Socially, politically and musically, vocalist Viktoria Leléka wants to show the world the beauty of life and culture in Ukraine. Maintaining that the Western world (especially) confuses and confounds Ukraine with an extension of Russia, Leléka’s passion is to demonstrate not necessarily the differences between the two nations but to paint a fully rounded, loving portrait of the land she grew up in. Having moved to Berlin, her roots and foundations remain in Ukraine. You can hear much more than just its strains in her music.
Haunting, breathy lyrics strengthen as they are joined by piano, drums and bass. There is syncopation, there is coloration, there is the swell of dynamics and a message of love, hope, fear and survival. The newest CD release is Sonce u Serci (“Sun in the Heart”), whose title track with an upbeat strumming backbone and sweet melody may sound like pop if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics. Again, it’s about pride; not hiding an identity that cherishes community and stays hopeful – cheerful, even – despite all odds. The band even included a traditional wedding song, “Dobra Dolja,” with a hip, smart beat and a dancing melody played airily and prettily on piano.
Band personnel includes Povel Widestrand (SWE) – piano; Thomas Kolarczyk (DE) – double bass; and Jakob Hegner (DE) – drums.
Why did you become a singer?
My six-year-old me could not decide between becoming a street swiper or ballerina. But then I was chosen to sing at a celebration in my kindergarten, where I realized that I am a singer! Since that time, I´ve never changed my mind regarding who I want to be or who I am.
At what age did you first hear jazz and what were your first impressions?
Before I even listened to jazz music, I was introduced to it with a quote from an article that my mum read to me when I was 9 years old: “If you can play jazz, you can play everything.” At that time, I was studying classical piano at a children’s music school and I wondered what was this mysterious “jazz.” I became really excited about it and wanted to learn it. I grew up in a small Ukrainian town, where I didn´t have access to the internet and on radio and television the only thing I could listen to was bad Ukrainian pop. One day, a family friend gave me a CD with some jazz on it. I was 13 years old and still didn’t know what “jazz” sounded like.
The first jazz artist I ever listened to was the amazing Azerbaijan singer Aziza Mustafa Zadeh. I was shocked and instantly in love. Everything sounded very Asian, but mixed with a style of music I never heard before. It was the first time ever I have listened to not just lyrics in verse and chorus, but something different without words, freely and from her soul. This freedom of improvisation just blew me away.
What genres of jazz do you think are popular in Ukraine today?
I was born in Ukraine. Russia has successfully changed the image that Ukraine and Russia are the same, but this is absolutely wrong. We have different languages, different traditional music, instruments, dances and clothes, and even a different cuisine and mentality.
For the past 30 years, Ukraine has officially been an independent country, but Ukrainians are still fighting for their real independence. It is a very old conflict and the newest war between Russia and Ukraine (that was started in 2014) is still not over. Russian militaries are still on our territory and they don´t accept or respect our language and culture. I am always glad to talk about this because so many people in the world don´t know that Ukrainian culture exists. Also, this is what I am doing with my music – I show our world the exotic flower of our beautiful Ukrainian folklore.
Which genres do you like most?
I don’t have any favorite genres in music. I like everything that touches me emotionally. In music honesty is the most important thing for me. I love Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea, Céline Rudolph and Michael Pipoquinha, I love Arvo Pärt and Edvard Grieg, I love Tigran Hamasyan, Nik Bärtsch and Avishai Cohen, Billie Eilish and Koffee, Björk, FKA Twigs and Rosalía. I love the Ukrainian artists Mariana Sadovska and Nina Matvienko and a lot of other great artists I really respect. In every genre, you can find great souls and real art.
What has it been like to build a career in it?
When I describe it on an emotional level, it feels sometimes like fighting against myself and my fears. Sometimes it feels like a blossom of my own ideas, sometimes it feels like an office job that starts every day at 6 o’clock.
What was the most difficult part of breaking into music?
The hardest part for me was making the first steps and asking people to play with me in my project. I was in a foreign country, didn´t speak the language fluently and I had a lot of respect for the musicians in Berlin who are very talented artists. I felt insecure, like I had no right to make music, because of my lack of experience. I never played with real musicians before; I only sang acapella or with playbacks. I thought to myself that I should be an awesome singer first before playing with instrumentalists.
The second biggest difficulty was organizing my first concert tour in Ukraine. I did it on the third try. None of the jazz clubs wanted me, because nobody knows my music and doesn´t trust an unknown girl like me. In the capital city I had to organize everything myself, from sound, light equipment, instruments and PR. I paid for an expensive PR agency to promote the tour and after all that, we were financially in the red. But I earned the first Ukrainian fans and the respect of some organizers who understood that my music is worthy. It was very important for me to bring my music to the Ukraine to show the people that their folklore can sound very different and can transport contemporary messages.
