Zrada’s accordionist Andrijko Semaniuk performing at Winnipeg Folk Festival. Photo by Matt Horseman.

Instrumental: Andrijko Semaniuk’s Accordion Gets People Jumping

This summer at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, just over four months after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Ukrainian-Canadian punk band Zrada delivered one of the most ecstatic sets of the weekend, elevated largely by the seemingly inexhaustible Andrijko Semaniuk’s boisterous accordion playing. Few other bands managed to inspire such a mass of people dancing so wildly from the first to the last note — and at a festival that has quite the reputation for grand displays of dancing.

One couple, cocooned by the Ukrainian flag, whirled around at such a tornado-swift pace, for so long, that they seemed possessed by superhuman endurance. The entire performance was charged with the electricity of defiance, and Zrada made no bones about their feelings regarding the war overseas, exploding with joy and anger in equal measure.

A couple dancing in the Ukrainian flag during Zrada’s set at Winnipeg Folk Festival. Photo by Matt Horseman.

Semaniuk’s grandparents came to Canada after World War II; his parents represent the first generation of his family born here.

“I was raised in a very proud, patriotic Ukrainian household,” he says over the phone from Toronto. “I always was, and still am, very proud of my Ukrainian culture. I think my relationship to Ukrainian folk music and Ukrainian culture is that it is me — it is who I am. Music has played a big part in that; music is a huge part of the Ukrainian folk tradition. And therefore, I think it’s a big part of me.”

In his mid-teens, he was spending the summer in Calgary, where his uncle was playing the accordion at a wedding. As he watched his uncle skillfully coax the sound out of it, Semaniuk started falling for the instrument. His first accordion was a Titano, which he believes might’ve been the accordion that same uncle had first honed his chops on. When Semaniuk’s parents saw he was getting more serious about his musical pursuits, they bought a Brandoni — the accordion he still uses the most to this day — off their friends.

“It’s such a centerpiece of Ukrainian folk music and Ukrainian music in general, a lot of Eastern European music,” Semaniuk says. “So it was always ubiquitous. It was at every dance, concert, campfire, every youth group singalong, every wedding. And it always just seemed like a lot of fun.”

Semaniuk’s roots in Ukraine run deep. Besides his engagement with Winnipeg’s Ukrainian community and his work in Zrada, he still has family members that live in Ukraine, and over the better part of this past year, his Canadian family has been in contact with his relatives overseas to make sure they’re okay. He’s also travelled to Ukraine about half a dozen times, to regions that have been particularly damaged — in some cases to the point of being near-unidentifiable.

“There is an additional personal connection when you’ve been to these places,” Semaniuk says. “For example, even in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and Donbass in the east — I’ve been to those places. So you see these images on the news of places that are destroyed, places I have physically been to, and it makes it extra personal.”

As mentioned above, Zrada doesn’t mince words when it comes to the Russian invasion. They released a single earlier this year — the breakneck “Javelin Jump” — which earned an enthusiastic (to say the least) reception during their Folk Festival set. Sales from the song went to Unite with Ukraine, and they also released Javelin Jump shirts and sweaters through Saint Javelin, a website dedicated to raising funds to support Ukrainians. 

“The lyric line in ‘Javelin Jump’ is ‘хто не скаче, той москаль!’ ‘москаль’ is somebody who’s very pro-Russia, pro-Putin, a slang term,” Semaniuk explains. “So it’s saying, “If you’re not jumping right now, you’re with Moscow. If you’re not jumping with us, you’re with Putin.” So you better be jumping around with us right now.”

It was pretty easy to tell where the allegiance lay for the couple draped in the flag who had been dancing so ferociously when Zrada blasted the song out into Birds Hill Park. Those same people ended up connecting with Zrada after the show, and explained their story — they had spent a few months in and out of bomb shelters in Ukraine and decided to flee the country, at which point they came to Winnipeg. They heard about the Folk Festival and decided to volunteer, and wound up discovering Zrada that weekend.

“I can’t imagine the feelings those people were going through; not just in that moment, but everything leading up to that moment,” Semaniuk says. “They had to leave Ukraine because of a war and now they’ve come to a different country, but here they are in a different country and there’s this band playing music rooted in their language and traditions. Hopefully that makes them proud. That’s a part of it, too, right? It’s not just for us. It’s for everybody.”

What kind of role does the accordion play in Ukrainian music?

