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Iron Curtain’s mutant funk: The fractions of Kyiv’s club music

First of all, could you call my city “Kyiv” from now on, not “Kiev”? The pronunciation of the “Y” is drawn out, like “I” in the word ‘watching’. This “Y” sound is like the landscape of the city, with its slopes and its distance, over which Kyiv’s club culture extends. 

  An average resident of Kyiv is standing on one of the city’s hills, watching people he knows passing by. The posture of the Kyivan is upright; his head slightly thrown back so he can take a look at the larger area. Kyiv is a big village, in the sense that it is one of those rather large capitals, in which natives and visitors get all the perks of living in a local community — in the hood, along with the benefits of the metropolis. 

  This means that in the big village Kyiv, connections between people are very tight, because everyone knows everyone. If you’re new in town, it is likely that, in a couple of days, you will get to know a huge number of new people; you will even be invited into their homes. We don’t even do business on phones here, instead we have to meet each other. This socialising is everywhere in Kyiv; you can smell it in the blossoms of the chestnut trees.

  I moved to Kyiv in the 1990s after the rave years in Berlin, and within a year or two I knew almost everyone in Kyiv — at least everyone from the nightlife scene. Actually, the mid-1990s could be considered as the beginning of Kyiv’s club history, in the common sense of the term “club”, as a place where a DJ or a live band plays and the audience is dancing, drinking and meeting each other. 

Mask from the series Maskirovka. (Photo: Tobias Zielony)

 Before that, for example, amateur folk dance schools were called “clubs”. Clubs like these were concentrated in the so-called palaces of culture; in the buildings of regional administrations or large enterprises. Meanwhile, more affluent people went to restaurants that were actually clubs — with dancing, alcohol and pop music. Until the mid-1990s, it was an exclusive and special event for an average Kyivan to go to a restaurant. They mainly did so for important occasions like birthdays, weddings, dates with a new girl, or because their 13th cheque had arrived — the yearly premium in the Soviet Union.

The first traces of traditional (in global terms) club culture could be seen in the early 1960s, during the so-called thaw period, after Stalin had kicked the bucket in 1953. Beat music was brought to the city by diplomats and sailors crossing western and eastern borders. With a softer system and approach, quirky Komsomol guys started to register Komsomol Khozraschyot — self-financed and self-managed clubs. 

The first of them was probably MK-62 on Leontovycha Street, in the café Mriya [dream]. The city festival of proto-rock’n’roll was held there; 12 bands had signed up. The most famous of them should be mentioned: Enej (Aeneas), Second Breath, Red Devils, and Argonauts. There was a lot of fuss around this event, and the crowd blocked the whole street.

Back then, musicians, their fans and groupies usually gathered at the Maidan [independence] square where, in 2013, the Revolution of Dignity took place. They met on the steps of the former monument of the October Revolution or the fountain. From Maidan everyone went to the café Grot or to the Mriya. 

Plant from the Tobias Zielony series Maskirovka

Of course, the repertoire of these bands was controlled by special orders. Musicians avoided bans in several ways: they took rock’n’roll standards and wrote songs about Komsomols and tireless workers; or they used folk songs, but played them with rock interpretations. Another method perhaps spontaneously formed a whole new movement: it combined central and eastern Ukrainian polyphonic singing and Carpathian rhythms. The result sounded quite jazzy and funky, and sometimes even a little bit psychedelic.

Authorities strongly recommended that amateur bands become professional and sign contracts with the official concert organisations. Thus, it was planned to integrate fresh cultural trends into the so-called sharovar culture. The terms “group” or “band” were forbidden for some reason — instead, the abbreviation VIA (vocal and instrumental ensemble) was used. 

Musicians were dressed in weird outfits (Bootsy Collins would have been jealous), and most men had a moustache, probably to signify their strength and their high testosterone levels. “Moustache fank” is perhaps what this movement should have been called. “Fank” because it was a very peculiar, mutated funk; a funk whose long journey through the Iron Curtain’s damaged communication channels became mixed with the syncopated rhythms of traditional Hutsul music.

VIAs were invented by authorities to contain the influence of Western culture that, it was believed, was designed to influence the Soviet consciousness. Normally VIA gigs consisted of two parts: one would be the band playing their own music, and the other would be official music, featuring songs about the Communist Party, the unique beauty of nature, friendship, and the happy life of people in the Soviet Union. 

This plan led to unexpected results, at least in the Ukraine, where contemporary Ukrainian songs became the most popular trend in the whole Soviet Union, despite the fact that a large number of musicians migrated to the metropolis, Moscow in Russia. There is still a lot of hype around the Ukrainian 1970s to this day. Dozens of young DJs’ shoes have been worn down in their search for vinyl from that period at flea markets. For example, the self-titled and only album of the band Vizerunky Shlyakhiv [pattern ways] from 1976 recently became one of the biggest prizes for music fans. If you are lucky, you can buy a copy for a whopping €100. 

Music on the bones

In the 1970s, Kyiv began to grow rapidly; new concrete neighbourhoods were built — so-called sleeping residential areas like Obolon, Kharkivskyi and Troyeshchyna. The city was flooded with workers from the countryside, who were usually rather religious. But authorities did not build churches for the newcomers in each new neighbourhood. Instead they constructed open-air dance floors or hangars for the same purpose. These venues were called “discotheques” later on.  

Aluminium from the series Maskirovka. (Photo: Tobias Zielony)

 In addition to official names, these discos had nicknames that are still used today. Perhaps the most famous among them was Zhaba [frog] on the slopes of the Dnipro River. Zhaba got its name from the shape of the canopy over the stage that looked like a frog prepared to jump. A crawling frog. Nearby there was Kukushka [cuckoo], a kind of entertainment centre with live gigs, cafés, and barbeque spots. Sometimes you could bring your own alcohol. Near the old town of Podil there was Crocodile — a hidden crocodile.

In the late 1970s, a group of music lovers came together and began to exchange or sell records. Vinyls from the West became a kind of currency because US dollars were strictly forbidden in the Soviet Union. Music was brought to Kyiv from the west (Lviv), south (Odesa), and east (St Petersburg, at the time called Leningrad), as well as through urban connections and diplomats and families in exile. 

Collectors usually met once a week near the botanical garden and in a couple of other locations. Prices were high — usually fifty rubles per record, which was slightly less than half of a month’s salary for a Soviet engineer. But there was a low-cost alternative for the masses: flexi discs that were usually printed on old X-ray photographs and were called “music on the edges” or “music on the bones”.

In 1979, the Kyiv factory Mayak [lighthouse] started to produce the legendary reel-to-reel tape player the Mayak-205, which became the main device in all discos. It never broke, it did not chew up the tape and it was not too expensive. Also, at the end of the 1970s, the Kyiv factory, Communist, released a new model of cassette tape recorder, the Vesna 202 [spring 202]. 

This device could not exactly be classified as a Soviet boom box, but at least it could work on batteries and thus accompanied small gatherings on park benches. At the same time, dubbing studios where music fans could order reel-to-reel or cassette tapes with their favourite albums of Western bands appeared. It was an alternative network of music distribution, and its volumes were up to 10 times greater than those at Melody records, the formal state network monopoly label.

Ten Cities (Spector Books/Goethe-Institut), a book on clubbing in Nairobi, Cairo, Kyiv, Johannesburg, Naples, Berlin, Luanda, Lagos, Bristol and Lisbon between 1960 and  March 2020, is edited by Johannes Hossfeld Etyang, Joyce Nyairo and Florian Sievers. This extract, on the evolution of club music in Kyiv, is the third in a series of 10 weekly excerpts. 

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