The Songs of the Donbas War: A Quest for Memory, History and Identity

Simon Lewis comments on Iryna Shuvalova’s project on songs in the Donbas war and her presentation at the academy on 28th February:

Having participated in the poetry evening the previous day with recitals of her own rich, lyrical verses, Iryna Shuvalova (University of Cambridge) introduced her PhD project, which examines the cultural resonances of poetry and music in the context of the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine.

Currently in her second year of research, Shuvalova has amassed approximately 300 contemporary songs and music videos, and 200 traditional songs that have (re-)gained popularity since the start of the conflict. She takes a multi-medial approach to her primary material, arguing that popular songs (including their renditions as music videos circulated online), original songs written and performed by soldiers, and verses transmitted by more traditional means can all be analysed through the prism of “orality” or “oral poetry”. Oral poetry, she argues citing Ruth Finnegan’s classic work on the topic, should not be reduced to the ideal type of poems that are not written down and transmitted purely by word of mouth. Poetry that is not written can, on the one hand, have nothing to do with sound and speech – a fascinating example being poetry slams in sign language, where physical bodily movement and visual performance bear all of the expressive burden. On the other hand, spoken word poetry or song is hardly ever only vocal and aural – each articulation is embedded in a range of situational and mediatized contexts: e.g. recorded, remixed, performed by other readers, etc.. Thus, dispensing with the rigid, binary division into spoken and oral verse, Shuvalova proposes that these different forms of poetic expression should be analysed together. One of her particular interests is the relationship between digital media and oral poetry/music.

The presentation focused on recent Ukrainian (and also Russian) music videos, some of them with YouTube statistics of several million views. With music performed in a mixture of genres and with visual narratives drawing on canonical references from Ukraine’s cultural tradition (such as lines by nineteenth century poet Taras Shevchenko), the songs Shuvalova analysed carried a range of messages and narrative tropes. They showed not only that the war has had a profound impact on cultural production in Ukraine and Russia, but that the diverse imaginings of nation, community and enmity by poets/musicians are complex and extremely generative. War does not only impact song; songs also resonate in multiple ways in society, and may yet have an indirect influence on the development of the conflict itself.


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