DakhaBrakha, a world-music quartet from Ukraine, is not easy to categorize. Visually striking with their tall, furry hats and sonically impressive with their use of traditional instruments from various countries and moving vocals, this group has the “ferociousness of a rock band,” says Wiley Hausam, director of the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University.
“When you can’t pigeonhole an artist with three or four words,” he adds, “it’s much more challenging to communicate what they’re about. I think you just gotta listen.” (see video below)
He first encountered the group, comprised of three women (Olena Tsybulska, Iryna Kovalenko and Nina Garenetska) and one man (Marko Halanevych), during their first performance at globalFEST in New York, in 2014. “Then they just continued to get more and more popular and go all over the world,” he says.
Since the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, DakhaBrakha has become known as a global ambassador for Ukraine. “Since the war has begun, it takes on that much more resonance,” says Hausam. “I think people feel that much more passionate about them.”
But even before they gained political relevance, DakhaBrakha was wowing audiences worldwide. “They’re really like nothing else I recall ever having seen or heard,” says Hausam. “There’s this clear sense of old folk music from Eastern Europe and, at the same time, it’s incredibly modern and ferocious with real beats and some electronics.
“Also, they’re not performing for approval, like they’re not constantly looking out at the audience. They’re just buried deep in their music and going for it.”
Hausam, who has been in his position at Peak Performances since January, is excited to present DakhaBrakha on Nov. 18 at the Alexander Kasser Theater.
I interviewed Hausam about his decision to book this unique group and the rest of the eclectic lineup for his first season at Peak Performances, as well as his experience as a programmer and his crisis of faith about the arts in 2000.
Q: How have you been describing or explaining this group to people? I feel like if you don’t see a video, it’s hard.
A: I think that’s one of the hardest things about marketing this group. There are no quick and easy phrases to describe it. So I urge people to watch the videos or listen to the tracks and then you’ll get it instantly and then you’ll like it or you won’t like it. I think most people like it.
Q: Some people might be thinking, “I don’t speak Ukrainian, will I still enjoy or get something out of this performance?”
A: Absolutely. You won’t get the specific meaning of the words, but you won’t feel that anything’s missing. I never have.
Q: Why are you excited for them to come to Peak Performances?
A: I’ve only been coming to work in Montclair since January, so I don’t know the community very well at all yet, but it has a reputation for being progressive and politically active. And my guess is that most people in Montclair support the United States’ support of (Ukraine) to not be conquered in this war. So I have a feeling it may touch that nerve in Northern New Jersey. Plus, it’s very international around here … it’s very diverse and it tends to be outspoken, I think. So I think people will respond to (DakhaBrakha). You don’t have to know anything to come and respond to it. Like if you walk down New York City streets and that group is there, you just stop and watch. It’s arresting. If you’re not sure what it is, just give it a try, you’re gonna like it.
Q: You booked and planned this current season of Peak Performances, correct? Tell me a little bit about your taste when it comes to what you like to book.
A: I did. I came in January and I started consulting in October so it gave me a couple more months to work on it. Ordinarily, the typical booking season is between Labor Day and the first week of February for the year that’s coming. So I only had half of that, really, but I’ve been doing it for 22 years so I know a lot of artists and I had a sense of Montclair from having been here a few times in the past. So I just plunged right in. Basically, what I intended to do was to give a sampling of first-rate artists. Artists who are as good as there are in the world in a very wide range. Very eclectic — music, dance, theater, film and even talks. And just give it to the folks and see if they respond to it.
Q: This season is definitely very eclectic. Were you trying to have any overarching themes for the season?
A: Not really. I tend not to do themes because I think that when you try to program themes, you end up presenting some people who are not as good as you would ordinarily like them to be because you’re trying to fill up a theme. I prefer to just get the best artists that are out there. I think that what’s kind of clear, though, is that there’s definitely a kind of a social justice point of view about artists in this season.
