits, interests, talents and probably most importantly “ethnic roots”. In order to differentiate from others we surround ourselves with objects that we either put to use or on display in our environments. As Miller points out, in religion the purpose of materiality is to express immateriality and the more we try to conceptualize such immateriality, material objects become even more important. (Miller, 77).
When thinking about national borders, we often imagine them to be sharp and distinct lines that we can almost see drawn into the ground. But in reality, when crossing a border we are often met with two barriers, one to leave our place of origin and another to enter our new space. In between we may find ourselves in a liminal but vast space which perhaps in some ways can be defined as the border at large. As Benedict Anderson notes in his book Imagined Communities, over the course of the 19th century the rise of nationalism in Europe created cultural and political issues for many and produced imaginary separations that had previously not existed. (Anderson, 83). This also brought on the separation of languages, attributing them as the distinct intellectual property of specific national groups. (Anderson, 84). Anderson says:
“The key to situating ‘official nationalism’– willed merger of national and dynastic empire–is to remember that it developed after, and in reaction to, the popular national movements proliferating in Europe since the 1820s.” (86)
This situation may leave us wondering about the implications nationalism has had on peoples living in between or in proximity to national borders. How simple was it for one living in such places to accept these newly drawn boundaries and to acquire the proper documentation to cross over national lines? How much or how little were cultural and ethnic groups closely linked to one another, considered when creating these borders? And how many of these ethnic groups were separated by them?
For this project, we were asked to pick a “diasporic object” and explore how it was “put into motion” both in and out of its normative and functional context. After much consideration, I initially chose an object (Iranian currency) that was limited in its “motion” and quickly realized that not all objects are as transcendental as others and their subjectivity could be heavily weighted on one side of the in/out context, unable to cross over to the other side. After an initial feeling of defeat, I was soon struck by inspiration after attending a music concert in which my friend Mike Romaniak was performing in. As I watched Mike play his traditional Ukrainian flute, called the sopilka, in a downtown Toronto bar I finally grasped the concept of “objects in motion”. The idea that almost any musical instrument can be incorporated into almost any musical ensemble not uncommon, but it led me to wonder how this Ukrainian flute was not only conveyed music but how it conveyed its nationality as well. Needless to say, this was the beginning of a study in what ended up turning out to be a long and complicated but entirely sophisticated story about an unassuming traditional flute and its deep cultural roots that have transcended not only two generations but has survived amidst constant shifting borders and displacement and political turmoil.
“Flute is a species not a family” (Bate, 1)
In beginning of my research, it was important for me to understand not only the historical background of Mike and his flute but also that of the study of music and how we come to understand it. What do we define as music? A simple sound? A note? A melody? An intricate piece involving multiple instruments? Who contributes to the conveyance and participation of music? And who determines what is “good” music and what is “bad” music? We are certainly aware of generational gaps involved in the history of music as they are often comically referred to in movies and books as a misunderstanding between young and old generations; The Beatles versus Metallica, classical music versus the electronica and dubstep of the youth generation today. But when it comes to understanding music from different “worlds”, generational gaps can easily dissipate and music can be understood as an entirely cultural, personal and even emotional experience. What is more is that the same types of instruments have been reproduced and reinterpreted in several ways all over the world. A flute is not just a singular, hollowed-out tube with a set of finger holes, it can be several tubes attached together with any number of finger holes. It is not even necessarily an instrument as Bate points out, a flute can also specifically refer to a tall, narrow wine glass. Back to music however, it can be produced out of wood, metal, bones and plastic and most importantly every type of flute will have a different purpose in the music culture of a specific tradition. (Bate, 1). Put simply: a flute is not just a flute. I found this to be especially true in Mike’s mission to bring the sopilka’s sound to both his Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian audience in the diaspora.
The Study of Ethnomusicology and Eastern European Folk Music
The study of ethnomusicology developed out of a longstanding history of the study of non-Western traditional and folk music-cultures. (Myers, 3-4). Gaining popularity in the 1950s, the term ethnomusicology came to be defined as “the study of music as culture”. While not excluding Western traditions, ethnomusicology is portrayed as having been developed through primarily American and German research and has traditionally focused on cultures outside the European and classical context. (Myers, 9-10).
