July 26, 2022Even after 25 years I’m not sure what an actus is – a cactus without a K maybe? Some bands like unusual names and this was one of them. I once sat with the guys from Aktus in the backstage area of Club Hafenklang on Grosse Elbstrasse in Hamburg until the early hours. I was there with my first Berlin band, barely two years after I moved to Germany with my parents.
I bought Haydamaky’s first album when I was visiting Ukraine in the early 2000s. I loved their mix of Ukrainian folk, hard guitar riffs and reggae/ska rhythms. There was a band photo on the back of the CD and I was amazed to find that I already knew the musicians – those were the guys from Aktus, they obviously changed their name..
With their sound, Haydamaky pioneered the Ukrainian New Wave in the early 2000s. I liked to play their songs at my parties, the band often toured Europe. Then their singer left, and the rest of the musicians decided to continue under a new name.
Kozak System had everything that made Haydamaky, only they were louder, heavier, faster. On their first record the guys interpreted Motörhead’s “Ace Of Spades” – after this version I can’t listen to the original anymore, it sounds somehow powerless to me.
From the beginning they only sang in Ukrainian. In 2015 they released an angry song called “Fuck Off Manifest” which started out as a Balkan pop number but then evolved into heavy polka punk smash. “Fuck the Slavic brotherhood and friendship/ Fuck the common belief/ Fuck discounts on gas and other lies/ Your great literature/ Your architecture, sculpture/ Your prison subculture”.
I found the text too aggressive and even wrote to the musicians at the time. “Hey yeah it’s gross but that’s the way we are right now,” they wrote back, “that’s how we think it’s right.” When I hear the song now, six years later, it seems almost gentle to me.
At the end of February, Ivan Lenyo from Kozak System volunteered with the Kiev patrol police. On new Facebook pictures you no longer saw him in colorful stage clothes, but in a uniform. Instead of an accordion, he often had a gun in his hand.
And when the band played again, it was no ordinary concert – the musicians went to the front and performed in front of the soldiers. In mid-July they received permission to leave the country from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and are currently on a tour of Europe with the aim of collecting donations for the Ukrainian army.
A street concert for Kozak System was also organized in Berlin in a few days: Early on Sunday evening, Ukrainians* gather at Hackescher Markt, more and more come from all directions. Friends of mine are there, but most of all there are new faces, lots of new faces. The lady standing behind me whispers to her companion: “Actually, it’s not my music, but I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet again.” Two minutes later, the two are crying.
Even if some recognize the songs, are happy about them and sing along loudly, the mood often fluctuates – from euphoria to deep sadness. There is laughing, crying and dancing. When Ivan addresses his Berlin audience, it’s not the usual speeches like “It’s nice to be back here” or “Berlin, are you okay?”.
He tells how the Ukrainian fighters are doing at the front and invites German Russia fans to visit Butscha, Irpin and Hostomel. His tone is sometimes sharp, he may be a bit tired, but he still comes across as strong – and optimistic despite everything. And when he smiles, everyone in the audience smiles too.
Performances by Ukrainian bands today are very different than they used to be. Much more than just concerts, they are reminiscent of group therapy meetings. I’m happy to have experienced it – and at the same time wish myself and the audience never had to have experienced it. Not for this reason.