Protest songs have a lot in common, no matter what language they are written in or what cause they celebrate. They speak directly to the heart, and their musical idioms have roots in a folk tradition.
The songs last night at the Kay Spiritual Life Center on the American University campus were in Ukrainian. They addressed the cause of the Ukrainian Resistance Movement, whose arm, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, is celebrating the sixth anniversary of its founding. That the occasion was a somber one was evident in the quiet seriousness of the audience. There were no cheers and few smiles of agreement, but instead, the introspective stillness that comes with reliving painful memories.
Bass-baritone Andrij Dobriansky, his voice ringing with the sort of resonance that is so characteristic of Slavic singers, sang, "It is a terrible thing to be put in chains, to die in bondage," and he was answered by mezzo-soprano Renata Babak singing, "I long to hear the vibrant, mighty singing of free voices in my native land." Both singers performed with conviction, and both reflected the spirit and valor of their songs.
The musical portion of the program was preceded by a touching but painful speech by Petro Grigorenko, a founding member of both the Moscow and the Unkrainian Helsinki Groups, and, since his expatriation, the leader of the emigre' arm of the movement. He is a frail gentleman. His speech was halting and almost inaudible, and his translator struggled to give it coherence. But despite these infirmities (or because of them, perhaps), his message of pride and determination was a powerful prelude to the music and set the scene more impressively than a more clearly organized voice of protest could have.