As new technological methods have progressed in voice recording and play-back, it has become increasingly easier to bring music into our homes and for ethnomusicologists to study different sounds from all over the world. The culture of music falls under the category of “material culture”, however unlike material culture– i.e. the tangible objects that we can see, feel and use– music is not physical (Slobin, 12). The locality of music rather can be found “not [in] the concert hall, but the stage on which the musicians pass, in what is often a dazzling display, from one source of sound to another.” (Barthes, 153). While we may have instruments that produce and convey music, the relationship between the musician, the audience and even the instrument maker is ever changing and never the same for any two people. As Slobin and Titon so gracefully put it, “music-cultures, especially today, are dynamic rather than static; they are constantly changing in response to inside and outside pressures. ” (13)
The emergence of Eastern European folk music as a relevant component to Eastern European traditions began around the 19th century when industrialization and urbanization began to affect peasant life. (Slobin, 200). Peasantry as a class itself emerged in contrast to an elite ruling class that began mobilizing to large urban centers, away from the rural country side. (Slobin, 173). A peasant would have to provide for his family by the fruits of his own labor and strong territorial bonds were important for the livelihood of the family. It is in this way that folk music comes to be so important in this culture as the simplest tune can hail a long and powerful history from even the smallest regions. However, it was also during the 19th century that folk songs were increasing being incorporated into symphonic compositions by Eastern European composers. (Slobin, 200). To be sure, after two world wars, several regional disputes and modernization caused much of this old peasant culture to be lost. Yet through the preservation of identity and the ever-progressive study of ethnomusicology, all is not forgotten and we are able to glimpse back into the past of music-culture to better understand our present.
A Note on Definitions
Mike’s family originates from the Lemko Region in the Carpathian Mountains. Having been displaced through repatriation efforts after the Second World War, his family maintained their Ukrainian identity despite having never officially returned to Ukraine proper. Part of this was because Ukraine was not a country again until 1991 but more so because the resettlement of Mike’s family and other Lemkos like them did not necessarily deter them from preserving their cultural heritage.
When it comes to defining any ethnic or national group, we must always consider where our definitions are coming from. The Lemko People were first defined as such by anthropologists and although no comprehensive history has been compiled many scholars, motivated by political and governmental interests, have sought to carve out a distinct definition of the Lemkos since the first half of 19th century. (Magocsi, 172). In reality while published works have identified Lemkos as being the descendants of the Vlach people, they themselves view their own history quite differently. Believing to be the descendants of the White Croats, many Lemkos claim they are the indigenous population of the Carpathian Mountains. (Magocsi, 174).
To make matters worse, the word Rusyn comes from the noun Rus’ and originally referred to inhabitants of the medieval state of Kievan Rus’ from the 9th through to the 13th century. The fall of the Kievan Rus’ was followed by the replacement of term Rusyn to more modern and descriptive terms that better defined ethnic groups. By the 19th century the term referred to the East Slavs living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Magocsi, 5-6). Finally, by the middle of the 20th century the term was once again redefined to refer to only those living in the Prešov Region found in the northeastern parts of present-day Slovakia. (Rusinko, 444). In broader terms, Rusyn can also refer to the general population of the Carpathian Mountains, regardless of their ethnic and national affiliations. The Lemko Region, found just north of the Prešov Region and in present day Poland stretches approximately 140 kilometers across the Carpathian Mountains and includes about 250 villages. (Magocsi, 276). To be sure, even these boundaries are subjective but are useful in understanding the complexity of the political situation in the region.
When using the term Lemko, I refer to the boundaries and people (as they identify themselves) mentioned above and want to make a clear distinction from the Rusyns living just south of them. However, in the interest of simplicity when referring to ‘other Rusyns’ I intend to include those other ethnic groups from the Carpathian Mountains for which differentiations are not necessary for this study.
The Carpathian Mountains and the People That Once Lived There
The history of the Carpathian Mountains and its inhabitants is not only a complex one that spans over several cultures but is also deeply involved in a long and tumultuous political history that continues to remain up for discussion today. The mountains themselves stretch over 1,500 kilometers and span over several countries. Beginning in the western parts of Slovakia, they continue eastward into southern Poland, through the southwestern regions of Ukraine and then southward into Romania where they end near the Danube River. (Horbal, 174). Geographically the mountain chain can be divided into three parts: the Western Carpathians in Slovakia and Poland, the Eastern Carpathians in Ukraine and Romania and the Southern Carpathians in southern Romania.
