In this era of discord and conflict, there is an urgent need for art, poetry and music which speaks to the soul and helps humanity recalibrate its faculties and make sense of all the nonsense that is bringing so much terrible harm to our world. Thank goodness then for Fokstroty, a spellbinding new album by Kharkiv poet and writer Serhiy Zhadan and Berlin-based musician and composer Yuriy Gurzhy.

Fokstroty was first presented at Kyiv’s Mystetskyi Arsenal last fall, as part of the Futuromarennia exhibition dedicated to Ukrainian futurism. This groundbreaking early 20th-century Ukrainian art movement, lasted from its primary developments in 1910 in Odesa, Kyiv, Kherson and Mykolayiv, right up to the notorious and crucial events in Kharkiv, in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the leading lights of Ukrainian art, poetry and political philosophy were rounded up and murdered.

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Could Fokstroty, this courageous new work of art herald the return of their spirit, in this most dangerous moment in history?

Ultimately, Fokstroty is a creative collaboration. Serhiy  Zhadan has been actively promoting Ukrainian poetic heritage for a long while. And Yuriy Gurzhy, who also harks from Ukraine’s big northern capital of Kharkiv, has repeatedly taken part in Serhiy’s music projects as a guitarist and singer. He also remixed songs and was part of joint concert tours of eastern Ukraine.

 Zhadan and  Gurzhy developed the concept and script of Fokstroty together; the former also acted as a vocalist, while the latter composed and played parts for the keyboards, guitar, beats, as well as for vocals and arrangements.

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Other musicians and performers became part of the process of recording individual tracks, including saxophonist Yevhen Manko, singers Diana Marcinkowska, Maria Litinskaya, and Lyuba Yakimchuk, as well as the children’s choir named after Mykhaylo Semenko under the direction of Halyna Pechenizhska. The recording, compilation and mastering of the album was done by specialists of well-known recording companies.

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The project was created at the initiative and mentorship of Oksana Shchur and sponsored by the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.

Fokstroty was undoubtedly one of the most significant cultural events of 2021.

The album consists of 10 tracks with lyrics by a plethora of Soviet-era Ukrainian contributors, namely writer Mykola Bazhan, poet Mykhaylo Semenko, futurist poet Geo Shkurupii, poets Pavlo Tychyna and Oleksa Vlyzko, poetess Raisa Troyanker, lyric poet Volodymyr Sosiura, and Serhiy Zhadan himself.

The concept of the album and its performance was edgy – one can say 'futuristic.' It involved the use of virtuoso techniques and tools for its creation that organically combine different textures and sounds of voice, noise and musical materials, which in total deserve separate and meticulous literary and musical exploration.

In the album, we can hear the live performances of recognized, iconic poets, voices of Semenko’s wife, famous theater and cinematography actress Natalia Uzhviy, poet Leonid Pervomayskiy from the archives of the “Poetry on Radio Culture” program, along with texts of one of the leading “fathers” of futurism, Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti, specially recorded sounds of typewriters belonging to inhabitants of the Slovo Building in Kharkiv and other recordings from the archives of Ukrainian radio, etc.

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Why is the album called Fokstroty?  The authors won’t say exactly, but there’s a few riddles to the mystery that need to be solved. First of all, this title refers to the lines of a poem by Mykola Bazhan in 1928:

'This is a step by foxes, Syncopated foxtrot, This rhythm, This trot of groggy creatures, This act is revealing, open to everyone, This is a head-turning act.'

And the name Fokstroty appeals directly to the retro style, as the imagination immediately paints a lyrical and (even partly) a slightly poignant image of an old-time dance stage in the park or a palace of culture dating back to the youth of our parents or even grandparents, although there are no songs in the foxtrot style on the album.

Fokstroty is without doubt a timely project, which is, indeed, a modern musical product, conceived and implemented for the broadest audience. Most of the poems whose lyrics were borrowed for the musical compositions are well known to many since school, and  someone likely even got bored, because such lines are associated exclusively with Soviet ideology.

Therefore, the authors of the album deliberately chose the pop format, so that listeners could not only learn the intellectual content of Fokstroty, which is designed to symbolically strip the poets of layers of Soviet ideology, and also to get immersed in the extremely bright period full of stormy experiments in the first decades of the 20th century. They were all young, lived life to the full, and created, as they were full of hopes and expectations. Their fates were very different. Some died during the political repressions of the 1930s, and even their names were removed from the literary legacy for decades. Some were lucky enough to survive, though in order to survive they had to become advocates of the existing system and part of the Soviet establishment.

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Fokstroty offers up not only a novel reading of famous poems, but also a rather complex, multi-layered reconstruction, a kind of reinstatement, restoration of the forcibly removed parts of the cultural space. The listeners may enjoy a kind of alternative reality – they are invited to a futuristic disco, where Ukrainian classical poets can be seen behind the DJ’s console, with microphones in hand, or act as MC's. The dance floor of the disco is filled completely with people who sing and dance to the inflammatory rhythms of Tychyna’s "Soniachni Klarnety" ("Solar Clarinets"), "I'm so tender, so disturbing," "Let the blood boil in the breasts of young people," and other songs from the album.

Fokstroty is now available for free on SoundCloud and YouTube, where all the songs are visualized by video clips made by Eugene Arlov based on collages by artist Grycja Erde, who also designed the album cover.

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