I think the beauty of accordion is that it’s very expressive. And Ukrainian folk music and folk traditions are themselves very expressive. To me, it sort of signifies the range of emotions — there’s plenty of happy and joyful types of songs in Ukrainian folk music, but there are also plenty of sad songs, melancholic songs. And I think that an instrument like the accordion, with its expressive capability, is able to reflect that range of emotions through the sounds and dynamics that it can create. I think the instrument is fundamental to Ukrainian folk music itself. The amount of registers you have, the amount of sounds you have, the highs and the lows, and the way it meshes with other instruments is big as well. I think it can really just convey whatever emotion you’re going for at the time. Sometimes you play your instrument when you’re happy, and you play happy songs. And sometimes you’re sad, and you want to play sad songs to get that emotion out. And the accordion has the ability to help you do that.

What are your earliest memories of hearing Ukrainian music?

I think my earliest memories of hearing Ukrainian music are probably some of my earliest memories, period. It was just it was always around, right? Whether we were singing with family or singing with friends at youth group on the weekends or singing around the campfire or at a wedding or a cultural festival, Ukrainian music was always around. If I think of my earliest memory of Ukrainian music and just being a kid at the cottage, listening to a very specific cassette, I know exactly the cassette that we always used to listen to. It was just perpetually playing, this one Ukrainian cassette, and to this day, I still listen to this album: The Best of Burya

What do you think are some of the defining features of Ukrainian music?

I think the defining feature is emotion. Whenever I’ve been around a Ukrainian folk group, or any type of Ukrainian music with a person who isn’t Ukrainian, one common thing I often hear from them is that they didn’t understand it, but I think I know what they were trying to convey.

In any culture, folk music tells a story. Ukrainian folk music uses music and language to tell stories. It’s been interesting — In the past 10 years, I’ve been paying more attention to the words of songs I’ve been singing my entire life, songs I learned when I was five. You just learn the words and you sing them and you know the melody and you have a fun time singing the songs and that’s it. But over the past 5-10 years, I’ve really tried to make an effort to improve my language skills as well, I’ve really paid more attention to the words in all of these songs. And they’re quite beautiful, they’re quite striking.

What is your relationship like now with your Brandoni?

I didn’t play it for a long, long time. I played an electric accordion onstage, and for a while with Zrada and a polka band I was in. And then I just really started missing the feel of a true acoustic accordion. So I went back to it. I had still been playing it, I just never used it onstage. But every time I would pick it up, I’d think, “Oh, yeah, I remember this.” Like anything from anybody’s childhood, it’s sentimental, right? Because that’s been the one and only accordion that I’ve truly played the whole time, after that shorter stint with the Titano. I remember the first time I played with that one after having played the electric accordion for a while and just having this feeling of like, “Yes, this was exactly what I was missing.”

There are a lot of challenges miking an accordion onstage. Especially in a band like Zrada where there’s a lot of stuff going on. I’m still working on it. And I’m always connecting with people locally to see what they do and how they do it, and it’s interesting to hear how people have similar challenges to what I face on stage. But I think it’s definitely worth it, because of the feel I get — not just my emotional feeling, but the actual tactile sensation that I get from playing acoustic accordion on stage.

Andrijko Semaniuk, accordion player for Zrada, on stage at Winnipeg Folk Festival. Photo by Matt Horseman.

What’s that experience like?

For somebody that doesn’t play accordion, it does seem awkward. Think of anybody imitating somebody playing the accordion — they move their hands in and out, the left and right hands, they go opposite. And there are styles of accordion that do that. But if you think of a piano accordion, like I play, your right hand moves on an up and down plane on the keyboard, and then your left hand is sort of moving up and down playing the bass keys. but you’re also pulling in and out. It’s like when you’re a kid patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. So there is coordination involved, for sure. That was a difficult part of it when I was learning as well. And it does get a bit physically demanding, too, I’ll admit. Especially the way I play and the style of music Zrada plays. It’s playing off the crowd, it’s jumping around a little bit. Doing that while having this 30-pound box strapped to your body — there’s a bit of physicality to it. I love it, it’s a lot of fun. And I’ll know I played particularly hard if I wake up the next day and It honestly feels like I was at the gym or I got hit by a truck. Down to my hands, sometimes. Like, “Wow — I was playing that hard? Why do my hands hurt?”

How has your relationship with Ukrainian music changed since this year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine?

I think my relationship with Ukrainian music has certainly strengthened, if that was possible. I think that music, being cathartic for a lot of people, is where we turn a lot of times when we’re not quite sure what to feel or how to feel.

