Ukrainian jazz club keeps Odessa happy despite invasion: NPR

In Odessa, a port city in southern Ukraine, a jazz club continued to host performances despite the Russian invasion, providing a haven for joy and creativity.



SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For many Ukrainians, the sounds of the past two months have been sirens of air raids and explosions. In the southern city of Odessa, along the Black Sea, some residents are trying to replace the sounds of bombs with notes of jazz. NPR’s Tim Mak has the story.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: When I first went to Odessa about a month ago, I heard a rumor about a jazz club. Like so many other businesses in town, it had closed. But I heard they were still doing impromptu shows. So when I returned to Odessa this week I had to see if it was true.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: I walk up the stairs of this five-story club and theater that had been a social center before the wars. It’s called Perron Number Seven. There’s a cat club that stalks the halls and turtles in an aquarium. The walls are covered in hip art and posters promoting shows from better days. They do theater, but a lot of jazz – one stage specifically designed for electric jazz and another for acoustic. And in the shadow of war, I found a little life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (non-English language spoken).

MAK: Last weekend they presented a series of theatrical performances, including a short play about a Ukrainian man in love with a culturally Russian woman. It’s a comedy about his attempt to ukrainize (ph) his beloved.

(APPLAUSE)

MAK: Here is Yaroslav Trofimov, who co-owns the club with his wife, Julia Bragina (ph), explaining why they didn’t close completely.

YAROSLAV TROFIMOV: Let me tell you a story. The biggest air missile strike in Odessa – the sky was dark as there was a lot of fire in the middle of the city. We all woke up at 6am and ran into the shelters. And at 2 o’clock of the same day, we started our theater performance on the balcony.

MAK: And as the smoke rose and the dust settled, Yaroslav asked a provocative question to the audience of 100 who had gathered in the square below.

TROFIMOV: I asked the guests, are we afraid? Are we feeling fear right now? Are we afraid? And people said, no, we’re not.

MAK: Perron Number Seven has since organized free outdoor theatrical and jazz performances.

(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)

MAK: We met shortly after the sinking of the Russian Navy ship, the Moskva, just 60 nautical miles from where we are sitting. Yaroslav was drinking homemade gin.

TROFIMOV: They really want us to be afraid. They want us to lay low. They want us to stop all our normal life and not walk around the barracks with the dogs. And I can say the direction for anyone who has in mind that war will scare us, the direction is very simple. They should go with the Russian warship. We will not be afraid.

MAK: He and his friends got together and played a famous jazz song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)

MAK: And they changed the lyrics to “When the ships are going to hit bottom”, in reference to the sinking of the Moskva.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “WHEN THE SAINTS ENTER”)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in a language other than English).

MAK: Like millions of their fellow citizens, Julia and Yaroslav first thought of leaving when the war broke out. Julia even said goodbye to the club as if it might be the last time they saw him.

JULIA BRAGINA: We didn’t know what to do. We collect some luggage. We buy this little cage for our cats (laughs) just in case we need to evacuate all those cats with us.

MAK: She jokes that they didn’t leave because their two cats don’t get along. But they also realized that their club was important not only for the theater, but that it could also be used by volunteers and civilians who wanted to organize ways to alleviate the suffering of war. The heart, the soul of this club, however, remains jazz, a place where people and musicians once came to laugh, sing and listen to music.

BRAGINA: Lots of guys from New York, Chicago, Europe, lots of American musicians.

MAK: A local photographer captured this weekend’s jazz performance on the balcony and posted a number of photos of the audience below as they watched the performance.

(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)

MAK: There was a smile. There were laughs, but there was something even deeper than that – residents enjoying a slice of serenity, a moment of peace in times of war.

TROFIMOV: If your life is ruined in a day, if your business is forever devastated in a day, if you lose everything but your sense of humor, you will easily understand why you love in the midst of war.

MAK: Yaroslav said that the last days have been particularly threatening for the inhabitants of the city.

TROFIMOV: You may not know this, but in the past three days the Russians have been sending a lot of messages to Telegram, Instagram, text messages, people from Odessa, writing, we know who you are. We know where you live. We know you are against the Russians.

MAK: He says their greatest weapon is laughter and creativity, more important even than the foreign weapons that have become iconic in this war.

TROFIMOV: That’s why we keep meeting and telling each other stories and jokes, because there’s the same border. There’s the same weapon as – I don’t know – Javelin or Bayraktar or whatever.

MAK: Julia says it’s a happy place. Odessa is known as a laid-back city by the sea, a relaxed and relaxing place. But now, during the war, there is so much anger here too towards Russian artists and musicians who were part of their community.

BRAGINA: It’s hard to say, but they are no longer people for us. Yeah, that’s wicked. It’s rude to say. We ate a lot of Russian content – you know, poetry, literature, theater. I studied theatre. That was, like, the greatest example. And now, understand, it does not exist. It was a fake. It was all wrong because it didn’t affect people. It didn’t open their eyes. It didn’t make them think critically.

MAK: Yaroslav talks about a dichotomy, having panic attacks and laughter in the same day. There is a war out there. The front lines are only a major city away. But jazz still plays in Odessa, and that’s what makes life worth surviving. Tim Mak, NPR News, Odessa.

(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)

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