As the door to the Ship Pub in St. John’s, N.L., swung open Saturday night, a roaring Ukrainian song came blasting out, spilling down into the alleyway and bouncing off the buildings along the city’s main street.
It was the first night of two sold-out shows by local “Ukrainian-Canadian speed-folk” band the Kubasonics, who were launching a new album as Russian forces continued their violent invasion of Ukraine.
The band nearly cancelled the shows when they found out about the attack, said Brian Cherwick, who plays many instruments with the group including the accordion and the tsymbaly, which is the Ukrainian version of a hammer dulcimer.
The Kubasonics play what Cherwick calls Ukrainian party songs -- tunes that would be heard at weddings or other gatherings, but with a modern twist, he said. He figured nobody wanted to hear upbeat, foot-stomping dancing songs during such a horrible time.
But his wife and his family in Ukraine reminded him that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to justify its actions by telling its citizens Ukrainian culture doesn’t exist and by playing, he’d be pushing back against that narrative, he said.
“My relatives said to me, ‘No, go ahead and play this, because you prove that he’s lying just by doing this,” Cherwick said sitting a table at the Ship after a sound check.
Cherwick said he realized with these shows, he’d be showing Ukrainian culture not only exists, but that it’s loved and celebrated, even somewhere as far away as Newfoundland.
The Kubasonics are Cherwick and his two children -- Jacob Cherwick on drums and Maria Cherwick on fiddle -- with Darren Browne on guitar and Matt Hender on bass. The three Cherwicks are Ukrainian: Brian’s family has lived in Canada for several generations but his wife, also named Maria, was born there, he said.
The Cherwick family is known in St. John’s for being wildly talented musicians. In 2018 for example, Mark Cherwick, then eight years old, made headlines as the frontman for a punk band called Banana Vacuum, screaming in two languages about avocados, minions and his annoying sister. His brother Jacob backed him up on guitar and bass.
Brian Cherwick, who is also a folklore professor at Memorial University studying eastern European traditional music, insists he didn’t force his kids to learn music or to join his band.
“They kind of learned by osmosis,” he said, smiling.
Last Friday, after Russia’s initial attacks, the province’s music industry association sent an email to all of its members in solidarity with the band.
“A message of love and hope to our Ukrainian members, Kubasonics,” said the MusicNL note, with a link to a news story about how the Cherwicks were coping with the news.
Brian Cherwick wiped tears from his eyes when he spoke Saturday of the outpouring of love and support he felt from the province. The Cherwicks have a lot of family in Ukraine right now, mostly in the western region where things are still relatively safe, he said.
Still, he said, the situation changes every day.
Newfoundland and Labrador has been particularly welcoming, both to his family and to the Kubasonics and the band’s explorations and experimentations of traditional Ukrainian music, he said.
Newfoundland and Labrador has its own traditional music through which people people have long told stories of their struggles and joys. There is also a rich history of Newfoundland and Labrador musicians revisiting the province’s traditional music and re-making it for their time, he said, pointing to bands like Figgy Duff or even early Great Big Sea.
That’s exactly what the Kubasonics are doing with Ukrainian music, he said, and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians really get it.
The Cherwicks lived in Edmonton before they moved to St. John’s in 2011, and Brian Cherwick had the band on the go there, too. But he said it just wasn’t the same.
The band was mostly pigeonholed in Alberta, he said, maybe playing at Ukrainian weddings, but not much else.
In St. John’s, they can easily sell out two nights at the Ship, a venue that regularly hosts the city’s most popular bands.
“My wife has a beautiful, perfect quote,” he said. “She says, when I lived in Edmonton, I was considered a Ukrainian musician. But in Newfoundland, I’m a musician that plays Ukrainian music.”
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