Winnipeg native Alexis Kochan grew up in the city's venerable Ukrainian community, learning the music of her ancestors at her parents' and grandparents' knees. "There's a huge Ukrainian population in western Canada," she says. "Many, of course, came to the west to farm. On my mum's side, my grandmother and grandfather who immigrated came to the city. They were like urban pioneers," she laughs. With several different waves of immigration into the area, some Ukrainian Canadians can count back as many as five generations.
Kochan came out of Winnipeg's north end, the proving ground of many renowned musicians. "There are a lot of musicians and artists who came out of this very interesting well," she says, "The Guess Who and Neil Young come from the north end. Winnipeg's interesting that way. It's a real cultural center and even Torontonians who have a problem saying it realize that a lot of really unique cultural work comes out of this city of just under a million people."
She earned a master's degree in psychology and was working on her PhD when she first went to Ukraine as an intern. Though still a Soviet republic, Ukraine's rich musical culture captured her imagination. "That's what began the huge interest," she says, "I was always involved in music but it was very much a hobby. It was very much part of my life, but not in a professional way. When I went there and had a chance to explore this eastern world a bit and really see where the roots of some of the music that I knew was coming from and hearing thing I never heard as well, it made me very curious about culture and the way it moves and how it's transformed and how it evolved. I realized that being a diaspora kind of Ukrainian was kind of an interesting place to be, coming out of a place of freedom, while Ukraine was always under the thumb of someone else, until recently of course. It got my curiosity going and I realized that I wanted to make a life's work of this - this idea of getting into the soul of the people and yet representing who I was as very much part of that world community."
The Ukrainian and the Canadian come together in distinctive ways in Kochan's music. With the amorphous amalgam of musicians that make up her group, Paris to Kyiv, she has been pushing the edges of what could loosely be called folk music for about a dozen years now. "I think the Ukrainian is the baseline from which this exploration begins," she explains, "It's a place where I guess I feel very comfortable because I grew up in the language and singing the songs. My grandmothers would read poetry and sing to me. One of them was a very interesting peasant woman who would teach me all of these dirty old dance tunes. I grew up in this interesting milieu where I had one foot in one place and one in another. That I guess can create some kind of split, or else it can create a way for you to bring those two cultures that are very much part of you. The Canadian piece or what I call the western piece very much colors everything I do."
What she and Paris to Kyiv do is not easily pigeon-holed. Certainly there are folk elements, with the acoustic instrumentation and the songs drawn from traditional sources. Yet the songs are presented in a way that more closely resembles art music, albeit art music with an envelope-pushing edge. Touches of jazz brush up against sparkling bandura-driven folk dances. Years of wide listening and intense research have given Kochan a deep well from which to draw her influences. "I'd listen to everything through my developmental years," she says, "I've always loved folk music. The sort of indigenous and raw stuff like women singing in villages is more interesting to me than someone playing around with that folk music." She is also drawn to new music composers such as Reich and Glass. "I believe and I hope that very soon we're going to drop some of these borders [between musical genres]" she says, "It's already happening. Sometimes it's not happening in a very intelligent way. It's often happening because of commerce, where you get some of this fusion stuff and crossover. I believe there are going to be more and more people who are exploring these things in much more deep ways and finding places where these things interface. It's already being done in the new music world the Kronos Quartet for example and of course Yo-Yo Ma. Some of it is a little sort of as I call it ethno-fuso. It's just kind of surface, but some of it is not. It's very deep and it's been researched. That's what I'm interested in. I love everything. I love great jazz, but I love the jazz artists who are exploring and experimenting and collaborating."
Her own musical odyssey has seen her digging up fragments of centuries-old songs from far-flung sources. "I've been lucky enough to do field work [in Ukraine] and record people and spend time in border lands and listen to village women and sing with them, which of course makes me more connected to that," she says, "Also, as a Canadian, I've always collected and I hang around with people who are folklorists and who send me things. I have my own library and my own collection. When I lived and have gone back to Ukraine as well I'm always looking. Even when I was there during the Soviet period and it wasn't always easy to get stuff, I was always open to giving my jeans or make-up or whatever I had for a book or a manuscript. I have some very beautiful collections. The Soviets would print 30,000 copies of something and they'd be gone off the market in a second. I'd always be walking into bookstores and looking for them. Then what I started doing was looking for others who were interested in something similar." Julian Kytasty, a Detroit-born bandura player who has worked with Kochan on her last three recordings, brings his own talents and resources into the mix. "By bringing in people like that who I've collaborated with, our sources grow together," she says," A lot of the work I do is quite collaborative. I'll have some ideas, I've worked through some things on the piano, I have some notes, and then I begin at the same time to search for like-minded musicians with similar sensibilities and people who have something to say."
Kochan's latest release, Fragmenti, is an atmospheric tone poem with an almost liturgical flow to it. Deep bells proclaim the entry of several tracks. "The liturgical quality does exist in all of my five recordings," she says, "The liturgical has always been important to me because it's one of the earliest experiences I had with Ukrainian music being in church and singing the old Ukrainian music in the choir. With this piece there were a couple of stories that I had in my mind about bells, about the importance of bells what a bell means in a culture. They keep coming back and sort of heralding the next piece."
"Even though the piece is called 'Fragments,'" she says, "it really is for me a whole seventeen vignettes. If you listen to them they create this sort of film. It has the feeling of a mantra. In some way it had almost a healing quality. Maybe there's a little of the psychologist there which I'm always kind of going back to. I think in some ways as we develop in life part of what we're trying to do is sort of heal some of our wounds, some of those places where there are gaps that we're trying to figure out and try to bring together." Though Kochan's comments have a whiff of New Age philosophy, don't expect to hear New Age music from Paris to Kyiv. Their albums have a depth, sophistication, and authenticity of culture far beyond what can be found in the New Age bins.
Working on Fragmenti sparked a new interest for Kochan film. She is exploring ideas for visual representations of her music. "I'm really intrigued by these seventeen vignettes, and I've been thinking about this for awhile," she says, "I'm talking to a couple of film directors. I'm hoping to create a piece that would be like seventeen short films that would reflect this music work"
Using the visual to enhance the verbal is a tightrope walk. Kochan feels that a visual element would enhance the concert experience for non-Ukrainian speakers, making it unnecessary for her to directly translate the songs. "I think sometimes language is gorgeous in and of itself in terms of the sound of it," she says, "I'm always finding myself in concert having to be so careful about how I script things so I don't take it outside of the world. But I do have to speak because I want people to get the essence of it. I just don't want to go to that place that is sort of cutesy or folk-festival-ish. I'm interested in keeping it in its world."
Kochan and Paris to Kyiv continue to seek out new ways to experience the very old. "I think music isn't just a fusion of thought," says Kochan, "but rather a working together to create something where musicians have an opportunity to actually reflect on this ancient song."
More about Alexis Kochan and Paris to Kyiv on their web site
Paris to Kyiv CDs are available from cdRoots
Photos: Craig Koshyk