I’m always a bit apprehensive when finally seeing a band everyone’s been raving about – will they really live up to the hype? I missed the Ukrainian ‘ethno-chaos’ quartet DakhaBrakha at last year’s WOMAD, a performance that seemed to be the highlight of the festival for many. And now, with their return to the UK at Village Underground, I was finally going to see what all the talk was about.
First things first: either Village Underground is not an overly forgiving venue for the vertically challenged, or the hipsters of Shoreditch are a particularly tall breed. And it doesn’t help that DakhaBrakha sit down to perform. Every now and then I could catch a fleeting glance of one of their distinct towering black hats through the crowd, but however frustrated I felt by my lack of view was quickly dispelled by the music.
DakhaBrakha’s secret weapon is their ability to almost imperceptibly build their music and sweep you away in the undertow of their wave of sound. What starts out as pleasant but not particularly remarkable descends into spellbinding chaos. Before you know what’s happening, you are lost in the tight vocal harmonies – pleasingly dissonant in that way that only Eastern European singing can be – that have built to such a climax you feel your nerves might explode. The cello, played by Nina Garenetska, almost growls at the bottom of the mix, while the driving percussion pushes you to lean into the sound, so much so that when a song ended abruptly you could almost feel the whole audience lose their balance. While the singing of the three women – Garenetska, Iryna Kovalenko and Olena Tsibulska – is stellar, Marko Halanevych sent chills down the spine with his exquisite falsetto on their encore piece ‘Baby (Show Me Your Love)’. I can’t remember the last time I was left so breathless at the end of a show. Those who attended both their WOMAD and Village Underground gigs claimed the festival slot was even better. What a show that must have been then…
This review originally appeared in Songlines #113 (December 2015) p76. Download a pdf here.