When Slava Lepsheiev founded the Ukrainian techno collective Cxema in 2014, “I thought it should be out of politics and just a place where people can be happy and dance,” said the 40-year-old DJ in a recent video interview from Kiev. .
Until the pandemic, the biennial Cxema (pronounced ‘skhema’) raves were essential dates on Ukraine’s techno calendar, which has become an increasingly trendy destination for clubbing tourists over the past decade. These parties – in factories, skate parks and even an abandoned Soviet restaurant – gathered thousands on the dance floor to a soundtrack of experimental electronic music.
But as the Cxema platform grew and the political climate in Ukraine became more tense, “I realized I had a responsibility to use that influence,” Lepsheiev said, looking beyond escapism on the dance floor. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February deepened that commitment, and the war has changed the way Leshev and his team think about their priorities and work.
“I think this war has shattered the claim that art could fall outside of politics,” said Amina Ahmed, 25, Cxema’s booking and communications manager. “Now everything revolves around politics.”
As the shelling intensified in Kiev, the city’s tight-knit electronic music community left clubs and synthesizers to shelter with families, volunteer or enlist in the armed forces.
For Maryana Klochko, 30, an experimental musician who was set to play her Cxema debut in April, it now feels “much more important to be a good person than to be a good musician,” she said in a recent video interview from outside Lviv. † Klochko has declined two invitations to perform in Russia since 2014, and now she has decided to stop singing in Russian. “It hurts to sing in the language of the people who are killing my people,” she said.
Many members of the Cxema team have recently volunteered for humanitarian efforts, such as Oleg Patselya, 21, who has supplied medicine and food to soldiers on the front lines in Donetsk. Ahmed uses Cxema’s social media channels to share information about the war. She called countering Russian propaganda with facts from Ukraine “working on the information front line”.
Throughout the history of electronic music, from the 80s house scenes in Chicago and New York, to the 90s rave culture of Britain and the techno explosion in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, clubs have spaces created for marginalized communities. implicitly or explicitly, political spaces.
Lepsheiev started DJing in 1999 as part of the vibrant art scene that emerged in Kiev after the fall of the Soviet Union. Everything came to a halt with the Maidan Revolution of 2014, when violent clashes between protesters and the police led to the ousting of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, quickly followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Lepsheiev saw this ‘cultural vacuum’ as an opportunity to start something new, founding Cxema to revitalize the city’s art scene and contribute to Kiev’s emerging position on the European culture map over the past decade. .
Now the war changes the relationship of the Cxema artists with the music itself. “If you hear explosions once or twice, you get scared of every loud noise,” Klochko said. “It’s stressful to wear headphones because you’re isolated, so you could miss a seizure.”
On the rare occasions when artists feel safe to listen, they now prefer ambient or instrumental music over their previous diet of club tracks. “Right now I don’t see the meaning of electronic music,” Patselya said. “I don’t feel anything when I listen to it.”
A new microgenre of patriotic club tracks has even emerged, where President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches are en masse grafted onto a throbbing techno beat.
Electro producer Illia Biriukov, 31, continued to write music during the war. “In the difficult early days in Kiev, electronic music seemed like a peacetime decadence,” he said. He left town with his synthesizers and tried to work on an album. “But it was very difficult to concentrate against the backdrop of brutal events,” he said. “Making music seemed useless. I felt this existential question about my skills, as if they were nothing to anyone.”
Still, he continued to make music, in part as a sonic diary of his emotional state. “But when I listen to those songs now,” he said, “they feel too aggressive. I’d like to bring a little less aggression into the world.”
Artem Ilin, 29, who has played on Cxema three times, has also continued to make music. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, I could die,” he said. “This has pushed me to make music because when I die it’s good, but my music will be here and people can listen to it.”
How the war in Ukraine affects the cultural world
Even after the immediate danger of missiles had passed, the Cxema team struggled to maintain its daily routine. Ahmed struggles to think about the future. “You don’t know if you’ll ever be able to do something that makes you happy again,” she said. “Plans become like dreams.”
Under current regulations, most adult men are not allowed to leave Ukraine in case they have to be conscripted into the military. Women can go, but for Ahmed this was out of the question after her partner volunteered to defend Kiev. Klochko had only recently moved to Kiev, but she was also determined to stay. “I don’t feel at home in any city yet,” she said, “but I’m still at home because I’m here in Ukraine.”
In May, a fragile peace returned to Kiev. Many who had fled the city trickled back as bars and restaurants reopened. Then, on June 5, Russian missiles struck again, shattering hopes that the war would not return to the capital.
Parties are popping up all over the capital, but the majority of the Cxema collective is not in the mood for parties yet. “I can’t imagine going anywhere to dance when 400 kilometers from where I am now, people are dying and soldiers are fighting for our freedom,” Patselya said. “Kiev will soon be ours. And after the victory, we must rebuild our buildings and our economy. Then we can party.”
Lepsheiev hopes that next spring he will finally be able to hold the 11 a.m., 5,000-person party he originally planned for April 2020. When she heard this news on a group video interview, Ahmed’s eyes lit up. “I can’t imagine how much energy we’ll all have to dance,” she said, before pausing dreamily. “It will be such a relief.”