Oleksandra Zaritska – colloquially known as Sasha – doesn’t make up Kazka’s ensemble, but she is the only member of the Ukrainian electronic folk band who was able to attend the band’s 2022 showcase at SXSW. Like so many of its peers, this appearance was a revamp for the scrapped 2020, the year SXSW shut down due to the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Two years later, Kazka found himself caught in the wake of another crisis: Russia’s unprovoked war with Ukraine. The members of Zaritska’s group were either required by Ukrainian law to stay and fight in their country’s war – any male over the age of 18 is obligated to serve – or chose to remain as volunteers. Flying alone, Zaritska found herself embraced by Austin’s music community, starting with the Texas Music Office who helped present the “Austin Stands with Ukraine” showcase at the Speakeasy on Congress during SXSW.
Very few acts on the bill had a direct Ukraine connection – the Ghost Wolves, a dynamic garage-rock duo performing just before Kazka, channeled the primal fury of the White Stripes, adding rampant manic energy to Austin’s underground punk – but there was an understood solidarity with the beleaguered European country, a sentiment sometimes rallied by statements on stage or simply seen by attendees wearing the Ukrainian flag like a poncho or simply branding stickers proclaiming “Fuck Whore”.
This overt sense of community crystallized in the support given to Zaritska. This closing concert ended up being the main focus of her stay in Austin, after travel delays diminished Kazka’s intended spot on the international daytime stage at the Austin Convention Center.
Zaritska found herself backed by an eclectic group of local musicians: guitarist Bryan Ray, who played with Dave Brubeck early in his career and works regularly as a producer and mixer; acoustic guitarist Gary Heimbauer, founder of Pow Music, an organization that helps emerging musicians; bassist Ryan Hager, a jazz bassist pursuing a doctorate in music at the University of Texas Butler School of Music; drummer Charlie Harper, an Austin-based master of all music crafts who has worked with everyone from The 1975 to Tove Lo.
Back home, Kazka has amassed a significant number of plays, but in the US they exist on the same plane as so many non-Western acts: they’re essentially unknown. Sasha used this unfamiliarity to her advantage, helped by the fact that some people in the audience knew Kazka’s music. “Cry” inspired a call and response from part of the crowd and Zaritska made sure to keep Ukraine’s plight at the forefront of the audience’s minds.
His message was reinforced by his magnetism as a performer. Sasha slipped through the crowd, she swayed and sashayed, the emotional significance of her music being clear to anyone who didn’t speak her same language. Zaritska addressed the audience in English, imploring attendees that “you can stop this war. Use your voice. Join the rallies so it’s not just Ukrainians going,” encouraging attendance tomorrow at the Texas Capitol.
Zaritska’s set at SXSW culminated when local legend Charlie Sexton, a guitarist who has been Bob Dylan’s regular lieutenant since the dawn of the 21st century, joined the singer for a sharp finale. Just before Sexton walked on stage, she said “I have a message for Putin: it’s a Bob Dylan song and its name is ‘Masters of War’.” message and intent. The lyrics couldn’t help but resonate, and given that she has relatives and colleagues in Kyiv, it’s not hard to imagine who Zaritska sang those words to:
And I hope you die
And your death will come soon
I will follow your coffin
Through the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re down
Until your deathbed
And I will stand on your grave
Until I’m sure you’re dead