The programming that’s been here has been absolutely first-rate, that Jed Wheeler programmed for 18 years. But it was very specific, it was experimental, it was international. And the audience for that is quite small. We have a 500-seat theater but there were always plenty of (empty) seats to those shows no matter how good they were, because it’s just very kind of rarified programming. I wanted to do some stuff that would welcome everybody. That people who’ve never been to a theater before might find appealing … So, just getting to know the community: That’s one of the first things a programmer has to do when they’re new, is to get to know the community and what they value and what they respond to. And quickly, because you don’t have much time.
Q: That sounds like it could be hard because you have to present them with something in order to know what they like. But then you have to make decisions based on that for the next season already.
A: Exactly. I mean, I should be programming next season now, but I’m kind of holding off to see what of the stuff that we’re presenting in the fall are they responding to. Then there’s also the fact that we have this really great film festival here in Montclair and a really great jazz festival. You want to fill spaces that are unoccupied. You don’t want to compete with people doing the thing that they do so well. But on the other hand, I love jazz singers. And so Cécile McLorin Salvant (coming to Peak Performances on Dec. 16), I had presented her at Stanford and I wanted to present her again. And this film called “The Triplets of Belleville” (coming to Peak Performances on Nov. 16), which is an animated film with a live orchestra, I had wanted to present that in the past but hadn’t had the chance. So it looks like we’re getting into the territory of Montclair film and Montclair jazz but not in any competitive kind of way.
Q: Tell me a little more about why Peak Performances was appealing to you. Why did you want to take this role?
A: Well, mostly because it had such a strong reputation in the performing arts world as being one of the best presenters in the country. But also because they wanted to reorganize it and bring it in a different direction. And the third reason is the mission of this university. Now, this university has the most diverse student body I’ve ever seen on a university campus in 22 years of working on … this is my fifth campus. (There are) many first generation students and it’s the largest Hispanic-serving university east of Chicago. So you walk around campus and it’s the world of the future. All of that together is what attracted me to come to Montclair State.
Q: Tell me more about your background, where you grew up and how you ended up here.
A: I grew up in a small town in Missouri called Sedalia and then I went to college at Northwestern. I came to New York right after that and lived on the Upper West Side almost the whole time. I have an apartment in Riverdale, which is in the Bronx. And then I was gone for 10 years. I went first (for) five years to California and then five years to North Carolina.
I opened the Skirball Center at NYU. I opened Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater. I was one of the producers of The Public and I used to be a theater producer before I went into university presenting. So I have this very weird, circuitous career path. You go where it leads you.
Q: Interesting. Like you said, you have a background in theater producing. Do you see theater fitting into the programming at Peak Performances?
A: I kind of do see it. During the summer, our facilities are not that occupied. So that’s kind of an opportunity to do something. We’re investigating what’s possible right now and hopefully we’ll know in a few months but, you know, why not? I mean, for example, we’re presenting the “Odyssey” (on Nov. 9), which is an Acting Company production. Ordinarily, I haven’t presented that much theater in the past. But this is a new adaptation of the text and it’s sort of been reimagined to be about four women from different countries who have been sent to a refugee holding facility and they’re all trying to get back home. So again, there’s a kind of a political consciousness there.
I guess I would say that at some point — well, in the year 2000 — I sort of had a crisis of faith about, what are we doing in the arts? How is this making the world better other than just more pleasurable? So I went to Columbia and started taking some courses in philosophy of art. As part of that, there was a professor there whose specialty was art and politics. And I realized that I actually always had a kind of a political consciousness in the art that I did or the artists I worked with.
But now I wanted to make it more explicit, because I think that actually all art is political. It’s just that when it appears not to be political, when it appears very neutral, then what it’s saying is that it upholds the status quo. So I just think that there’s a lot of change we can make, to make a better world. And artists often think that, too.
Peak Performances will present DakhaBrakha at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. For information on this show and others in the 2023-24 season, visit peakperfs.org.
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