When Slava Lepsheiev founded Ukrainian techno collective Cxema in 2014, “I thought it should be outside of politics and just a place where people can be happy and dance,” the DJ, 40, said in a recent Kyiv video interview.
Until the pandemic, the biannual Cxema (pronounced “skhema”) raves were staple dates on Ukraine’s techno calendar, which has become an increasingly trending destination for club tourists over the past decade. These parties – in factories, skate parks and even an abandoned Soviet restaurant – gathered thousands of people on the dance floor to a soundtrack of experimental electronic music.
But as the Cxema platform grew and Ukraine’s political climate became more tense, “I realized I had a responsibility to use that influence,” Lepsheiev said, and to look beyond the escape on the dance floor. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February reinforced that commitment, and the war transformed the way Lepsheiev and his team think about their priorities and their work.
“I think this war has destroyed the claim that art can be outside of politics,” said Amina Ahmed, 25, Cxema’s head of reservations and communications. “Now it’s all about politics.”
As the bombing intensified in Kyiv, the city’s close-knit electronic music community ditched clubs and synthesizers to shelter with families, volunteer or enlist in the armed forces.
For Maryana Klochko, 30, an experimental musician who was due to make her Cxema debut in April, it is now “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 turned down two invitations to perform in Russia since 2014, and now she’s decided to stop singing in Russian. “It hurts to sing in the language of the people who are killing my people,” she said.
Many Cxema team members have recently volunteered in humanitarian efforts, such as 21-year-old Oleg Patselya, who delivered medicine and food to soldiers on the front lines in Donetsk. Ahmed uses Cxema’s social networks to share information about the war. She called the fight against Russian propaganda with facts from inside Ukraine “working on the informational front line.”
Throughout the history of electronic music, from the house scenes of the 1980s in Chicago and New York, to the British rave culture of the 1990s and the techno explosion in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, clubs have created safe spaces for marginalized communities. implicitly or explicitly, political spaces.
Lepsheiev started DJing in 1999 as part of the vibrant art scene that emerged in Kyiv after the fall of the Soviet Union. It all came to a halt with the Maidan revolution in 2014, when violent clashes between protesters and 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 help revive the city’s arts scene and contributing to Kyiv’s emerging position on the European cultural map over the past decade.
Today, the war is changing the relationship of Cxema artists to music itself. “If you hear explosions once or twice, you’re scared of every loud noise,” Klochko said. “It’s stressful to wear headphones because you’re isolated so you might miss an attack.”
In the rare times when artists feel safe to listen, they now prefer ambient or instrumental music to their old diet of club tunes. “At the moment I don’t see the meaning of electronic music,” Patselya said. “I don’t feel anything when I listen to it.”
A new micro-genre of patriotic club tracks has even emerged, where President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches are grafted wholesale onto a throbbing techno beat.
Electro producer Illia Biriukov, 31, continued to write music during the war. “In the first difficult days in Kyiv, electronic music sounded like peacetime decadence,” he said. He left town with his synthesizers and attempted to work on an album. “But in the context of brutal events, it was very difficult to concentrate,” he said. “Making music seemed pointless. I felt this existential question about my skills, as if they were of no use to anyone.
Yet he continued to make music, partly as a sound diary of his emotional state. “But when I listen to these tracks now,” he said, “they feel too aggressive. I’d like to bring a little less aggressiveness into the world.
Artem Ilin, 29, who played three times at Cxema, also continued to create music. “I don’t know what will happen to me, I could die,” he said. “It pushed me to make music because if I die it’s okay, but my music will be there and people can listen to it.”
How the war in Ukraine affects the cultural world
Even when the immediate missile danger subsided, the Cxema team struggled to maintain a daily routine. Ahmed finds it difficult to think about the future. “You don’t know if you’ll be able to do anything that makes you happy again,” she said. “Plans become like dreams.”
Under current regulations, most adult males are not allowed to leave Ukraine in case they need to be drafted into the army. Women can go, but for Ahmed it was out of the question after his partner volunteered to defend Kyiv. Klochko had only recently moved to Kyiv, but she was also determined to stay. “I don’t feel at home in any city yet,” she said, “but I still feel at home because I’m here in Ukraine.”
A fragile peace returned to Kyiv until May. Many of those who had fled the city returned as bars and restaurants began to reopen. Then, on June 5, Russian missiles struck again, undermining hopes that war would not return to the capital.
The parties are breaking out again in the capital, but most members of the Cxema collective are not yet interested in partying. “I can’t imagine going somewhere to dance now when 400 kilometers from where I’m sitting right now people are dying and soldiers are fighting for our freedom,” Patselya said. “Soon Kyiv will be ours. And after the victory, we have to rebuild our buildings and our economy. Then we can party.
Lepsheiev hopes that next spring he can finally throw the 11-hour, 5,000-person party he had originally planned for April 2020. ‘Ahmed 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.”