Seeing the images of Ukrainians sheltered in Kyiv’s subway and singing their national anthem and folk songs through the perilous night, watching a harried mother comfort her frightened child with a lullaby, and hearing the mournful prayer for Ukraine by New York’s Chorus Dumka that opened Saturday Night Live speaks to the role music plays in our social life. In times of strife, music gives people courage and comfort, helps us mourn and lament loss and offers us hope for the future.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the brutality inflicted upon its people and society jars our current sensibilities. It seems like a throwback to a mindset we thought well behind us—long overcome by changes beginning in the mid-1980s, leading to the independence movements that swept throughout eastern Europe and resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Thinking back to those times, a poignant program in 1990—organized by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage with Soviet and Ukrainian colleagues in Kyiv—today takes on added resonance.

Record Album of Soviet Union Music
Very little indigenous music from the former Soviet Union is known to the West. This Folkways Recording, from 1988, offers a rich sampling from many of the more than 100 ethnic groups within this vast region.  Smithsonian Folkways

Our program grew from the reformist agenda of Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Gorbachev introduced policies of perestroika—the restructuring of their anemic economy and glasnost, or openness to communication and interaction—domestically and internationally. His ministers reached out to the Smithsonian Institution to develop cooperative cultural initiatives. As a result, folk artists from numerous regions of the Soviet Union came to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to perform at the 1988 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and recordings from Melodiya Records were used for the first new release from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, following the institution’s acquisition of the Folkways collection.

Reciprocally, the Smithsonian organized a diverse group of community-based folk artists to participate in a Moscow festival later that summer, as well as subsequent meetings in Washington, Moscow and Kyiv to plan ongoing research and public programs.

Tuvan Performer, 1988
Tuvan performer at the 1988 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program "Music from the Peoples of the Soviet Union." Photo by Ricardo Vargas, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

In May 1990, we traveled to Ukraine to participate in the second International Folklore Festival and a scholarly symposium on folklore in the contemporary world. Our musical contingent consisted of Alison Krauss and her Union Station band, Tejano legend Santiago “Jimmy” Jimenez Jr. y su conjunto Jessie Castillo, Philadelphia tap dancer LaVaughn Robinson, New Orleans’s Young Tuxedo Brass Band, and a group of Native Hawaiian hula dancers and chanters from Halau ‘O Kekuhi. Scholars included Mark Slobin, Margarita Mazo, Bill Knoll, Richard Dauenhauer and Ruth Thomasian who studied a broad diversity of cultural traditions found in the Soviet Union. National Council for the Traditional Arts director Joe Wilson, the Center’s deputy director Rich Kennedy, sound engineer Pete Reiniger, translator Stu Detmer and I rounded out the group.

Like our visit to Moscow two years earlier, we sought to represent American culture not as some unitary, choreographed and top-down product, but rather as a diversity of traditions dynamically and creatively carried forward by community-based cultural exemplars. Our view—that folklife and culture belonged to the people and was an exercise of their expressive freedom—was in basic contrast with just about all Soviet officials and most, but not all, of their scholarly colleagues. The Soviets saw culture as something controlled and organized by the state, where groups and performances of fictionalized communities were to be costumed and scripted to present themes advancing government interests.

We battled philosophically over these ideas for several years, and that came to a head in Ukraine’s capital city.

Ruth Thomasian
Ruth Thomasian of Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives poses with the Naroy Armenian Dance Group from Yerevan at the International Folk Festival, May 24, 1990. Photo by Aran Ohanian, courtesy of Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives

Our group arrived in Kyiv just four years after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. Ukrainians were worried about contamination of their food, water, air and even leaves on the trees. We were put in a downtown hotel and given a tight schedule over which we had no input. Staff and scholars were instructed to eat separately from artists, but we dined together.

The American scholars came prepared to give substantive presentations, to discuss and debate ideas. Instead, the symposium was a staid, uninspired affair, with no attempt to grapple with the relationship between cultural expression and social, economic and political issues—then a hot topic around the planet. Some of our Russian and Ukrainian colleagues told us not to be so upset or surprised, as that was often the case. Authorities simply did not want real discussion, and we just needed to go along with that.

We found the same Soviet orchestration of the festival. It offered an opening parade of national and Soviet republic delegations through Kyiv’s main thoroughfare.

With the Young Tuxedo Brass Band leading our group blasting out second-line jazz, we were well-received on the streets by Kyiv residents. But when we entered the stadium, we were met with blaring music, grandiose and formulaic speeches, and bizarrely irrelevant performances. We were props in a spectacle broadcast to huge Soviet television audiences.

The organizers banned the display of flags—as they were afraid the Ukrainians and three Baltic delegations would show their national rather than communist flags. At the time, all were pursuing their own independence from the Soviet Union and indeed subtly using their folkloric costumes and song selections to express that effort. Not so subtly, their flags defiantly came out.