It is in these regions that the earliest Slavic peoples came from the Danube basin in the 5th and 6th centuries, along with the White Croats and Rusyns from Galicia and the Vlachs of Transylvania. Not until the latter half of the 20th century did the Carpathian region fall under any East Slavic political hegemony although religious and cultural ties with surrounding territories were always present. (Rusinko, 6-7). When considering the history of the Rusyn people and more specifically the Lemkos we must keep this in mind that cultural values often layered upon each other. It is perhaps this complex history that keeps us from concretely defining the Lemko people. As political tempers flared throughout the 20th century we see these distinctions becoming even blurrier than before. As Robert Magocsi so shrewdly notes:
“A person is not born with a nationality or national identity. Rather, nationality is a state of mind, an ideology learned through the family or thorough extra-familial association, most often through formal education, during which individuals are made aware of the fact that they may be similar to other individuals because they may share with them certain common characteristics such as language, traditions and territory, perhaps even religion… The crucial factor, then, is not the presence or absence of observable common characteristics, but rather the presence of awareness, a desire, an active will to be a member of a nationality.” (4)
What is more, nationality aside, cultural identity is also entirely subjective and learned. When discussing the Lemko situation we may even note an eastern and western division amongst them. During the 10th century, the region was divided roughly around the Dukla Pass found in the main range of the mountains with the Polish kingdom to the East and the Galician principality of Kievan Rus to the West. This point remains the marker for divisions between the East and West Lemko Region. In the 14th century the region fell under complete Polish rule and settlement of the area was highly encouraged. In an effort to extend actual control into the highlands in the 17th century, Polish landlords tried to introduce serfdom and increase taxes. These attempts were unsuccessful due to the inaccessibility of the region and by the mid 1770s the Lemko region had been absorbed by the Austrian Empire. (Magocsi, 115). Allowed to live their lives peacefully and without discrimination under Austrian rule the Lemkos and other Rusyns began culturally identifying and distinguishing themselves from one another. (Magocsi, 118). The onset of both world wars saw the shifting of borders several times spanning the region and caused schisms between cultural and national identities. After World War One, efforts to join Lemko Rusyns with their southern Rusyn counterparts were met with conflicts yet again between the Westerners who spoke of Rusyn nationality and theEastern Lemkoswho had loyalties to the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. (Magocsi, 119). In an effort to curb Ukrainian influence, the Polish government encouraged Lemko distinctiveness and allowed for language and cultural education. (Magocsi, 121).
The Second World War saw the disintegration of the Polish state and the Lemko Region fell under Nazi rule. With Poland’s reestablishment after the war and the creation of the Soviet Union encompassing present-day Ukraine, many Carpathians were left displaced and amidst political turmoil. In the years following the war, to avoid future problems that were believed to be the fault of national minorities, a repatriation system was set forth on September 9, 1944 between the Soviets and the Polish government which attempted to marry new political borders with ethnic homogeneity. (Magocsi, 122-23).
Although meant to be a voluntary process, many were pressured into moving and as a result approximately 130,000 Lemkos were resettled into Soviet Ukraine. (Magocsi, 123). Those who remained in the Western Lemko Region were quickly associated with the Ukrainian Revolutionary Army (UPA), a small but influential group who rejected both the Soviets and the Germans, and were resettled to the “Recovered Lands” in western and northernPoland. The now abandoned region was resettled by other Poles and much of the Lemko history was lost. The vast majority who emigrated to Soviet Ukraine assimilated into the larger society although some still culturally distinguish themselves from their surroundings. Those who were resettled in the “Recovered Lands” were culturally identified as Ukrainians and future, younger generations began to accept this identity. Finding it difficult to deal with the discrimination that came with being identified as Ukrainian many founds ways to either subdue their Lemko identity or simply assimilate into Polish society. (Magocsi, 125-26). Thousands fled to North America and other parts of the world after the war as “displaced persons”.
Despite all this, Lemko identity has survived and the 1970s saw a revival of Lemko awareness in Poland. Since the mid-1980s, annual Lemko folk and cultural festivals called Vatra (the Hearth) have been held in a different Caparthian village every year. Thousands from both Poland and Ukraine have returned to their “homeland” in celebration of these festivals and the revived culture has sparked the curiousity of younger Lemko generations wanting to learn about their ancestral heritage. What is remarkable says Magocsi, is that this has persisted even without official channels or support from the Polish government who argue that Lemkos should seek assistance from the government-supported Ukrainian Civic and Cultural Society (UKST). On the other hand, Ukrainians and pro-Ukranian Lemkos argue that this is just another way to separate Lemko identity from Ukrainian identity and is an attempt to “polonize” them. (Magocsi, 127-28). For the most part, Lemkos today continue to remain dispersed and away from their mountainous homelands, but their cultural and ethnic identity is still ever present.
