The fight to preserve Ukraine’s electronic music culture in a time of war
Amidst the horrors of russia's war on Ukraine, local DJs, producers and music professionals have had their lives ripped apart, but many have passionately continued their work at home and abroad, using their experience to provide funds and direct aid to causes on the ground. Here, Tanya Voytko talks to artists from across the country about their personal experiences over the past six months, and to learn how they’re striving to preserve and promote their rich and diverse electronic music culture
I started writing this article on 22nd June, the day of remembrance for the victims of World War II in Ukraine. At dawn on that day, 1941, Nazi Germany launched the first massive strikes on the territory of the Soviet Union, thus continuing one of the darkest chapters in the history of the 20th century. When historians compare the devastation and the number of victims, they point out that Ukraine was left more destroyed than Great Britain, Canada, the United States and France combined.
At dawn on 24th February, 2022, russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine, my country, pursuing the mission of “denazification of the Ukrainian people”, justifying bloody murders and destruction with fascist ideology. Time stopped. It was as if a tsunami washed away everything of Kyiv that was familiar to me. My favourite streets ceased their bustle; the intoxicated voices of the night in Podil — the centre of the musical life of the capital — were replaced by the howling of sirens and the sounds of air defence systems.
Kyiv’s clubs unanimously reformatted into shelters, volunteer centres and training bases for territorial defence. My friends turned into the heroes of the new time — activists, soldiers and volunteers. My home became a distant image I can now only touch in my imagination.
Four months of war brought grief and fear into the life of every Ukrainian. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified 4,662 deaths of civilians in Ukraine during the war, as of 22nd June, though the full statistic is being updated.
The same applies to thousands of missing people, cases of raped women and children, and captives deported to special filtration camps for the citizens of Ukraine. The war has resulted in a humanitarian crisis, as thousands of Ukrainians have fled to the west of the country and abroad. Neighbouring Poland recorded the highest number of border crossings from Ukraine, over 4.1 million as of 21st June, followed by russia, Hungary, and Romania.
Like many other Ukrainian refugees, I began my journey of exile on 24th February, moving from Ukraine to Poland, then to Germany, and finally to the UK. Silence set in with the outbreak of war. I could write almost nothing about the events. I was numb, even when speaking to close friends. I couldn’t say anything, other than how much I hated this war.
Now I’m in London and, four months later, shocked by the news of recent attacks across the country and innocent victims, I’m ready to talk about this war using the most accessible and familiar channel for me — music. Being a journalist and booking manager of a well-known Kyiv club, with eight years of experience and non-stop activity in various fields, I managed to make friends with many local DJs, musicians and promoters, who made a big contribution to what we now proudly call the “Ukrainian scene”.
I talked with artists of different backgrounds, communities and regions. They all prove that Ukraine is multifaceted and united in its diversity, and that Ukrainians are ready to fight to the end for freedom and independence by any means — by volunteering, fighting on the frontline, supporting anti-colonial discourses, continuing to make music, and performing.
Each of us has lost a part of ourselves, but acquired a new meaning: to fight for the preservation of Ukrainian culture, and the opportunity to speak aloud about our country and its art.
“Once I was outside the town with my friends, and looked at the hills covered with dry grass,” says Olya Udovenko, aka Udda. “They reminded me of the view from the window of my apartment in Bakhmut. As a child, climbing onto a chair, I often looked out the window at the hills and imagined that these were the backs of large red dogs I wanted to pet. My life is changing quickly and dynamically, while these hills have always remained in place. From early childhood, I have always had the opportunity to look out of this window at these hills.
“Recently, I found myself in a similar place, and I was seized by a panic attack. I felt strong emotions in my body. I suddenly thought I might never look out that window again, never pet my dogs again. It was as if I could not fully comprehend it until that moment, and suddenly this fear hit me with all its might. Bakhmut is being bombed right now, and at any moment, I can lose the only stable point in my life.”
I met Olya for the first time last year on a hot July day, which happened to be my birthday. She played a morning set at a big summer party. Gathering an audience of more than 500 people, Olya skilfully held the dancefloor for five hours, playing house, breaks and electro in a unique manner. At the time, none of us could have imagined that in a few months we would meet in Berlin, at a self-organised flea market for refugees, exchanging stories of escaping the war.
