Friday, December 9, 2011

The Black Vyshyvanka

My article "The Black Sorochka" appears in the Dec. 11, 2011 issue of The Ukrainian Weekly.

The original Ukr. lyrics are here:

The translation of the song by Oleksandr Shevchenko appears below:


Lyricsand melody by Oleksandr Shevchenko

(freely translated by Orysia Tracz)

For ten years the earth burned under people’s feet,
For ten years the earth moaned from enemy boots.
For ten years the Carpathian village could not sleep atnight,
For ten years it awaited its sons at the garden gates.

Every day the machine guns chatter behind the village inthe forest.
Every day the morning is awash in hot blood.
And on a cold dark night the forest brothers brought
The young lad into our home.

And when the UPA partisan was called back by the blueCarpathians,
And when the time came to part,
He gave his sorochka [shirt] as a memento to the younggirl, saying
“May your son wear it and may he remember us.”

That shirt was black-black, blacker than the night.
Black-black as death, black-black like a fresh furrow.
Black-black was that shirt, as black as the boy’s eyes.
As black-black as my Ukrainian earth.

For a long long time the shirt lay in mama’s skrynia [woodenchest],
For a long long time it awaited respect and human warmth.
Finally the time arrived: I wore it today
And a quiet tear rolled down my babusia’s [grandmother’s]cheek.

Previously unheard strings resounded in my soul,
And my spine proudly straightened spontaneously.
No matter what happens to me and where I may wind up inthe world,
I will pass on this sorochka to my sons andgrandchildren.

