Folk choir brings the sounds of Ukraine to McKellar Park

Ukrainian men and women sing. One man is beating a drum. Gold curtains are in the background.
Ukrainian choir Gerdan performed at McKellar Park’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Feb. 22. Photo by Simon Hopkins. 

By Simon Hopkins 

The harmonic sounds of Ukrainian choir Gerdan filled the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKellar Park on Feb. 22. 

Their bright and open-voice singing resonated through the room, with the audience clapping and singing along.

The 16-singer group is a folk choir from Southeast Ukraine, who are on a Canadian tour that started in Montreal on Feb. 21. They performed a two-hour concert for about 120 people at the Ukrainian banquet hall in the basement of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Byron Ave.

Gerdan’s tour is supported by Cobblestone Freeway Tours, a tour company that takes groups to Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. 

Founder Vince Rees told the crowd at the church they wanted to bring Gerdan to Canada after being unable to take groups to the Gerdan Theatre following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The choir is part of a larger theatre company and school. Many of the elite performers 

joined the theatre at a young age and have performed for over a decade. The theatre is in Chernivtsi, a town near Ukraine’s border with Romania, about eight hours southwest of Kyiv. 

Dressed in stunning outfits, the group paraded through the crowd before taking the stage. They all wore vyshyvanky, traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirts with patterns typical of the Chernivtsi region. The women wore skirts and aprons with equally intricate designs. Their heads were adorned with flower wreaths called vinky, and the men wore gerdans, beautiful beaded necklaces.

The singing group, led by Anastasia Kostiuk, sang familiar folk tunes and original compositions. The concert ebbed from tense emotional pieces to rowdy jigs that had the crowd laughing and dancing. 

A group of five men singing passionately.
The men had to be given special permission to leave Ukraine because of war rules. Photo by Simon Hopkins.

After the concert, Pavlo Garadzhii, a singer and actor with Gerdan Theatre, told KT that all of the music performed was deeply tied to Ukrainian culture and history. 

“Everything is folk because it’s somehow connected to Ukrainian history. We do make our own arrangements, so we try to make it fresh and modern so we can connect the past, present, and future,” Garadzhii said.

During the concert, Vince Rees, translating for Anastasia Kostiuk, told the group about the fundraising purpose of the tour. Five of the choir’s members were on the frontlines fighting. All money raised was being sent to support the members in buying equipment and supplies. 

With the crowd in awe, the choir ended the show with Mnohaya Lita, a celebratory song that grants ‘many years,’ signaling well wishes for the future. The audience stood and sang along. When the choir had left, the crowd chanted for an encore. Gerdan obliged and sang a blessing. 

A woman in a colourful dress moves her arms as she sings.
About 120 people came to watch the Ukrainian music group. Photo by Simon Hopkins.

Pavlo Garadzhii explained to KT the importance of their tour and the challenges of making it happen. 

“It was extremely difficult to get here,” said Garadzhii. “It was a very exhaustive and important process.”

Under wartime law, men aged 18-60 cannot leave the country. Gerdan needed special government permission for the trip. 

“We had to contact the Ministry of Culture and had to give them a list of the men and a reason, and every city and date,” he said. “Fortunately, they granted us permission to leave the country. They considered it to be a very important event.”

The members of the choir are excited about the tour. Ottawa was just the second stop on a trip that will take them all the way to Victoria, British Columbia. “Connecting with the Ukrainian diaspora here is very special,” said Garadzhii. 

Even before the war, Canada was already enriched in Ukrainian culture. Many immigrated here through the 20th century. 

“They are a big example for a lot of people who live in diaspora and for Ukrainians who are now displaced people,” said Garadzhii. “[The Ukrainian-Canadians] willingness to save our culture is perfect and a big example for all of us.”

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