For Olya, like many others, the war started back in 2014, after russian troops first entered the territory of Ukraine. She is from Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region, which has been on the front line for the past eight years. “All these years, I did not know what would happen tomorrow,” she says.
At the age of 15, Olya moved to Kharkiv, started to live in a communal apartment with her close friends, and after a while became an active member of the local group Kultura Zvuku, which for many years occupied a significant niche in the promotion of electronic music in the city.
“I was told that a guy was opening a record store on the ground floor of our house. I went crazy — I was very interested in music. I just knocked on the window and said, ‘Hey, give me some work. I want to do something’,” says Olya.
Kultura Zvuku, before the war, was a club, an electronic music school in Kyiv and Kharkiv, a record and hi-fi store, a label, and a summer festival. It was in Kultura Zvuku that Olya began her career. “We had an idea to launch a school, and to manage it — we had to understand what it was like to learn to play, how it all works. So I was the first student of the school. It was the year 2017.”
During the war, the team froze the work of the entire Kharkiv branch. The showroom with the records was destroyed by an explosion. Plans to launch the next edition of the festival in 2022 were dramatically cancelled. Now, Kultura Zvuku continues to operate in Kyiv, and is working on a new project — the Gasoline radio station. “We launched the radio station right before the start of the war, when all this gibberish appeared claiming that the Ukrainian nation does not exist,” says Olya. “Our goal is to show that Ukrainian culture is multifaceted, rich and deep. I really want to talk about it out loud. There are now many programmes on the radio dedicated to Ukrainian music and culture. Recently, we had a show with poems by Vasyl Stus, and soon we will broadcast one about Ukrainian rituals. And, of course, we present a lot of Ukrainian musicians and DJs at the station.”
On the eve of the war, Olya returned from Portugal to Kyiv and was going to hold an ambient evening at school, and then go to a gig in Kharkiv. “On the night before the invasion, we met with friends in Kyiv and spent the evening with a strange feeling of sentimental tenderness. We joked and hugged,” she recalls. On the same night, the air bombardment of Kyiv began. Everything that happened next is still hard for me to comprehend. Olya fled alone, spent two days at the border in a car of strangers, and eventually went on foot. Behind her, she left her family, friends, her job as a booker, and her DJ career. Despite this, Olya, with her typical boldness, states that, “If I could turn back time, knowing that there would be a war, I would still return. I would not stay in Portugal. Things that happened to me on the road from Kyiv to Ivano-Frankivsk, things that I saw at the border, and those feelings, they have changed my perception in just a few days. It was worth coming back.”
Now Olya Udovenko is in Berlin, where she continues performing and developing Gasoline radio and the school. In just a few months, she managed to play in such clubs as Insitut Fuer Zukunft, Fuchs2, Oxi, RSO and Hoppetose. She actively participates in creative residences, reflecting on the topic of war. At the same time, Olya’s priorities are apparent — to be able to return to Bakhmut and look out of the window of her room, to revive Kultura Zvuku, and get back to living in Ukraine when it is possible.
Tymur Samarskyi, aka Splinter (UA), is known in the Ukrainian scene for his experiments with modular synthesisers, the development of modular instruments, and the broad discography of the concept label Corridor Audio, which has been focused on Ukrainian artists since its inception. Tymur himself, following the views of his label, is not planning to leave Ukraine.
The musician was born in the Luhansk region. “Since 2014, and the annexation of Crimea and parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, I have always understood that this is not the end, and that we are ahead of the struggle for our land,” says Tymur. He recalls his hometown of Severodonetsk as “an exceptionally progressive place, with a wide variety of subcultures”.
“My career as a drum & bass DJ started in Severodonetsk. The club was called Most,” says Tymur. “That is the club where I invited Vera Logdanidi to play drum & bass records in 2007. Severodonetsk was a small but solid city. Very stable — everyone had a job and money. People did not expect russkiy Mir (or russian World, an umbrella term used by russian propaganda ‘to counterbalance the Western World’) to come. They all saw what was happening in Luhansk and Donetsk (after the occupation by russia in 2014), where people were isolated from everything. They cannot go anywhere and, in fact, are degrading. The so-called DPR and LPR were examples of a cesspool that no one wanted to be a part of.”