Ukrainian Youth march through Old Kyiv
Ukrainian youth march through Old Kyiv bearing the “people’s flag” in a demonstration of independence, May 27, 1990. Photo by Ruth Thomasian, courtesy of Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives

In the days that followed, our American group was directed to offer abbreviated performances on stages in out-of-the-way places, with no context and no real audiences. The organizers weren’t interested in what bluegrass or conjunto had to say, or what tap or jazz revealed about African American culture or hula illustrated about the Native Hawaiian experience. They didn’t seem to care whether Ukrainian audiences were exposed to traditions largely unknown to them, or whether anyone learned anything from, or was inspired by, performances, or got an inkling about the lives of the artists. It seemed clear that our presence was being used to legitimize the authority and grandeur of the Soviet state.

After a few frustrating days in Kyiv, we were bussed several hours south to the small town of Kaniv on the shores of the Dnieper River. There, as we stopped for a break in the center of town, our ministerial minder said we would then be driven to a retreat ten miles further out of town to perform for other folklore groups from Finland, Latvia and Ukraine.

This seemed silly to us. We were in the center of a town. There were people all around us. Why not just perform there—to local people rather than to other festival performers?

So the Young Tuxedos took out their instruments and started playing on a street corner. Alison Krauss and Alison Brown then picked up their instruments and started playing and singing. Santiago’s conjunto duo followed. We attracted a big crowd. People were surprised but obviously pleased—they had never seen or heard anything like it. We talked briefly about who we were and passed out materials we had translated with information about the traditions and artists. This was our version of glasnost.

Impromptu performance in front of the Khreschatyk Hotel in Kyiv, Ukraine, May 26, 1990

We went on to the retreat where the Hawaiians led by Nalani and Pualani Kanaka‘ole gave a truly magical, stunning performance. Then Alison Krauss and Union Station got everyone dancing to an energetic bluegrass tune. The Ukrainians, Finns, Latvians and Americans all joined together, bringing their various dance movements into joyous rhythm. The effervescent moment gave us hope that music could indeed bridge cultural differences.

Back in Kyiv, our approach continued. We explained that we wanted to perform for and be among the people. The Soviet organizers said they understood, but the next day they sent us to perform at an indoor hall in the midst of a coin show where the numismatists were engaged in their own activities. We were dispirited, but then “Big Al” Carson from New Orleans pointed to tall apartment buildings across the way and rallied us: “Let’s march through the projects,” he proposed.

The Young Tuxedos started playing and led the way as our group followed. People from the apartments looked out their windows and came out onto their balconies, somewhat bewildered. Detmer, our translator, yelled over and over, “Privyet—hey, listen up! Here are the Americans!” Hundreds came out. People cheered and clapped. They tossed us flowers. Some even tossed money. It was a wonderful, direct engagement with local Ukrainians, and we were showered with appreciation.

Richard Kurin, gifted bread
The author is greeted with the customary gift of Ukrainian bread, May 28, 1990. Photo courtesy of Project SAVE Armenian Photography Archives

This anti-performance set our tone. Instead of going to silly festival venues, the Young Tuxedo musicians set up their instruments on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and started an impromptu set with Union Station. Passersby stopped for conjunto music and more jazz. LeVaughn and Stu handed out programs; Jimmy signed autographs. Crowds grew, spilling over Kyiv’s main boulevard and sometimes stopping traffic on Khreshchatyk Street.

Ukrainians, young and old, intrigued and curious, gathered, moved to the music, asked questions, and sought conversations. This became our modus operandi: holding concerts on the sidewalk steps away from the city’s central square.

The next day we visited the Leninska Kuznya Shipyard. Managers wanted us to perform in a small social hall for a select group. We did, but then took our performances out onto the factory floor, doing hula among the heavy machinery, belting out New Orleans tunes along the assembly line, again to surprised but appreciative workers.

The experience for us in Kyiv, in the Ukraine, with local people and with Soviet officials and festival organizers, was instructive. We felt the heavy hand of distant, passionless Soviet-style state control.

But we found the space to exercise our artistic freedom, to sing our songs, not for some aggrandizement of the state, but for engagement with locals. And that engagement was rewarded with smiles and applause, with people joining in dances, and enjoying our obvious display of freedom. Indeed, freedom was in the air—the Berlin Wall had fallen just months before; the Ukrainians were to declare their independence months later; the Baltics, which had been waging their “Singing Revolution,” reclaimed their nationhood. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

Now, some three decades later, many in Ukraine and around the world worry about that freedom and independence, declared as it was on Kyiv’s central city square—adjacent to where we performed our hotel sidewalk concerts. The people of Ukraine, their culture, and their freedom to express and exercise it have become a target of war—and bombs are now falling on that very spot.

We can only hope for the day when people will be able, once again, to take out their instruments and freely sing on the streets of Kyiv.


The musicians in the American group enjoyed amazing careers. Santiago Jimenez Jr. was awarded a National Medal of the Arts. Alison Krauss, who as an individual artist and with Union Station and others has won 27 Grammy Awards. Alison Brown also earned a solo Grammy and other awards. LaVaughn Robinson and the Kanaka’ole sisters, Nalani and Pualani, were designated National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Young Tuxedo Brass Band has performed numerous times over the decades at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as well as venues ranging from hometown New Orleans to the White House.

