When Ukrainian pop band Kazka was announced as part of the SXSW lineup back in December, the coming Russian invasion was still over two months away. Houses in Austin hadn’t begun flying Ukrainian flags in solidarity; the Houston skyline hadn’t yet started setting its lights to blue and yellow. Few Americans had given any thought to whether to pronounce the band’s hometown “Key-ev” or “Keev.” And there was no reason to believe that the band’s singer, Oleksandra Zaritska—Sasha, to her friends—would be making the journey to Texas alone.
After the invasion began on February 24, Kazka’s plans were derailed. Zaritska’s bandmates—Dmytro Mazuriak, who plays the sopilka, a Ukrainian wind instrument, and keyboardist and guitar player Mykyta Budash—could no longer leave the country under orders from the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, which requires men between the ages of eighteen and sixty to remain home to fight. Playing at SXSW for the first time was suddenly distant on the list of priorities for the members of Kazka.
But Zaritska still wanted to make the journey. “As a voice for my country, this is how I know how to help,” she told me from a downtown Austin restaurant after landing in Texas. The trip had originally been planned as an opportunity to try to break through to American audiences, with a U.S. tour initially scheduled to kick off in New York on March 25 alongside fellow Ukrainian artist Tina Karol. But once the war started, the visit to the States had changed in tone. Zaritska still wanted to reach Americans, but the message was no longer about Kazka’s music—it was about Ukraine itself. “Not being in Ukraine is really painful. But my mission here is to spread the word,” she said. “While I’m here, I want to scream out loud.”
Inside the U.S., the audience for European music in languages other than English is small, but Kazka is a big deal in Europe. The band’s 2018 breakthrough single, “Plakala,” was a number one hit in Ukraine, Russia, and Bulgaria, and is still today the most-viewed Ukrainian-language video in the history of YouTube. Given the Ukrainian language’s history of being politically repressed, the song’s success was particularly meaningful to citizens of the country, and the band also rerecorded it in English later that year, releasing it under the name “Cry.” It’s been played more than 40 million times on Spotify, mostly in Ukrainian.
Kazka’s SXSW showcase was supposed to be a part of a night of Ukrainian music in Austin, similar to the festival’s showcases of Australian, British, and Swedish music. The band would have played alongside dance music act SpivOberta and singer-songwriter Igor Grohotsky, both of whom were forced to cancel their plans to travel to the U.S. That left a lot of holes in Zaritska’s SXSW plans: She needed a band to perform with, and the show would need other musicians to fill out a four-hour Saturday night time slot. And she’d have to figure out what her performance would look like while also planning her exit from her suddenly war-torn country.
On Monday afternoon, at the Austin Convention Center, I stopped by the SXSW Creative Industries Expo, where representatives of nations around the world set up booths to promote artists, companies, and filmmakers from their respective countries. Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation had always planned a booth as part of the show, but the women at the convention center promoting Ukrainian start-ups didn’t seem to find it easy to get into a festive spirit. Conference organizers had sent them flowers, and they all looked tired. I stopped by and met expat Nataliya Kovalchuk. She told me about a start-up she was helping promote, and then I asked her how it felt to be in Texas that week. I immediately felt like a jackass.
“Helpless. Heartbroken,” she said. She smiled and shook her head. “Should I keep going?” Point taken. I asked what those of us attending the festival could do to help. While her days were spent at the convention center, she told me, her evenings brought her to the state capitol, where she and other Ukrainians, Ukrainian Americans, and their supporters demonstrated against the war and for additional military aid to her country. She was working with groups in Austin, Round Rock, and San Antonio to collect donated supplies that would be shipped from Poland into Ukraine. She offered me a “Stand With Ukraine” sign for my car dashboard that included a QR code for an Amazon wish list that was part of the donation drive. And then she mentioned Kazka.
“They need backing musicians and singers,” she said. When I told her that I knew musicians in town and might be able to assist, she helped put me in touch with Michelle Daniel, the coordinator of the SXSW Ukrainian music event and a University of Texas employee at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Daniel, herself a musician, had found performers to back Zaritska, but was still trying to fill out the lineup. “It’s the Ukraine showcase,” she told me. “We want it to feel like a Ukrainian experience, even if there aren’t all Ukrainian artists.” The event’s goal of raising awareness about Ukrainian culture had significantly more urgency. Part of the way to accomplish it, she said, would be to have other performers who could help draw a crowd either sit in with Zaritska during her performance or play anti-war sets of their own. Zaritska was still figuring out what her show would look like; she wanted to play Kazka songs, but she also knew that the performance would be different from a typical set with her band. The group had begun working up a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” in the days before the invasion, and she knew she’d want to perform it.