Since 2014, the city has changed. Tymur’s parents moved to Crimea and cut off any connection with their son for political reasons. The city became a regional centre and shelter for refugees from other places in the region. In 2022, Severodonetsk is the site of bloody battles between the Ukrainian and russian armies. You can learn about the scale of the tragedy not only from the news, but also from people like Tymur. Taking a short pause, he says, “Our family had two apartments in Severodonetsk. A shell flew into one of them a few days ago, and the parents of my wife were left homeless.”
The path to music now is not an action movie in which the musician, despite everything, continues to press the buttons of the synthesiser with explosions heard in the distance. It’s a journey through trauma, pain, collective grief and daily struggles. “I remember the first two or three weeks — we couldn’t think about music at all,” Timur states. “My friend Anton (Louwave) and I sat silently in the room and kept reading the news. From time to time, we turned on the ambient guitar folk of the Odesa musician Lu Joyce and listened to it throughout the day. We could not imagine that we would be able to make music any further. What music? What is it all about?
“I can’t make any global plans. Today the sun is shining, and everything is fine, but tomorrow a rocket may arrive, and you will need to think about taking your family to Europe.”
Splinter (UA) is now based in Lviv. A few days after the first explosions in Odesa, he left the city with his wife and four-year-old son and went to the west of Ukraine in search of shelter. Now the musician continues to work with the label, writes music, and helps his military friends raise money for all the necessary equipment. With his work, Timur decided to start his journey anew.
“I started rethinking everything that I was doing,” he says. “I had one question for myself: why did I do all this before the war? I realised that I was getting used to and adapting to the world in which I live. But I don’t want to get used to it, and I want to speak aloud about it.”
My acquaintance with Nastya Vogan began long before the start of the war. Nastya impressed me with her modesty, her dreamy, chill vibe, and some inexplicable inaccessibility.
In just a few years of active work, she achieved a lot: she became a resident of the ∄ club, together with a partner opened the Module Exchange school, released many solo releases, wrote soundtracks for the shows of leading Ukrainian designers, and also created projects that have built bridges between classical musicians and contemporary electronic music in Kyiv. Her residence at the ∄ club was a separate little life that lasted for two-and-a-half years.
“At the last party before the war, I played with Kanding Ray,” says Nastya. “A few months before, I was very afraid of losing the club. I did not understand what this feeling was connected with, but thought something was wrong. Then I realised that I had a very deep awareness of how important this place was to me — dear, valuable and loved. Every moment of that last party was extremely valuable.”
Nastya grew up in Odesa, in the south of Ukraine — hence her relaxed vibe, calmness, and somewhat creative alienation. “For me, Odesa is most connected with the sea, freedom and southern comfort. We own a house outside the city with wild beaches nearby. There is the sea and rocks, the limestone clay caves that lead to catacombs, and reeds with ducks and pheasants. That is my childhood vibe. Also, Odesa is about multiculturalism. I think the diversity of nationalities has influenced some freedom of perception, the fact that people are ready to perceive each other as different, learn from each other and interact — and get along together on the same territory,” says Nastya.
When the war began, Nastya Vogan was on holiday in Madrid. “I was supposed to play in Wroclaw the next day, and I woke up being told: ‘They are bombing the airport’. It was a lovely sunny day, a huge contrast. I’m waking up in this beautiful place realising that the world will never be the same again.” When I met Nastya in Berlin a week after the start of the war, I felt that the Odesa chill vibe had gone.
Nastya met me with a thoughtful nod, as it was challenging to say anything. Our next conversation happened after a noteworthy event — her first visit to Kyiv since February. She remembers this trip as a sensorial experience, both inspiring and depressing at the same time. Seeing an abandoned house, touching it with your hands, hearing sirens for the first time, and meeting friends who you didn’t have time to say goodbye to.
“The first three days, it was sheer euphoria,” says Nastya. “And then I got overwhelmed. I went to the club, saw children’s toys and the remnants of the shelter. It was like a fable — finding a ship left in the sea where everything stayed untouched.”
