Oh spring song, spring song,
Where have you spent your winter?
In the garden, sitting on a maple tree,
You’ve been spinning a shirt.
These strange and folky lines, sung in Ukrainian, were paired with brooding techno music and broadcast to around 200 million people on Saturday night. They’re the opening words of Ukraine’s entry to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest: “Shum” by the band Go_A.
Go_A’s performance at Eurovision, which you can watch again here, was stunning. There was something intense and enigmatic about that combination of repetitive folk singing and the relentless techno beat, which accelerated as the song progressed. Besides the drums and synth there was also a looping melody played on a sopilka, a kind of Ukrainian recorder.
To set it all off visually, lead singer Kateryna Pavlenko wore a feathery, bright green shawl – the fresh green of spring, presumably. She and the rest of the band largely confined themselves to a white platform bordered by skeletal winter trees.
As the only song in the grand final of the contest to focus so intently on nature, “Shum” prompted me to do some digging. It is a very, very old folk song. No-one seems to know exactly how old but Ukrainian researchers have dated it to pre-Christian times. It captures an idea that was once very widespread and still is among many indigenous peoples: that living things possess spirits or energies, which awaken or become active at certain times of the year.
In February, Pavlenko told Ukrainian radio station NV that, when researching the history of “Shum”, she discovered how people in Ukraine once thought they could activate the magical powers of natural entities around them through singing and dancing. “Shum”, then, which means “noise”, was a kind of ritual that functioned as an appeal to the god or energy of the forest. As Pavlenko put it:
“They believed that there were light forces, dark forces, but with the dark forces they were able to find common ground. They believed that if they sang songs, they could appease the dark forces, and they would not touch them, and everyone would be able to live and coexist together.”
This is pretty mind-blowing. You might want to check out the English translation of the song, by the way, which is on the Eurovision website. As with all folk songs, there are multiple alternate texts out there but this is the one performed by Go_A. For fun, try comparing their blistering techno version to traditional folk renditions, such as this, in which some Ukrainians in traditional dress dance and sing “Shum” in a field. You’ll soon recognise the words and tune.
I wanted to find out more about all this, so I got in touch with Tanya Lokot, a researcher at Dublin City University and Eastern Europe editor for Global Voices.
She explains that the concept of shum or noise has been interpreted in different ways in Ukraine – as an “obscure cosmic energy” that determines the passing of days, seasons and years; as a forest god; and as the rustling of new leaves on trees in spring.
I also wonder if there’s an even broader meaning at work. The “noise” of nature’s various activities in spring: the buds, the shoots, the birdsong, the flowers and, as is mentioned in “Shum”, the sprouting of crops sown by people.
Lokot says, “It was very much the noise of the forest and life more generally awakening after a long and cold winter.”
A tricky dance
She adds that the singing of “Shum” was traditionally accompanied by a convoluted but mesmerising dance. Maybe this is also meant to simultaneously mimic and invoke the vital energy of spring.
“The pagan rituals associated with forest deities usually included circular dancing (khorovody), as well as complicated group dance manoeuvres, almost a game-like dance, that included ‘braiding’, where young women would form arches with their arms and pass under them in pairs,” Lokot explains.
Don’t miss the references to the sun – bringer of life – that were peppered throughout Go_A’s Eurovision performance, either. There’s a fun discussion of what might be going on there, including possible references to Chernobyl, by Your Underground Humanitarian on YouTube (with English subtitles).
I should say that the awakening of spring is represented in all sorts of folk songs and traditions around the world, it’s not something particular to Ukraine. To pick one example, here’s a charming old recording of the English song “The Birds in the Spring” by the Copper Family: “the song of the nightingale echoed all round”, they croon.
(Actually, while we’re on the subject of birds, you should also take a look at this video of the Ukrainian folk group DakhaBrakha, in which the band members use their voices to imitate bird calls, with amazing dexterity.)
I think “Shum” was a rare Eurovision treat – a blast of folklore made edgy and futuristic. And it was very well received. Go_A finished a respectable 5th in the competition, though actually scored 2nd highest in the public vote.
Lokot says the song has enjoyed popularity in the band’s native Ukraine and she mentions that there’s a growing trend in the country for rediscovering old folk songs or heritage, and reinventing them. Perhaps this will prompt conversations about people's relationship to nature, among other things.
Either way, it’s perhaps unsurprising that, as Europe fights its way out of the pandemic, many Eurovision entries this year foregrounded themes of rebirth or new beginnings, including the host nation’s own song.
“Shum” seemed, to me, the most inspiring of the lot, though.
It’s a piece about the endless dialogue between communities and nature; the influence of folklore across the ages; and a familiar fascination with the changing seasons. How appropriate for 2021. Celebrations of spring are always, at their heart, about hope for the future. Significantly, that's a hope borne out of survival.
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Some links for you
The subject of whale hunting is a controversial one but, at a minimum, I think it’s important to understand the cultural history of this activity when forming opinions about it. This piece from Hakai Magazine by Regin Winther Poulsen discusses the recent decision to ban humpback whale hunting in the fjord where Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, is located.
The idea is to protect whales that feed in the fjord during the summer, since they are regularly the focus of whale watching tours that sail from Nuuk. Whale hunting was banned in Greenland in 1986 but reintroduced in 2010 and 183 large whales were killed in the country in 2019, according to the International Whaling Commission. Whether you agree with it or not, Western condemnation of the practice could be viewed as somewhat ironic. As Poulsen writes:
“For about 4,000 years, the Inuit in Greenland sustainably hunted humpback whales. Then, mainland Europeans, in their pursuit of whale oil, pushed the whale’s population to the edge of extinction.”
As discussions about the mental and physical health benefits of nature have proliferated during the pandemic, questions over who has access to nature – and at what price – have followed. Earlier this month, Nik Elvy wrote a piece for Adventure Uncovered about this very issue and how, despite its benefits, nature is sometimes seen as a luxury – not for the likes of those struggling to make ends meet. Elvy challenges this in what you could describe as a call for equitable nature.
In a similar vein, check out this report from BBC News about the Nature Friendly Schools initiative, which works with schools in some of England’s most deprived areas to improve children’s understanding of and access to nature. School teacher Kim Leathley put it like this:
"What we're trying to do as a school is to get our children to like, respect and admire nature, so that – as they grow up – they understand the significance and importance of keeping it safe and keeping our planet safe."
Opportunities to engage with nature are never far away, no matter where you live – though knowing what’s on your doorstep is key. Emma Beddington’s feature in The Guardian points out that a plethora of species can take hold in run-down, derelict spaces. Everything from sewage works to reclaimed dumps have soothed people during lockdown, she notes, often thanks to the presence of flowers, butterflies, reptiles and trees. Given the chance, these living things quickly colonise even the most industrial of sites.
Finally, this article from Mongabay flags up the publication of a new book of photographs taken in the Amazon by renowned photographer Sebastião Salgado. He spent six years capturing the moods of the rainforest and documenting the lives of its native peoples. The resulting black-and-white images are jawdropping.
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