July 25, 2024

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The invasion of Kyiv – Ukraine, a jazz story: Videos, Photos

John I am in bomb shelter and have received advice to leave as soon as can. I want you to have these photos and my story to tell the world  – one teacher can grow a new generation’.

Alexey Proshenkov, at keyboard, and Ukrainian jazz students

The teacher who the writer alludes to is Alexey Proshenkov and as I write this his exact whereabouts are unknown. Ukrainian men under 60 are unable to leave. He is a gifted jazz educator. Lyudmila Shekera (who left me the above message), is the mother of three talented children who are musicians. All are being tutored by Alexey and the results of that tuition are noteworthy.

Lyudmila’s children are young. Two began lessons at the age of five, the other at age three. The above was Lyudmila’s last message to me.  I have not heard from her recently and I worry about her every minute.

The invasion of Ukraine caught most of us off-guard and it has severe consequences for the entire world. It is a living nightmare for those in Ukraine. What I have written below arises from online interactions with jazz industry people and musician friends from the Ukraine region. I write this at their request.

Everyone and everything in Ukraine is adversely impacted by the invasion. It is an unimaginable horror in technicolour, playing out in front of their eyes. With missiles flying and landing amidst the civilian populations, communication is difficult and sporadic. For them, more immediate concerns must take precedence. I have omitted some names and altered a few details at my friends’ request. They are defiant and brave, but it is prudent to be cautious when confronted with a vengeful and tech-savvy superpower.

I have long had contact with Baltic and East European jazz people, but my contacts list grew bigger while judging the 7 Virtual Jazz Club International Competition. As the New Zealand judge, I was placed among a group of European and American judges: journalists, publicists, broadcasters, jazz educators and industry professionals. We introduced ourselves, participated in a Zoom call, read each other’s bios and friended each other on Facebook. Message comments would light up day and night as we were each oblivious of the other’s time zones. Out of that new friendships grew.

The entries were of a high standard and they came from every corner of the earth. I loved seeing entries from countries traditionally regarded as jazz outliers such as Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine, Estonia and Taiwan. Non-aligned multilateral diplomacy was at work, jazz-style.

The jazz community is highly interconnected and as the covid-19 peak faded, jazz festivals reopened throughout Eastern Europe. Events were advertised, albums proliferated and the old rhythms of life seemed possible. Ukraine in particular has a growing jazz community. Sadly, that is now under attack and the creative arts will soon struggle to function. Gigs and livelihoods are disappearing as the inhumane bombardment wrecks havoc.

In the days following the invasion, I contacted my Ukrainian jazz friends, not to talk music, but to see how they were. The initial reaction was disbelief. That was soon replaced by anger and resolute defiance. I asked fellow judge Anna Russkevich if she was safe and, thankfully, she was. I asked her a day later if she was leaving and she informed me that she couldn’t, as a semi-paralysed parent is in her care. She has little option but to stay as the horror descends. Cluster bombs and other munitions regarded as unlawful are falling on schools and civilian populations in that region.

At another Ukrainian friend’s suggestion, I made contact with a jazz promoter in Kyiv, who in turn suggested that I talk to a musician on the other side of the city. That interaction was no longer possible as the musician is now active in the citizen’s defence militia. The idea of a peace-loving musician having to put down his instrument and pick up a weapon filled me with unutterable sadness. I was saddened, but I understood.

Some sent me clips of missiles destroying city buildings, the footage of a missile attack on a respected university is particularly horrifying. Nothing symbolises authoritarian aggression quite like an attack on culture and learning. I have many pictures but I have been asked to hide the geolocations. Screenshots will tell the story just as well.

Lyudmila is the mother of three extraordinary young jazz musicians. She speaks eight languages (including Russian). Her family were holed up in a forest hotel outside of Kyiv with 40 others, mainly musicians. Instruments had been left behind, as there was little room for anything other than clothes and toiletries.

The Shekera family of musicians

Our exchanges have been extensive and often heartbreaking. She was keen for us to continue messaging as she said it gave her hope. It told her that the world was listening. She and her husband Alexander have sacrificed a lot to nurture their children’s talent and recently that has borne fruit. The children’s band, ShekBand, has a recording contract. I will post a clip or two.

The recording was organised by a fellow 7VJC judge Patricia Johnson. She is the co-founder of Taklit, a successful publishing and production company based in France. She has worked tirelessly on this project and thanks to her efforts an album will be out shortly. Patricia is not someone to mess about and it would take more than an invasion to stop her. She is irrepressible and it is impossible not to like her. When the album’s out we should all click through and listen, and more importantly, we should buy it. It will likely be a digital release. The project can best be characterised as the future voice of Ukrainian jazz. It is a marker for promise and hope.

It is uncertain if the family will be able to escape as the roads are clogged, a curfew is in place and petrol is scarce. There is also constant and indiscriminate shelling. Patricia and I have been on Facetime calls and have messaged frequently as this unfolds. She told me a few hours ago that accommodation has been arranged for Lyudmila in Poland. My fervent hope is that this jazz-loving family reach their safe haven. They symbolise much of what the world needs right now. Music may not be front of mind in the heat of an invasion, but it should be. In music resides hope and sanity.

Shekband up’n’comers Artem, Maksym and Anna Shekera

JF: Lyudmila, I have been worried about you, we care. Are you OK?

LS: Thank you for checking. You and your country’s support gives me hope.

JF: You have left Kyiv?

LS: We escaped Kyiv. I am now near (name of town withheld) at a forest hotel, with family, husband, kids and friends. We give shelter to music families and their friends. I stay in touch with Patricia from Taklit. She has all info about the ShekBand album which my children have completed. She helps me a lot. On the last evening before the invasion, we had completed recording and mastering the files for the album.

Now we have a dream which will help us to be strong. You can use my name, my children’s and their music tutor. My children study jazz improvisation under Mr Alexey Proschenkov at State Music School #4 Kyiv. Siblings Artem. Anna & Maksym Shekera, Playing together as ShekBand since 2015.

JF: Hi again. Is all well with you?  I fear that the invasion is intensifying.

LS: While it is night here, I can tell you some stories. We gave shelter to some Turkish Journalists and they spread the word and now we get journalists from around the world to stay here as they pass through. We are happy to do that because it helps the world to learn the truth. They are very brave to visit Kyiv right now. John, please use my pictures but just make sure there is no geolocation. It is safer for us.

In Kyiv, my children have been studying music since five years old. The younger Maksym since he was three. He wanted to be with his brother and sister. My husband Alexander is also a jazz musician, but says that it is his hobby: he loves guitar, plays and sings always when we meet with friends. He is the soul of the company. He works hard every day to give a chance for our kids to have the best teacher. Sometimes he plays and puts compositions up on YouTube anonymously. Alexey Proschenkov, the children’s teacher, has his own teaching method, he teaches all modern trends, history, composition, children love him. His students win a lot of Ukrainian and international competitions.

One of my sons had been preparing to go to University this year, where my husband and I were students. But yesterday, the occupiers bombed the TV Tower of Kyiv and the University which was next to it. It was the first time that I cried.

The university where the children learn, bombed

JF: It is so dreadful and heart-wrenching.

LS: I go and make some food. Thank you for listening.

Lyudmila and I had many more exchanges over the next few days and Patricia and I talked for an hour via Facetime about their plight. Over the course of those four days, she sent me 73 pictures, mainly of her children and their interesting but interrupted jazz journey. They connect me to the horror unfolding, but they also speak to hope.