On my way out of the convention center, I ran into Marc Fort from the Texas Music Office. I told him about Zaritska’s dilemma, and he was the first of many Austin music industry pros who immediately agreed to help. Even during what was easily the busiest week for Austin musicians in the past three years, emails, calls, and texts got returned in minutes. Austin’s School of Rock agreed to donate the drums, amps, and other equipment for the show. A group of musicians volunteered to serve as Zaritska’s backing band: Bryan Ray on guitar, Ryan Hager on bass, and Charlie Harper on drums. The Qarabagh Ensemble, a four-piece band from Azerbaijan, agreed to open the show, while Austin guitar hero Jackie Venson, rising soul-rock outfit Chief Cleopatra, and punk duo Ghost Wolves signed on to fill out the night with sets of their own.
In the weeks leading up to the show, Zaritska undertook a fraught journey to Texas. She and her boyfriend live in an apartment in Kyiv. At 5 a.m. on February 24, her mother called her, telling her Russian troops had entered the country and urging her to leave the city and come to a family home about fifteen miles away. The drive took six hours. “There was so much traffic, lines backed up for gas,” she said. They stayed at the house with her parents, her sister, and some friends for four days. But as the war continued, they realized that setting up in a house close to the airport wasn’t the safe haven they’d hoped it would be, and they decided to leave the country. The group packed what they could and drove west. She doesn’t know what has happened to the house—if it’s been bombed or robbed, or if it’s being occupied by Russian troops—and she tried to put the question out of mind by volunteering, mostly making camouflage netting with others who had left their homes for the city of Berehove, near the Hungarian border. After about a week, they left the country, first for Hungary, then for Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and finally Poland. “The border patrol [in each country] was very nice,” Zaritska says. “They let us bring everything, even our dogs.” But the men couldn’t join them; her father and boyfriend stayed in Ukraine. She thinks about them and her bandmates, in fatigues and carrying rifles.
When she got to Austin, she struggled with the decision of whether or not to use the backing musicians who’d volunteered to play the set. When I met with her the day before the show, she told me that she was leaning against it, that it didn’t feel right. “It’s so unfair to my band,” she says. “They really wanted to be here.” She still wasn’t sure even moments before the performance. In the green room, she, her manager, and her producer agonized over the decision. Daniel, who had put the show together, insisted that the Austin session musicians would do her proud, and they took the stage.
The room at Speakeasy, a downtown bar and live music venue, was packed. It turned out that booking local acts to draw a crowd was superfluous that night—seemingly every Ukrainian expat in Central Texas was in the room. They spoke from the stage between acts, describing the surreal situation in which they found themselves—one in which they lived in “two dimensions,” as one of them put it. They were here, drinking White Claw and listening to music on Congress Avenue, hoping that they’d wake up the next morning to see photos from friends and family back home of the latest devastation, because it meant that their loved ones had lived through the night.
That context made Kazka’s performance uniquely cathartic. Before performing with the band, Zaritska led the crowd in a sing-along of the Ukrainian national anthem, unaccompanied, wrapping herself in a Ukrainian flag that she later tied to her microphone stand. The band, which hadn’t had the opportunity to rehearse together as a unit before the show, began playing Kazka’s music. The trio of Austin musicians accompanying her played with a focused intensity. When the band played “Plakala,” the crowd lost its collective mind. Petite, young blond women with “F— Putin” stickers on their sweaters and big men with punk-rock haircuts and bushy beards scream-sang the lyrics together.
Zaritska closed the set by bringing out more musicians, including a special guest: Charlie Sexton, the San Antonio native and Austin local who had been playing guitar for Bob Dylan since he was a teenager. And then Zaritska sang the eight verses of “Masters of War” she had been rehearsing with her band just before the invasion started. “This song is my message to Vladimir Putin,” she said, as the band, with Sexton, built the song behind her. She struggled with the middle verses and skipped a few of them, but found the song again by the end, delivering the final epithet—“And I hope that you die / And your death will come soon / I’ll follow your casket / By the pale afternoon”—in a howl. It had been two weeks since she left her home, her bandmates, her boyfriend, and her father, and she didn’t know for sure when she’d be back home. All there was for her to do was sing about it.