Now, Nastya is actively reflecting on her pre-war experience — her roots, her childhood, and her grandmother, who introduced Nastya to Ukrainian fairy tales and songs. In September, at the Draaimolen festival in Tilburg, Nastya Vogan will present an exclusive collaboration project with Albert van Abbe called ‘Lisovi Pisni’, dedicated to Ukrainian mythology.
In addition, Nastya hosts a regular show on EOS radio, talking about her favourite Ukrainian musicians, and contemplating the further development of the offline and online Module Exchange school.
She reflects on her life and works during the war as follows: “It seems that art will become more serious and deep. Ukrainians turned into adults at the snap of a finger, and their childish naivety was lost. I apprehended the value of every quiet minute. Some very simple things. And I also realised that life consists of everything at the same time. The universe is abundant, and it is also abundant with poverty.
“And it is astonishing how wide a range of absolutely different things is happening in the world every second. The most difficult task is not to fall into one of the extremes, and see all the facets of this spectrum as fully, deeply and simultaneously as possible. Because that’s what life is. And it fights with death. It is very important — to fight to the end, for each and every celebration of life.”
128km from Kyiv stands Chernihiv, the hometown of Yana Ponura, a DJ and resident of the Closer club. From the end of February to the end of March, the city was surrounded by the russian army and was constantly shelled.
The so-called russkiy Mir brought a humanitarian disaster to Chernihiv, with hundreds of dead civilians, thousands of destroyed residential buildings, and grave silence. “I didn’t want to believe that there would be a war,” says Yana. “We turned a blind eye to the war in the East, and it hurts a lot. My dad is a military man who went through the war in the Donbas region. I didn’t understand him. He is a hero of Ukraine and fought in hot spots. Now I realise how stupid I was. Dad always said there would be a full-scale war, but I just didn’t want to think about it.”
Peacetime in Kyiv for Yana is associated with meaningful, warm memories. In the capital, she joined the Closer club team, first as a Chinese tea specialist in the club’s garden, then as a resident. There, the artist met her future husband, Konstantin Lobanov, co-founder of the Progressive Future label. Shortly before the start of the war, she began teaching at the Closer Connections school, making plans to create a Progressive Future booking agency, and planning tours both in Ukraine and abroad.
“I was at home when the war started. We woke up, went to buy food, and got all the essentials into a car. I took a tent, a sleeping bag, a field kitchen, a burner and binoculars. I realised that I was romanticising our escape. I thought I would hide in the forests,” Yana laughs.
“We all do this because we must display Ukrainian culture, continue to help, and be a reminder of ourselves and Ukraine”
Even though the reality turned out to be much harder, Ponura lives through the war with courage. In the first months, the artist volunteered and helped in the frontline zone of Chernihiv. Then she tried to evacuate her relatives from the city. By a lucky chance, her family managed to leave the day before the last bridge in Chernihiv was destroyed. The artist herself had to leave her husband in Ukraine and go abroad in search of temporary shelter and earnings.
Now Yana is in Leipzig. Shortly before her move, she managed to visit Kyiv and celebrated her wedding with Lobanov, which was originally scheduled for March. “Now we are guided by slightly different considerations,” Yana tells me. “My thoughts were like this: ‘What if I lose him? How then will they find or contact me?’ If I am his wife, it will be easier to reach me.”
Like many other artists, Yana Ponura had to build her life and career from scratch. She now sees the continuation of DJing both as an important part of her identity and as a significant cultural mission.
“We all idealised the nightlife,” she says. “It’s hard to be a part of it right now. Of all my colleagues, I have not met a person who can just close their eyes to everything and continue to play as if nothing has happened. We all do this because we must display Ukrainian culture, continue to help, and be a reminder of ourselves and Ukraine.”
Vera Logdanidi’s career began 14 years ago with local drum & bass and jungle parties. During this time, Vera released music on Rhythm Büro, Semantica Records, Corridor Audio and On Board Music, organised dozens of parties as part of the eponymous Rhythm Büro promo group, and launched a radio show and the Kashtan label of the same name, dedicated to the Ukrainian scene. Despite years of vigorous activity going far beyond the borders of Ukraine, Vera was never interested in fame abroad.
