“The Russian war to destroy Ukraine is a catastrophe for the entire democratic world,” read Maure Aronson, founder of local concert promoters Global Arts Live, as he introduced the band with a prepared statement. “Ukraine fights this monster on its own.”
DakhaBrakha – whose name means ‘give and take’ – had a month-long US tour scheduled for April before the Russian assault on their homeland began. Visa problems compromised their arrival from Europe until the last minute. Responding to demand, promoter will bring band back to Boston September 18, at the Berklee Performance Center.
“It’s very important for us to be here,” said Marko Havalenych, the only man in the four-piece group, after their first songs on stage. All proceeds from the dynamic merchandise sales will help the Ukrainian resistance effort, and a QR code projected behind the performers gave the audience a direct link to donate.
The sold-out crowd was clearly eager to voice their support for the Ukrainian cause, rising to multiple standing ovations. In better times, the band’s beautiful arrangements never fail to amaze, even without the added layer of empathy.
Drawing on a wide palette that begins with Ukrainian folk melodies but expands to include hints of Bedouin, Mongolian and other musical traditions, the band plays a percussive brand of mood music, ranging from slow and eerie blues to energetic collisions of voices and instruments that resemble a kind of hushed heavy metal. A Saturday song, “Khyma”, came out as a Ukrainian tango.
The three women in the group became instantly recognizable in their beautifully patterned flowing skirts and towering black lambswool hats. Lead drummer Olena Tsybulska keeps a steady beat on a small cocktail kit, at one point hitting a floor tom with a mallet in her left hand and a snare drum with a brush in her right.
Iryna Kovalenko plays the electric piano and adds an array of percussion. Cellist Nina Garenetska plucks the strings in simple, rhythmic basslines when she doesn’t bow them to eerie effect. Havalenych adds accordion and polyrhythms on a djembe, a hand drum held between his knees.
The intertwining of female vocals is the band’s main attraction. They sing mostly in their native language, but their operatic voice often emphasizes sound rather than words. Sometimes they diverge violently, then come together in unison.
When Havalenych takes the lead, as he did on “Sonnet” and “Dostochka” (both from the band’s latest album, 2020’s “Alambari”), he often sings in an eerie falsetto that sounds like a bell.
His all-black habit featured the kind of intricate embroidery common to traditional peasant clothing in Dakha Brakha’s homeland. (These floral designs are said to be adapted by the Ukrainian immigrant who created the “Nudie suit,” the elaborate Western outfit Nashville stars have worn for decades.)
Besides the costumes, a DakhaBrakha show features extensive use of projection as a backdrop. (The band was started nearly 20 years ago as a theatrical project at the Kyiv Center for Contemporary Art.) On Saturday, the work was unmistakably war-themed. One song featured old black-and-white photos of Ukrainian families; another, a cartoon of a family huddled underground as fighter jets spewed black plumes above their heads.
Later, a montage documented the depressing scale of damage to Ukraine. Still, the band ended on a happy and defiant note, with their last song turning into a swirling double-time whirlwind.
More than 4 million people have left Ukraine since the fighting began, Havalenych noted. They all want to go home one day, he said.
In the meantime, this group will continue to spread the word through their glorious art.
At the Somerville Theatre, Saturday
Email James Sullivan at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.