March 24, 2023

Ukrainian musicians channel patriotism, anger into war anthems

Arsen Mirzoyan is one of several Ukrainian artists to release songs dealing with the Russian invasion

Arsen Mirzoyan is one of several Ukrainian artists to release songs dealing with the Russian invasion – Copyright AFP Sergei SUPINSKY


The message behind Arsen Mirzoyan’s new song “My Country” is simple — stay in Ukraine and fight back.

“I’m not afraid anymore. I don’t exist without you. If it’s my country, then it’s mine,” goes the song. 

The lyrics are personal for the Ukrainian rock singer, who wrote the ballad while manning the frontlines for weeks during the battle for Kyiv in the early days of the Russian invasion. 

“‘My Country’ is about my decision to stay and fight,” he tells AFP, as he flips through photos on his phone from his time at the front, including ones of dead bodies, destroyed Russian equipment and impromptu performances. 

“I wanted to strengthen the feelings for those who hesitated to remain or flee. I wanted to support those who decided to stay in Kyiv,” he adds. 

As Ukrainian forces battle the Russian invaders, the country’s musicians have begun to channel seething anger and an outpouring of patriotism into stirring war hymns. 

Music has played a vital role in rallying support for the country’s fight against Russia. There is a popular ode to Turkish-made drones, and trance remixes of folk songs play over Tik Tok videos of Russian tanks being obliterated. 

Artists across a range of genres are contributing — including black metal groups, rappers, rock bands, and most notably the Kalush Orchestra, who spoke of the war’s destruction onstage at Eurovision.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year,” Kalush’s frontman Oleg Psiuk told reporters after winning the competition.

– ‘We need strength’ –

Other musicians have laid down their instruments and taken up arms, including the rock outfit Antytila. 

The group briefly returned to Kyiv in May to perform a cover of “Stand by Me” with U2’s Bono and The Edge during a concert in a metro station. 

On the airwaves, radio stations that once broadcast top 40 hits are now pumping out a slew of pro-Ukrainian songs praising the bravery of the country’s defenders and ballads about the heartbreak caused by the war’s brutal toll.

“We understand that this is a long war and we need strength,” says Julia Vinnychenko, a programming director at NRJ Radio in Kyiv.

Before the war, the station’s slogan was “hit music only”, but it has since changed to “in the mood for victory”.

“All the songs are connected with war in one way or another. It’s about different moods — melancholy, sadness, pain, the thirst for victory,” DJ Yana Manuilova says of the tracks she selects for her morning show on NRJ. 

“I am very impressed by how quickly Ukrainian artists reacted to the war in terms of creativity,” she adds, describing the seemingly overnight phenomenon that saw artists transition to a war footing in the aftermath of the invasion. 

Some musicians have shifted from their regular compositions about partying and romance to ultra-aggressive songs extolling the Ukrainian fighting spirit.  

One of the more famous examples is Max Barskih, who found mainstream success before the war with songs that Danylo Khomutovsky, the co-founder of Aristocrats Radio in Kyiv, described as being perfect for hookah bars.

His latest trance-driven anthem has served as a popular rallying cry featuring traditional vocal arrangements and a heavy bassline that has been readily embraced by the Ukrainian military and fans alike. 

– War rhythms –

“I think the scene has changed,” Khomutovsky tells AFP, saying that most artists in the past shied away from politics but have now begun to grapple with more serious subjects in their songs. 

The war has been a clarifying moment for many, he explains. 

“They have begun to act like they have this responsibility that they are influencing other people — hundreds, thousands, millions,” Khomutovsky says of the shift. 

Many of the war songs channel an air of triumphalism felt in places like Kyiv, where residents snap selfies by destroyed tanks displayed in the streets, even as Russian forces advance in the Donbas behind a wall of withering artillery barrages. 

But even amid the war’s destruction, the beat goes on for many in Ukraine. 

During a concert on Kyiv’s outskirts on Wednesday, the band Ocheretyanyi Kit performed on top of a burnt-out Russian tank, blaring out a new song called “Javelin” in honour of the US-supplied, shoulder-fired missile.

“You can’t sing love songs right now,” says the band’s singer Serge Tiagnyriadno. “That’s not important.”