“I never wanted to be a popular DJ, and I always liked the balance between an organiser and a DJ in Kyiv,” says Vera. “The past summer was very productive. I think I played all the top events and worked with all the coolest formations in Ukraine. And I guess I’ve found my comfort zone in our scene.”
Vera was born and raised in Kyiv, so her connection with the city is especially deep. “I remember that in the early ’90s, I had a neighbour, the father of my friend, and we celebrated Independence Day together,” says Vera. “He spoke Ukrainian, one of the few in Kyiv at that time. He always walked around the city on this day. There was a massive retail trade — some people played instruments, some were selling things. And I recall we were walking around, and there was a very cool atmosphere. I remember Kyiv in those times as summery, very green, very beautiful.”
With the beginning of the war, Vera and her husband were forced to flee Kyiv and go to the west of the country. “We left without clothes, having only what we were wearing at the time. We took only synthesisers with us. It was a challenging time, and I felt dreadful in Lviv,” she says. At the end of April, the couple returned home to Kyiv.
“When we first set foot in the Kyiv railway station, on the eve of 9th May (The 9th of May is known as Victory Day, when russians celebrate the 1945 endpoint of what they still call the ‘great patriotic war’. It has become the central part of propaganda and ‘russian identity’), I didn’t care about anything — nuclear threats, explosions. It’s better at home, even when it’s dangerous.”
Now, Vera is temporarily in Europe. After active volunteer work, first at the train station as part of the humanitarian staff of the Krishnaites, and then collecting money for various humanitarian and military initiatives, Vera decided to continue her DJ activity to have the opportunity to support her family, as well as to continue donating.
“Now, to get somewhere to perform, I need 24 hours to reach the point. This is the best-case scenario. And because of these movements, it is challenging to return, using 150 trains. My location now is only a matter of comfort and business activity, but I know for sure that I will return under any circumstances. My husband, friends, and apartment are in Kyiv,” she says.
We call Vera during her last visit home. She gets in touch from the 22:22 studio, which she built together with her husband. The place used to be a shelter for Maidan activists who survived the revolution. In the background stand a dozen baby carriages, which she is going to send to refugees. Vera’s mood is enthusiastic. Quite recently, Rhythm Büro announced their Natura, summer festival, which, according to the musician and the team, will take place in 2023.
“We started planning the festival last year, right after the previous Natura ended,” she says. “We planned a two-day event and booked a remarkable line-up. When we saw the final list of artists, I thought this was the event I would be proud of. After the start of the war, we did not discuss the festival at all. Soon, on the team call, my colleague Igor said that we should keep the date and celebrate the historical moment of the victory. All agents supported us, and did not cancel the date.”
Vera says that the war makes her feel old, but at the same time, allows her to live life with more exertion, to enjoy every minute, and appreciate her work.
Diana Azzuz is a multidisciplinary artist from Kyiv, a DJ, and an affiliate of Standard Deviation. She kicked off her career with ‘Sui Noxa’ in 2020, an audiovisual collaboration with her friend Rina Priduvalova, followed by a solo EP ‘Anastrophe’ in 2021, both released on Standard Deviation. In her work and life, Diana often reflects on her background of being between Ukraine and Syria, two countries with a hard fate.
Diana Azzuz was born and grew up in Lviv. Then she moved to Syria with her family, and spent all her conscious years moving between the two countries. “For most of my life, I had the feeling that my childhood was something like wandering,” says Diana. “In Syria, we lived with our grandparents and a bunch of relatives. It was a very memorable event, incomparable to anything. My most vivid childhood memory is from there. I was about 12-years-old, and I remember we arrived at a farm in Syria where pomegranates, oranges and olives grew. There was such a Tuscan or even Mediterranean vibe. We drank tea from small cups and watched the sunset. I remember I stood in the field, watching the sun disappear. Since Syria is closer to the equator, the sun is much larger, and it was very orange and very big. The horizon was eating the sun, bit by bit. It seems like an ordinary memory, and there is nothing special about it, but I realised that this memory got rooted in me. It brings calmness and pleasant nostalgia.”