Mike Romaniak’s own family tradition lies in this confusing history of the displaced Lemko people. Born and raised in Toronto, Mike’s upbringing consisted of Ukrainian school where he learned the language, history, culture and literature of his ethnic origins. Music at the time was not part of his formal education but was closely related to literature studies and was exposed to him through his participation in Ukrainian dance groups throughout his childhood and still today.
However, Mike’s “actual” origins are in Poland, where his grandparents (born and raised in the Lemko Region) were displaced to in 1947 during the repatriation efforts between the Poles and the Soviets. Both his parents were raised in Poland and while never having resided inUkraineproper still continued to identified with the Lemko ethnicity. While Mike is able to speak both Ukrainian and Polish, his parents emphasized his Ukrainian education over that of a Polish one, which he feels was more natural for him to adhere to.
The way in which Mike came to own and play his collection of sopilkas is very much tied to the idea of preserving and continuing Ukrainian traditions. While on a cross European trip during the summer of 2009, Mike ended up in Ukraine with the mission to find a sopilka to bring back to Canada. Albeit his attempts, many of the commercially manufactured ones found in music shops and souvenir stores were ‘basically whistles” which were not tuned properly and seemed to be “just for show”. (Personal interview). His quest took him to Poland where upon visiting a family friend he found a full family of sopilkas in the man’s possession. The family friend, whose hobby it was to collect national Ukrainian instruments, gave his collection to Mike upon the condition that he bring Ukrainian music back to Canada.
The collection of sopilkas consists of five flutes (or voices) in addition to a double sopilka added to the group but unrelated to this particular family. From largest to smallest the flutes are in the following ranges: bass, alto, tenor, soprano and sopranino. Of the five, the bass and the sopranino are perhaps the most challenging given their physical sizes (63cm and 25cm in length respectively); as Mike pointed out to me, most people’s fingers are not large enough to cover the holes on the bass sopilka and would be too large to properly play the sopranino sopilka. The double sopilka too has its restrictions and so far Mike has only been able to incorporate it into one concert, although he plans on trying to use it more often.
Made with anywhere between six to ten holes, the sopilka is usually made of wood but can be fabricated of both metals and plastics as well. Similar to the traditional flute, a ten-holed sopilka offers a chromatic scale, unlike its six to eight holed brethren who offer a diatonic range allowing for only certain scales to be played. (Milzynec, 24). The ornaments most often created with the sopilkas are trills, a musical technique involving the rapid transition between two notes commonly found in Eastern European music. Able to emulate sounds from nature, in this case especially that of birds, Mike is able to give his music a fluid and almost wind-like sound by using both trilling and tonguing techniques.
What perhaps furthered Mike’s interest in the sopilka is a folklore story he heard from an acquaintance he met at a Ukrainian community event some time ago. Although not very descriptive (as Mike does not know the precise details of the story), the acquaintance told him about a man from his village whose passion was to produce sopilkas. People from neighboring villages knew of his work well and would often come from afar to purchase his fine and elaborately carved instruments. In order to create his sopilkas however, the man would go into the woods and reside for weeks, even months in order to find the perfect branch in which to create his flutes. Knowing that this could take much time, the sacrifices made in other aspects of life (farming and cultivating livestock for survival for example) can be a testament to the virtue of this instrument. For Mike, to find an instrument of similar stature made the commercially found sopilkas he found in Ukraine pale in comparison.
Upon returning to Canada, Mike found that playing his new instruments came naturally to him having been classically trained in breath control and finger patterns from his time as a saxophone student at the University of Toronto. His first attempt at learning the instrument was by composing a piece which he premiered at the University’s Student Composers’ Concert in 2010 called Зажурена Коломийка (or in Latin text, ‘Zazhurena Kolomeyka’).
His goal was to introduce the sopilka to the classical world by featuring it in his piece and giving the instrument its own solo. Soon after its premiere, he was contacted by the group members of The Lemon Bucket Orkestra, a local band who define themselves as “Toronto’s only Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk-Super-Band” (LBO website), interested in having him play with them. Still a small ensemble back then, Mike made his way to see the group play at the now closed NACO Gallery Café and instantly fell in love with the group’s high energy folk sound.
Once introduced to the members he immediately felt comfortable and gained an appreciation for their diverseness in musical training. Some were classically trained while others had several years of experience in busking and playing in various bands, troops and ensembles. In terms of ethnic origin, the members hail from all parts of the world although a number will identify with Eastern European roots.
