ONUKA on the 30th anniversary of Chornobyl nuclear disaster

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Chornobyl disaster is one of the biggest tragedies of the Ukrainian history – a catastrophe that one must never forget, as well as the lessons taught.

Nata Zhyzhchenko – lead singer of the prominent Ukrainian electro-folk band ONUKA – was 1 year old at the time of catastrophe, and her father was involved in the disaster mitigation.


ONUKA‘s latest album called ‘Vidlik’ is to a great extent devoted to Chornobyl, especially the song ‘19 86’ (the year when the disaster happened). On the eve of 30th anniversary of Chornobyl events, we talked to Nata to learn more about what Chernobyl meant to her, why she was so attracted to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, as well as about ethnocultural message of the band and a meeting with Darren Aronofsky.

EMPR: Your father was involved in the Chornobyl disaster mitigation. Therefore, your family was more aware of what happened, keeping in mind the Soviet Union’s attempt to conceal the disaster. Did you discuss in your family those events, their reasons?
I was only 1 year old at the time of the disaster. But from the stories told, I remember that my family was to a certain extent aware of what had happened. In those times most people didn’t know anything at all! If people had been informed at least by radio that they had to close windows, to wash floors several times a day and to drink a glass of water with a drop of iodine daily, so many of them would have been safe! I know a possibility to evacuate people from Kyiv was considered. The information was obtained from rumours that sometime were just fantasies. Unfortunately, no one would ever learn the truth.
EMPR: What are your childhood memories of the catastrophe? How were your family members going through this event? 
Dad was away on shifts and I didn’t understand where he disappeared all the time. When he was coming back I did not recognize him. I’d forgotten what he looked like. Everyone was only talking Chornobyl. My brother and I were taken to the seashore and then to Chernihiv. But it was still very close to the station. It was incomprehensible to us that nature, so exuberant in May, the same nature that was always so dear to us had suddenly become strange and contaminated and dangerous.

Nata Zhyzhchenko: “Radiation is insidious: it is tasteless, odorless, and colorless…”

EMPR: Your Master’s thesis explores consequences of the disaster at Chornobyl nuclear power plant. Cultural and anthropological aspects often stay out of focus. In your opinion in what way did the disaster affect the way of life, culture and the mindset of people who used to live on this and adjacent territory?
I think it is a tragedy. A tragedy of each person and of humanity on the whole. Conscious expulsion. Ethnographically, the Polissia region has retained the most archaic ethnographic practices in Ukraine, and it is one of the most beautiful natural areas.It is very hard to grasp that life for humans will be impossible here for 200, 300, 500 years.A new social phenomenon has emerged: “samosely”(self-settlers) – people who have made the conscious choice to remain in The Zone. They live in their own microcosm – an original microcosm which exists nowhere else in the world.
EMPR: You are travelling to the Chornobyl Zone from time to time, how do you think the territory should be developed? Does it have to be completely closed?
It is a difficult question. I don’t know the answer to it. I have been thinking a lot about it. It can be neither opened nor renewed. People’s lives cannot be renewed. But nature and the animal world have their own answers. They have a scenario of their own. Nature is blooming and blossoming, species listed in the Red Book [list of extinct species – EMPR] are reborn with incredible speed. Maybe this is the world’s first “forced” natural preserve?

ONUKA - 19 86 (Official Music Video)

EMPR: The song ‘19 86’ in your latest album ‘Vidlik’ is devoted to the Chornobyl disaster. It contains dispatcher’s conversations that are rather sinister. But the song on the whole leaves the feeling of elevation, light and freedom, just like that feather ‘so immune and free’, you are singing about. Does it mean ‘19 86’ is a song of hope, of belief in immortal soul and in internal freedom? Or do you sing about the experience of an individual that survived (or maybe not) those horrible events?

Nata Zhyzhchenko: “I wanted to focus on the fact that people need to live in harmony with the nature, to get strength and power from the earth, energy from the sun and to play no tricks on the planet! “

Time goes so fast, life is too short and death is so sure…
When staying in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, I feel the energy there is very lightful and people are special. This may sound strange, but although the Zone is physically ‘dirty’ (contaminated), metaphysically it is so pure! And this purity is what this song is about.
EMPR: During one of the interviews you recalled your grandfather, Oleksandr Shlyonchyk, in the name of whom your band was named (Onuka means granddaughter in Ukrainian). You said that he had made your first sopilka, taught you how to play it and formed the understanding of the ‘Homeland’ notion. Today, ONUKA opens Ukraine to foreign audience. What ethnocultural message does audience receive at your concerts?
I wanted to illustrate the sound of Ukrainian folk instruments in a new perspective. Even our Ukrainian youth knows little about about them. Very few know how does bandura, tsymbaly and trembita sound.

Nata Zhyzhchenko: ”I want people not be ashamed for their folk, because this culture is extremely deep, colorful and complex. I will be happy if world gets to know it!”

EMPR: Music industry is extremely strong abroad: there are a lot of bands, stars and genres. The audience is very demanding. Do you feel the difference between concerts in Ukraine and abroad? If yes, than what it is? Giving concert at what country did you like the most?
We haven’t had many concerts abroad so far to make deep analysis. Georgia, the Republic of Belarus, Poland, Hungary – in this countries we received a really warm welcome, we felt there interest in Ukrainian music and some special connection! I hope there will be more Ukrainian singers on the world stage.

ONUKA - Vidlik (Official Music Video)

EMPR: You were invited to perform at the OIFF 2015 closing ceremony. And you made quite an impression on festival’s audience and celebrities, including Darren Aronofsky. Didn’t he offer cooperation during your meeting afterwards?
He liked our performance a lot. We were supposed to go to the USA on a tour, so we invited him to our concert in New-York. He was very inspired and promised to invite his friend Bjork, who was living in New-York that time. It all seemed so unreal to me. But our band was refused visas that made me wake up to reality. Perhaps, we will meet again one day. Anyway, we exchanged our contacts.


Aleksandra Demskaya, Yulia Volfovska, Zara Hanova, Maria Nesheva and O. R. contributed to this publication
Photo and videos credits ONUKA official
This interview is also available in Ukrainian.

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