What on earth is the relevance of the name Yellow Blue Bus to a modern Australian take on Ukrainian traditional music? Turns out it was derived from an attempt to translate the Ukrainian phrase for “I love you” into English. Someone said: “It sounds like Yellow Blue Bus to me.” I thought I’d get that out of the way early, in case it bugged you as it did me.
Now to the music …
The sound of Yellow Blue Bus is built around two amazing-looking traditional Ukrainian stringed instruments called banduras, which date back as far as the 6th century. They certainly are stringed instruments – 67 strings, in fact, arranged more like a harp than a guitar, although with lute-like structure. The tone is beautiful, shimmering, resonant, from high to low notes, especially in the hands of these skilled musicians.
Drone strings are also utilised, in a somewhat similar manner to a sitar. Driving this along is a solid rhythm section of drums, bass and powerful percussion provided by the keyboard player. Extra melodic support comes from a fifth player on violin, guitar and a crazy-looking electric mandolin, all of which are often played with driving distortion and even a wah-wah pedal.
You have probably figured Yellow Blue Bus is not limited to the traditional music of Ukraine. Founder Ian Kushnir describes their style as “zletya”, pronounced “sletcha”. It is a Ukraine word meaning “things flying in from all directions into a single point” (a terrific effort for one small word). In other words, diverse modern and traditional influences from many sources have been incorporated into the music to give it a life of its own.
This extends to the musicians. The two bandura players, bass and drummer, are of Ukraine background, but the keyboard/percussionist is Anglo-Australian and the multi-instrumentalist is Irish. They all play together beautifully with passion, skill and obvious respect and enjoyment of their task. It’s a true world fusion music effort.
The first tune of last night’s performance at the Space Theatre was a bewilderingly, rollicking take on a traditional style – in 11/8 timing, made up of 3/3/3/2 pattern – just to kick things off. We were then treated to what I would call Ukrainian grooves, and even a Ukrainian rap effort.
A moving rendition of the unofficial Ukraine national anthem was dedicated to those seeking political change back in the home country. But the biggest surprise came with Kushnir picking up a didgeridoo for a particularly soulful piece about the plight of refugees. He was once, perhaps not surprisingly, dubbed the best didgeridoo player in the Ukraine, by a music critic in Kiev.
The largely Ukraine-origin audience was very connected to the music and culture, but for those of us who weren’t, the insights into Ukraine life and the pain of being relocated post World War II to a new country in Australia were much appreciated. These were narrated throughout the performance, and supported by clever use of stills and video projection on a screen behind the band.
After a short intermission, Yellow Blue Bus was joined by a succession of colourful dancers, starting with a Cossack martial arts barrel dance, developed from military training exercises, and two graceful belly dancers, who performed individually and in a tightly choreographed duet.
But this day was the actual Ukraine New Year’s Eve and that meant a party with the traditional contributions from many of the audience members. A circle was formed, with participants young and not-so-young taking a turn to show off their individual dance skills in the centre. Some amazingly physical cameos were on display and it was particularly pleasing to see so many younger kids getting down and showing their stuff, helping to keep their traditional culture alive in a new home.
Yellow Blue Bus performed at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre as part of the Sessions series of live music gigs taking place throughout January.