The group today consists of over 13 people and although Mike doesn’t think they’ll add anymore he knows that “if the right sort of people appear, it’s hard not to add them.” (Personal interview). The instruments played in the band are just as diverse as its group members consisting of three violins, a clarinet, a sopilka, two drums (darbuka and savage), a saxophone, a trombone, a sousaphone, a rotary flugelhorn, a guitar, two vocalists, a sound technician and to top it all off in true Gypsy fashion, a dancer who also plays the tambourine. By exploring sounds from all over Eastern Europe the band is well versed in traditional Serbian, Ukrainian, Macedonian, Russian, Klezmer and Gypsy, and Romanian folk songs. Mike believes they will continue to expand their repertoire probably into Hungarian traditions and they have also begun exploring Turkish music. This beautiful amalgamation of cultural musics is brought almost weekly to the Torontonians leaving in its wake an audience always wanting more. Having been to a handful of performances myself, I can attest to being easily seduced into their sound and remaining unable to keep still amongst the wild group of youth tearing up the dance floor. While their following consists of mainly Eastern European youth who also share a love for their musical traditions, the band is constantly acquiring fans everywhere they go.
In addition to The Lemon Bucket Orkestra and his own compositions, Mike is a founding member of another group called Crazy Voda, a five-piece Afro-Latin Polka Band. The group’s goal is to “examine and foster the surprising similarities between Eastern European and Afro-Latin musical traditions” and “perform traditional polka tunes that have been forgotten and are in need of revitalization”. (CV Facebook Page). In 2009, after his return from Europe, Mike met Mariusz Moskal at a Ukrainian event. The two began playing in other bands together but were eager to focus on more traditional and folk material. Soon they would start crashing Ukrainian events and initiate sing-alongs into the late hours of the night, despite having caters and party-hosts trying to kick them out.
“Sing-along culture doesn’t happen enough here in Canada- in Europe it happens every day whether you’re cooking food or taking ashower. There is always some sort of communal singing and natural harmonies, so we were trying to bring that back into Canada.” (Personal interview).Eventually they met Andrew Berezowsky a violinist at another sing-along and recruited Mike Brough a bass player Mike knew from U of T. Yet they still felt that they were lacking a certain “beat” without a drummer but were apprehensive to add one for fear of losing their unique sound. Just around that time another friend of Mike’s, Alejandro Céspedes from Havana, was teaching him about Afro-Cuban music and rhythms. Having developed a fascination for Afro-Cuban music and using it to experiment with his own compositions, Mike invited Alejandro to play with them and he was soon set up with his own hand-drumming set. Juxtaposing African, Latin and Spanish sounds with Ukrainian folk tunes the group soon became a fresh new fusion band creating “textures that are not too far away from Polka or Afro-Latin sounds”. (Personal interview).
New Beginnings, Old Memories
It is clear that Mike’s dedication in carrying on his Ukrainian tradition is not only a personal journey but one in which he tries to extend outward to as many people as he can. Through the music he composes as well as the music he performs, Mike brings his sopilka to life both in old and new contexts in this diasporic environment. In The Lemon Bucket Orkestra the traditional tunes played are not only reminiscent for an older generation but keep the younger generations involved in an effort at cultural continuity. When taken out of its traditional context and paired with other diasporic instruments as with Crazy Voda, we are met by a cross-cultural fusion of sound that may not have otherwise existed without this sopilka. Fulfilling his commitment to his family friend, Mike often sends back recordings from his sessions with The Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Crazy Voda and from his own compositions toPoland. In doing so, he continues to bridge that gap between a long lost and almost forgotten past with a revived and ever-growing present.
If we can take anything from this story is that borders are never as distinct or clear cut as we might like them to be. What is more is that it is wrong to presume that borders mark a clear break in cultural and ethnic identity or that the creation of these borders automatically creates these schisms. We have only to think of the Lemko People and their interactions with other Rusyns, Poles, Slovaks and Ukrainians alike. When I began this project, I had no idea I would be taken deep into a seemingly unassuming place with such rich culture and history. Nor did I think I would be so concerned with making the appropriate distinctions between ethnic and national groups and yet, by making these distinctions I’ve come to better understand the complexity of this thing we call culture and that no matter how hard we try to give it a definite set of boundaries, it is constantly redefining itself. It leads me to wonder if we are not all part of one larger culture which continuously builds upon itself.