AfroCommonwealth I: Afro-Ukrainian tunes of the times long gone

In this series, AfroCommonwealth, Steppes in Sync will be telling You about the life of Africans in the former Soviet Union, as well as relations between African and Eastern European businesses.

About half an hour drive south-east of Kramatorsk lies Kostiantynivka, home to about 90,000 largely unhappy Eastern Ukrainians. (See Discussing the isolation/insulation of Donbass aesthetics with an industrial photographer from Eastern Ukraine). A foreigner who visits here for the first time (like an occasional Peace Corps volunteer or some India-born UNDP junior professional) may be forgiven for thinking that the locals go through life with no meaning.

Yubilejna tram stop graffito in Kostiantynivka, Donetsk oblast (Photo by Oleg Pustovojt, courtesy of Donbass.name)

There is meaning in there. At times it goes beyond Turbaza culture in the summer — so cherished by most Eastern Ukrainians — when one spends what he and/or her was saving for a year to enjoy the nature and “make the kids healthier” some 70 km to the north by the Siversky Donets river. (Here we opt out of  talking about those Kostiantynivka residents who consider it healthier and lazy it out a couple thousand kilometers away from home by the Red — or even further — the Andaman Sea.)

When the sun gradually drops the temperatures in Eastern Europe, and the threat of another gas-price or sub-zero burst pipe crisis seems inevitable, one thing can warm up the soul of an average Kostiantynivka inhabitant: the City Day celebrations. (See Nenets of the North)

In less than a week, a host of Ukrainian national stars will descend on the city to cheer up the crowd and let the people in the province know how everybody loves them. The show will be MC’ed by Kuzma, accompanied by singer Loboda, who represented Ukraine in the Eurovision Song Contest 2009.

Kostiantynivka City Day concert poster announcing Ugandan Alfa-Alfa’s performance during the event

What immediately stands out in the concert program is not these two, however. It’s the participation of an African band Alfa-Alfa. Have they come all over from Africa to entertain the crowd in Eastern Ukrainian backwoods? No. Alfa-Alfa’s mastery of Ukrainian folk songs is revealing the trend that largely goes  unnoticed by most Ukrainians. Many foreign students embrace Ukrainian culture and languages and choose to settle down here. (See Multi-kulti Ukraine)

But it would be an exaggeration to say that many African students form groups like the Kharkiv-based Alfa-Alfa. Feats by this Ugandan musical collective remain rather an exception. (See You can be from Benin to teach Ukrainians how to dance Salsa)

Ira Aldridge’s portrait by Taras Shevchenko, 1858

However, if you dig deeper into history of visits to Ukraine by African creatives you will certainly come across the name of Ira Aldridge. An 1858 tour took this New York-born  London stage actor to Imperial Russia, where he became acquainted with Leo Tolstoy, and Taras Shevchenko. The latter consequently did Aldridge’s portrait in pastel.

According to a Russian-language article on a Dnipropetrovsk-themed website,  in 1862 Aldridge visited Yekaterinoslav , which stirred a sexual controversy.

But those times are long gone. So let the legends and sex do what they do best: puzzle minds and thrill hearts, which, one can argue, brings some meaning to life when the sun gradually drops the temperatures in Eastern Europe.

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