We asked performers and other staff about their memories of their trip.

Nalani Kanaka‘ole
Artistic director, Kumu Halau ʻO Kekuhi

The visit to Ukraine is on my top five experiences as a performer—just as high as going to Halema‘uma‘u to make offerings.  I guess in Kyiv our group was eclectic. Trying to fit the bass, let alone three Hawaiians into the tiny European elevator was fun.  We were put with the Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians. It was like the Soviets did not want to deal with us. The Cubanos had better treatment.  Our big performance was ninety miles outside Kyiv, close to Poland. We were told it was a major trail crossing—I imagined of the Marco Polo variety—and we had little audience. We played for the unseen, but the feeling was overwhelming, like there were thousands.  That was a best, as it’s like in the hula the gods came to view it. 

The whole Moscow-Kyiv experience was such an education in ornate perceived imagery.  They were still waiting in line at the stores even for soap.  Where I saw any kind of hope would have been at their Orthodox churches, I guess because there were older women who maintained the church and grounds who were friendly, vocal. But they were like the face of the community.

Pualani Kanahele
Director, Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation

While going to one of the towns to perform, we were stopped by an official looking group of people as we entered a bridge. There was a greeting protocol which was very impressive. A gentleman gave a speech. A young lady held a loaf of freshly baked bread with rock salt on it, on top of a beautiful long cloth that looked like freshly woven linen, which is made from flax. I wondered at the significance of the fresh bread, the rock salt and the beautifully designed cloth. I’m sure it was explained but I didn’t understand. We have cultural protocols here in Hawaiʻi, so I wondered about the different things being offered.

At a street fair, I bought one of those cloths they used in the protocol. I still have it and am proud of it. I was thrilled that the material was handmade linen, and the design is beautiful. 

Ruth Thomasian
Founder and president, Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archive

The Smithsonian and the USSR Ministry of Culture planned meetings of American and Soviet folklife scholars. These scholars would set standards for a cooperative exchange study of cultures that exist in both the Soviet Union and the United States. I was wondering how that concept would be played out in the Soviet Union, where the government made every effort to erase ethnic identity. I was even amazed that the Soviets allowed Ukrainians to hold their folk festival. Actually, that was one of the highlights of the trip—being able to meet and greet the people out in the open: the little kids mimicking the dancers, old ladies with hands full of flowers to present to us, and folks asking musicians and dancers to autograph their programs.

Mark Slobin
Ethnomusicologist, professor emeritus, Wesleyan University

I would just like to add a personal epilogue that involves the legendary songwriter and entertainer Tom Lehrer, of all people. Tom used to teach the winter quarter at University of California-Santa Cruz, training a novice class in how to put on a musical. My wife was on the faculty there, and we used to run into Tom and chat. I told him about our trip and mentioned Richard Kurin’s cheeky response to our Soviet handler, Liudmilla. She was always in a nervous state and trying to manage us, unsuccessfully, and Richard kept saying, “Lighten up, Liudmilla.” Tom said that would make a great song. He grabbed a yellow pad and scribbled a text, humming a tune to go with it. What an addition to the Lehrer repertoire.

Alas, when we moved back East from Santa Cruz, that piece of paper got lost, and when I asked Tom later for the tune, he didn’t remember it. So, it goes into the annals of lost legends. But the trip stays bright and clear in my mind, and I’m so glad I took the home movie footage that can anchor the official story of the expedition.

Rich Kennedy
Former deputy director, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

I have some vivid memories of looking for food for the performers. This was in 1990, just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There were empty shelves everywhere.  I remember looking down from my hotel window on Kyiv’s main square full of people—protestors? Independence was soon to come.

Pete Reiniger
Former technical director and sound production supervisor, Smithsonian

In a performance at a hall which was hosting a coin collection exhibition, I needed to access a control booth where the built-in sound system was located. The house technician arrived and took me up to the booth which had only small projection windows to see and hear through, but we prevailed. When we arrived at the booth, the young technician asked me to share a beer with him. I remarked that it was 11:30 a.m. and pretty early for me to drink a beer, but soon realized that it would be a mistake to not engage in this social encounter and risk offending him on many levels.

After splitting the beer in two glasses, he proceeded to tell me that there were two things he wanted me to understand. First, Chernobyl was radioactive, but Kyiv was not. I said I understood, hoping it was true. And second, he was Ukrainian, not Russian. I confirmed that I understood that as well. Obviously, he exemplified tremendous national pride and resentment toward the Russians at that pre-independence time. I was glad I made the decision to share the beer. Certainly my most vivid memory.

A version of this article was previously published in the online magazine of the Smithsonian's Center for Folkllife and Cultural Heritage.

Highlights from the Festival of American Folklife in the Soviet Union, May 1990

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