Sunday Music: Ukraine’s Got BARS (With Alyona Alyona)

I don’t know much of anything about Ukraine. We’re all learning fast these days, but with the focus on geopolitics, it can help to zoom out and think more broadly about culture too. Not to have a hotter take than the next guy or gal on what’s going on, but because these are people, with stories, in the midst of a crazy, dire, and dark situation.

Alyona Alyona (real name: Alyona Savranenko) is a Ukranian artist. She’s got degrees in education and psychology. When she was 12 she was obsessed with “Gangsta’s Paradise” (I can relate), and after a work trip a few years later, her dad brought her home an Eminem CD that changed her life.

She already loved music, but hearing how an artist could fit so much into the space available in a song, she became addicted to the mode of expression exported from America that is hip hop.

Pause for a second and take the sheer wonder of this in. Ukraine’s a long, long way from America, let alone Eminem’s Detroit, and here you have a woman, speaking another language, being so moved by what she’s hearing she wants to make her own version of it.

She started recording songs in her native Ukrainian but realized most of her friends and contemporaries were using Russian. She went back and forth until 2013, when the upswing in Ukrainian nationalism took hold and she leaned into how she wanted to write in the first place (yeah, she wrote multiple songs in multiple languages, think about that).

Now, I’m relying on translations, but here’s what I love:

A. She’s rapping about normal things
B. She’s got a sense of humor/playfulness
C. She’s got an incredible sense of rhythm (when you can’t understand the words but you can hear the underlying mechanics of her rhyme structure… it’s like listening to bebop turns of phrase)

I’ll highlight my favorite song that captures all three of these for you. I’m also assuming that you, like me, might be more curious about Ukrainian culture than ever before right now. Let’s get a clue together. Check out the song “Pushka” but first read this passage from a 2019 Vogue piece on her,

Savranenko’s new album, Pushka, is equally self-aware and touches on her appearance and her power. The technical translation of “pushka” is “gun” but in slang means “the shit.” That title track also plays on the words “pushka” and “pishka”: In Russian, the latter denotes both a round, sugary fried doughnut and a plus-size woman. (It’s similar to the usage in the American film Dumplin’, which follows the story of a plus-size beauty queen.) One of the lyrics goes as follows: “Tattoos on my face aren’t my thing. I’m simply the shit. Pishka!” Later, when I ask Savranenko why it was important to include that turn of phrase, she flatly writes sans explanation: “Because I am a pishka.” No matter how you slice it, her sound is quite simply, in Alyona Alyona terms, “the shit.”

How cool is that? I’ll put the song below, and if you’re interested, also listen to the NYT Popcast conversation, “The Sounds of Ukranian Pop