After the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2010, Diana witnessed the Revolution of Dignity, the start of the war in eastern Ukraine, and a full-scale russian invasion in February 2022. She’s been carrying the feeling of anxiety, disturbance and turmoil in her art ever since.
“The pre-war period was quite depressing, but I had plans for music, sewing, 3D work,” says Diana. “I thought about carrying on with the projects. We planned my solo album on Standard Deviation to come out at the end of the year. The release was supposed to deal with the topic of unrest in the countries, both Syria and Ukraine, and that Syrians and Ukrainians do not have a safe background to rely on.”
On the night of 24th February, Diana was in Kyiv. “I went to bed late, slept for two hours, and then Rina woke me up saying that the war had begun. No one could believe it, and everyone told us to leave immediately. I denied everything and could not imagine going somewhere and doing something. We did not sleep well and were either in the basements or the bunkers. As soon as the news appeared that a russian tank was already driving around Obolon (a district in Kyiv), I realised I had to go.”
According to Diana, the main difficulty in this war is its acceptance. “As I arrived in Berlin, at some point I caught myself thinking that I was waking up waiting,” she says. “And I was paralysed by it. I did not even consider the opportunity to do art; I was waiting for a possibility to return. I am still waiting, but now it is a bittersweet expectation when I understand that I need to move on somehow, because I can’t live like that. It’s very depressing.”
Diana reminds me of the importance of not postponing life, and using the privilege of security in order to continue making art and talking about this war. At the moment, Diana continues to perform and engage in 3D design and sewing, combining her creativity with discussions and lectures. In her public activities, Diana reflects a lot on Ukraine and Syria, spreading the challenging narratives about the refugee crisis, and comparing the experiences of war in these two countries.
On 20th June, after many troubles with internet connection, I finally manage to contact Mark (Panghoud). He appears on the screen of my phone, broadcasting somewhere in the middle of a forest. He cannot name the exact location, or the purpose of his stay in this place. However, I instantly understand what it is about.
Panghoud is a new face on the Ukrainian electronic scene. Having a background in poetry and rap in Kharkiv, Mark, together with friends, launched a series of parties, СОБРАНИЕ, and for a long time, was among the residents of Shum.Rave in Slovyansk. The parties were characterised by a new progressive sound for the east — jungle, gabber and deconstructed club music. Also, the organisation managed to make a queer edition of the party called Квир СОБРАНИЕ in collaboration with the East Pride Hub. On 25th February, Panghoud was supposed to make his debut at another queer event — the ХІТЬ party in Kyiv. But for obvious reasons, it did not take place.
Panghoud tells me many interesting things. He calls Kharkiv “Kharkiv rapper city”, referring to the city’s unique rap and hip-hop background. He also emphasises its musical and cultural diversity. “There were many clubs: the Fort club, the Zhara club. It is a very big one, and they used to book some obscure post-punk band from Sheffield, as well as, say, Kurgan and Aggregat. Kharkiv is a city of contrasts. And it is very clear from the architecture that it is a bit unplanned — the city was constantly being rebuilt.”
Mark says that most of all, he wanted to make Kharkiv cool. Shortly before the start of the war, he was making plans for performances in Portugal and Italy, preparing a live programme, and developing СОБРАНИЕ. The war caught him in the morning, when he went for a walk with his dog. He asks to leave everything that followed from our conversation. “We were told that there would be a war,” he says. “Thus, I spent the last weeks of January and the first weeks of February in Kyiv. I wanted to be away from the war, because I didn’t think I would do anything useful. Now I try not to think much or talk much about the war. Now I have a physical routine, and I’m less stressed because of it.”
During the conversation, Mark laughs and jokes a lot. I have the feeling that it is happening in a dream, and it is tough to find the right words. In a moment of mutual silence, he says to me: “I don’t really know if I will still have the legs to dance, but music is still very ‘on time’ for me. I record samples as I walk. I listen to what comes out. I understand that I can do it less, but I like what is happening now without me. I am glad that there are people who were my acquaintances and are now doing what I really like. I’m glad these people continue, and you can watch it.”