What is your band name and what is your music all about?
The name of my band is LELÉKA and in Ukrainian it means “stork.” This bird is very popular in Ukraine and symbolizes happiness and brings in the spring. And this is what we want to give the old Ukrainian songs – a new spring and new life for them worldwide.
In my music, I work almost exclusively with very old Ukrainian folk melodies and songs. Sometimes I compose completely new songs with my own lyrics or write music to Ukrainian poems, but I always sing in Ukrainian. Maybe it will change later, but now I am just too much in love with this language and I think I sound more authentic in this language, too.
Folklorists estimate that more than half a million Ukrainian folk songs have been recorded and gathered so far. Of these, only less than ten percent have been published. No nation in history has such a big collection of songs like Ukraine. UNESCO has a library of folk songs from around the world and there are 15.5 thousand songs from Ukraine.
When I search for songs for any of my projects, I look at the lyrics first. By my first education, I am a professional actress. As an actress you can´t go on a stage without understanding what message you want to convey to the audience; you always have to know why you are going on stage. So if the lyrics touch me, I take a look at the melody to see if it is interesting musically to me. If both the lyrical and the music components impress me, then I start to work on an arrangement.
It is a very interesting feeling to sing mostly for people who don´t understand my language. And that’s why it’s much more impressive when I see that the listeners react very emotionally to my songs without even understanding the lyrics. I learned this at the University of Theater. We have always been told that if an actor is really good, you will understand what he is playing even without understanding his language. During my student years, I saw many foreign performances, which impressed me a lot, although I did not understand a word. Acting helps me to be more natural on stage and helps me to broadcast the meaning and emotions of songs in a universal musical-acting language.
How is the music scene where you live now?
I live in Berlin now and I love the music scene here. There are a lot of multicultural and experimental projects here and a lot of governmental support that helps you develop your art.
What album are you most proud of and why?
My newest album Sonce u Serci (Sun in the Heart). It was the first time I worked on a lot of the musical ideas on my own and composed many of the arrangements. It was a very intense and valuable process for me, where I learned so much and got a deeper understanding of my band and its musicians. Before this album, we did all of it by ourselves, from the recording to the release, but with this project, we had a professional recording studio and a music label for the first time. All this means a lot to me.
How would you describe your individual sound and your style?
Sometimes subtle and intimate like a whispered lullaby of a loving mother, but sometimes wild and uncontrolled, like the crying of a tired soul. I love to sing as soft and easy as possible so the audience forgets that somebody is standing on the stage for something virtuous. I like musical arches and development, but details and precision, too. I believe that virtuosity can destroy a piece as well as inability. I love to find the sweet spot where the audience forgets, stops evaluating and dives deeply into the music. Sometimes we achieve exactly that at our concerts and then everybody feels the unbelievable magic and people start crying in the audience or between the pieces occur electrifying moments of silence in which people need to digest what they just heard. I am ready to do everything to achieve those miracles in concerts.
What are the changes in gigging since COVID?
None of us played concerts at all for almost two years. The first year without concerts was okay for me. I tried to compose and learn and I started my composition study. I was even invited to create soundtracks for a Ukrainian historical series. But the second year, I really felt how much I missed my fans and how much it meant to me to sing in front of real people and to feel their energy. We still don’t have that many concerts as before COVID. I just try to accept this situation and to be open to everything that happens. If the next wave of the pandemic comes and all the concerts are canceled again, I will look for ways to keep creating to not go crazy.
The best part of being a jazz musician today?
You have an absolute freedom to do whatever you want and your individuality is more welcome than ever before. More and more people are bored by listening only to English music and would love to experience different languages, colors and cultures. They love to discover the diversity of our planet Earth and they are open to exotic or unusual things. I feel this need is very strong in any part of society, not only in the jazz scene. The formerly repressed cultures and countries are welcome to show their voices and faces. I found that to be a beautiful development.
Upcoming gigs or performances?
March 31: Zag Jazz Club Berlin, Germany
May 27: Jazztage Idar-Oberstein 2022 Idar Oberstein, Germany
June 3: World Town Festival 2022 Waldshut, Germany
September 10: Klinikumskirche Am Krankenhaus West Stralsund, Germany
September 30: Sendesaal Bremen Bremen, Germany
For more information visit www.leleka.de.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2022 Debbie Burke