I know in the early days, post-February 24, like any other Ukrainian person and most people in the world, I was glued to the TV or to new sources, just to kind of figure out what the heck is going on, and having all these feelings of anger and despair and sadness. And I think music was the backdrop, the soundtrack to all of that. It’s incredible to see the art that’s come out of this most recent invasion. It just shows the true spirit of the Ukrainian people. Russia’s over there saying that Ukraine doesn’t exist and has no right to exist. But how can you tell us we don’t exist, when we’re making these beautiful pieces of art? Whether it’s music, photographs, paintings, words. I think that, as an emotional outlet, music has been there for me through this, and for a lot of people.

There’s been this surge of artists releasing songs — a lot of it’s been sad and melancholic. A lot of it’s been, you know, for lack of a better word, pump-up music, pride music. Like, “We are here, we exist, we will win, Ukraine will win.” It’s interesting in this modern era how quickly that can happen, right? You no longer have to wait for physical CDs to be distributed for things to make their way to radio or to you. Things get uploaded almost instantaneously. So there’s been this plethora of music coming from all sorts of artists since February 24. I’ve discovered a whole whack of new Ukrainian artists. And I don’t think I’m unique in that… So yeah, my relationship with Ukrainian music since the February 24 invasion, I think it’s certainly strengthened. It’s given me even more of a sense of pride in being Ukrainian.

It seems like an especially powerful reinforcement.

Yeah, absolutely. And music has the ability to be that in any situation. War is one situation, but I think music has the ability to do that for people in a lot of facets of their life. But when you think of soldiers at war, or a nation at war, people need music, whether it’s to pump them up, keep them going, give them that sense of pride to remind them what they’re fighting for. I think that’s certainly a role music is playing right now. It’s been interesting to see some of our songs — because we can see where we get our streams from — to see how many more streams we’re getting from Ukraine now. It’s rising in our rankings. And, you know, I’d love to go ask every single person in Ukraine how they came across our music, but I think it’s incredible that it’s happening. It’s small scale, but…

You’re reaching people.

Exactly. It’s somehow reaching people, and maybe one person listened to one of our songs one time, and it gave them a sense of pride or the feeling that they can get through this for one more day, or gave them some hope. I hope that happened, you know, at least one time. I hope it happened a million times, but I hope it happened at least one time.

Ukrainian-Canadian punk band Zrada performing at Winnipeg Folk Festival. Photo by Matt Horseman.

Have your live shows felt different this year?

Yes. There was a discussion when we were starting to organize the fundraiser about whether we should even be doing this now, you know — is this appropriate? But we decided that if we do it in a proper, respectful manner, it is absolutely the right thing to do. Because it’s raising awareness and raising funds and it’s doing good for a Ukrainian cause. And I think that now, almost any Ukrainian artist in any medium would feel this way. But there’s kind of this additional sense of pride and becoming an ambassador for the culture and showing people that Ukraine does exist and Ukrainian culture exists and Ukrainians are a proud people and we’ve always been here and we’re not going anywhere — we will win and we will get through this. I think playing music rooted in Ukrainian folk traditions, sung in the Ukrainian language to what is primarily for us non-Ukrainian audiences, is a good reminder for people of the situation that’s going on simply by virtue of the fact that they hear Ukrainian. They know a band that sings and plays in Ukrainian, and that brings awareness to the issue, that Ukraine still needs support.

Does the physical act of playing the type of music Zrada plays make you feel more connected to your Ukrainian heritage?

100%. We sing exclusively in Ukrainian, right? And Ukrainian was my first language, and the first language for most of us in the band. So singing in Ukrainian has that emotional connection for us and for me — to my childhood, to my ancestral homeland, to Ukraine, to my parents, who taught me the language, to my grandparents who taught me the language that was persecuted in their homeland. They had to flee Ukraine, but they kept the traditions alive when they made their new lives in Canada. So I’m really proud to sing in Ukrainian and Ukrainian to me has always been very beautiful, very poetic in and of itself. There is absolutely a connection to Ukraine when we’re on stage playing.

Most of our music is original, but there are a handful of our songs that are our versions of traditional songs. And there are one or two songs about war, but they were written around or referencing World War II, the early 20th century. And it’s been really tough in my mind to reconcile the fact that we’re performing some of the songs now, and they still apply to what’s happening today. It’s ridiculous when you remember it’s 2022. This shouldn’t be happening.