Then there are the Ukrainian-style embroidered and woven shirts in black.  Being the total opposite background from the traditional sorochka, the designs on these shirts are in bright yellow, orange, and red, or white and silver, or other contrasting colors.  This is a fairly new style, from the last decade or so.  The image is striking and colorful.  But it is so incongruous, especially because it is so untraditional.   A sorochka, especially for Sunday and special occasions must be “bila-bila” – white.  And yet, in context, this black look does not bother me.  Some exquisite designs have been created.  However, it is a stage and special occasion piece of clothing, and not to be worn with a traditional costume.  Why would I ever mention this no-brainer?  Because at a festival in Winnipeg I saw a young woman on a stage wearing a pretty embroidered black sorochka along with the traditional sash and wrap skirt of Bukovyna.  Ouch!   This is as bad as the fully-beaded modern supposedly-Bukovyna sorochky worn with a full Hutsul costume, as seen recently in Hutsul villages.  Talk about incongruous!
I have wondered where and when the black style started in Ukraine.  There is one possibility of a Canada>Ukraine influence.  Sylvia Todaschuk, a Winnipeg businesswoman and community proponent, and owner of the Todaschuk Sisters Ukrainian Boutique, is also a consultant for performing groups and events.  Her business opened in 1985 on Selkirk Avenue.  As she remembers, sometime around 1986-87, the members of the well-known D-Drifters band were to perform at Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, Manitoba.  They asked Ms Todaschuk to come up with outfits that were different.  The other requirement was that the shirts should not show soiling – especially from the dark guitar and accordion straps.  Ms Todaschuk came up with black shirts with sewn-on embroidery-style ribbons.  She also created black t-shirts with embroidery on the pockets.  At the time, she and the band were criticized by some for this non-traditional look. Times have sure changed.  And how many Ukrainian-themed t-shirts are out there now!
But there is another possibility closer to home, in Ukraine, and the following chronology of the appearance of the black embroidered shirts seems very possible.  In searching for songs about the sorochka, I checked the very informative    site.  Leave it to the Ukrainians to have songs about hops, kalyna [viburnum], the rushnyk [ritual cloth], a bridge, the black soil, and – yes – the embroidered sorochka.  At least twenty-four songs appeared in the search.  A very pretty and sentimental one is Mamyna Sorochka [Mother’s Sorochka] by Natalia Mai, praising the very white embroidered shirt that means so much.  But then further down the list I noticed Chorna Vyshyvanka [The Black Embroidered Sorochka] by composer/lyricist Oleksandr Shevchenko. 
At first the story of the song, as listed with the lyrics on the website, left me dubious.  No names, no exact location – an apocryphal origin.   “At the end of the 1940s, during the middle of the night, Povstantsi [UPA soldiers, Ukr. Insurgent Army] knocked on the window of a house in a Carpathian village.  They asked the owner to take care of an injured soldier.  The family took him in, and he was hidden in the hay in the barn.  So that no one in the village would know about him, the 11- or 12-year-old daughter of the family took him food… When he healed from his wounds, and got ready to leave again for the forest, he left the girl his black embroidered sorochka [shirt], and said, “When you grow up and have a son, give him this sorochka – may he wear it and remember about us”….  She fulfilled the soldier’s wish.  Her son put on that black sorochka when he went to Rynok Square [Ploshcha Rynok in Lviv], where for the first time after the Soviet era, the blue-and-yellow flag was raised [over city hall]…. “   Oleksandr Shevchenko continues, “…. I asked to see the sorochka.  The babusia [grandmother] brought it… It was black fabric, embroidered in hot colors, yellow, red… And when I held this sorochka in my hands, I felt an energy and power emanating from it… I wrote this song the next day, giving the story of the sorochka.  It is called “Chorna Vyshyvanka” [the black embroidered shirt].”
Replying to my request, Shevchenko gave the details.  The song was written in 1990, based on the story told to him by the owner of the shirt, Yuriy Bobyk, who was given it by his mother according to the wishes of the UPA soldier.  These events happened in the post-war years in the village of Zhuriv, Rohatyn povit, Stanyslaviv [now Ivano-Frankivska Oblast].  The girl’s name was Stefa [Bobyk’s mother], the soldier was Myron.  The sorochka still exists.  In one of her concerts, soloist Natalka Samsonova wore the sorochka in performing the song.  Myron’s fate is unknown, as well as his surname.  Often the soldiers had pseudonyms, for security.  The last news from him was from the territory of then Czechoslovakia.  One of his letters to Stefa has been preserved [Shevchenko sent me a copy, along with a few photos of Stefa].  In the letter he asks to pass on greetings to Mariyka and Slavko.  The song appears on YouTube --
Oleksandr Shevchenko, a native of Hadiach, Poltava region, has been writing and composing since 1979.  His songs, including the big hit Staren’kyi Tramvai  by Pikardiys’ka Tertsiya, have been performed by many prominent artists.  He has participated in numerous festivals, and has written close to 140 songs, a number of them about the UPA.  This poet and composer reaches the soul and heart with his lyrics and melodies.
To my question of why the original sorochka was embroidered on untraditional black fabric, Shevchenko explained:  in the circumstances of the life of the povstantsi (UPA soldiers) – forest, caves, hiding places – a white sorochka would be absolutely impractical and inconvenient for everyday life.  The chumaky and kozaks also used dark shirts, soaked with tar or wagon grease.  These didn’t get dirty (or dirtier), kept out dampness and, very importantly, resisted insects.  A very practical explanation.  It is interesting that the povstantsi would still need or want a sorochka during wartime.   But in the many books on costume and embroidery that I have checked, I either missed the mention of this, or it hasn’t been covered.  Most information is about the everyday and festive white linen and hempen sorochky.  The everyday “work” shirts would still be lightly embroidered, because the ornaments were protective and symbolic. I will have to keep searching.
This UPA story most probably explains how the popular present-day chorna vyshyvanka came about.  We appreciate and treasure the traditional and we go forward with innovations and creativity.  But we must do this with the knowledge, understanding, and respect for the source.  And what a deep wellspring of inspiration we are fortunate to have!

The original lyrics and story of the song at:

A free-verse translation of the song into English is at:

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