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Music as Resistance: A word with Ukrainian-Polish jazz harpist Alina Bzhezhinska

Eddie Otchere

The invasion of Ukraine has uprooted lives, drawn condemnation, and inspired protest even in Russia. And as the crisis continues to capture the world's attention, no one is watching more fretfully from afar than the diaspora of Ukrainians living abroad.

Harpist and composer Alina Bzhezhinska, who also goes by AlinaHipHarp, is among them. Born in Lviv, Ukraine, where she began her classical training, she has since studied in Poland, Germany and the United States, before setting down roots in the United Kingdom. She's now a part of the vibrant improvised music scene in London, where she has organized a Concert for Ukraine at The Cockpit Theatre on March 13.

Before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Bzhezhinska — who once posted a video demonstrating how to pronounce her name — had been planning the release of her new single. A funk-forward arrangement of Dorothy Ashby's "Soul Vibrations," it's the first track from her album Reflections, which BBE Music will release this fall.

Alina Bzhezhinska and HipHarpCollective, "Soul Vibrations"

Earlier this week, I emailed Bzhezhinska some questions about both the music and her sense of mission. Here is the entirety of our exchange.

First and foremost, I’m sure this is an incredibly anxious time for you, watching events unfold in Ukraine from your home base in London. What have you heard from family and friends there?

It’s a horrific time for Ukrainians and a very worrying time for the world. Coming from the historical city of Lviv in western Ukraine and having grown up in a Polish / Ukrainian family, we were experiencing hostility and aggression from the Russian regime for many years… But no one could expect this level of aggression. Many of my friends decided to stay in Ukraine and volunteer to fight. Every member of my family is still there, volunteering and doing their part to stop the invasion too.

What is something the world should know about the people of Ukraine?

Ukrainians are a peaceful nation: musical, fun-loving people with a good sense of humour and love for their great food and drinks. Yes, in the past we had the Cossacks, who were strong warriors and who still inspire us (because geographically speaking, we’ve always lived with strong neighbours who wanted our land). Ukrainians are not aggressive as a people but they believe in the Biblical saying "All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." I think this is something that Russia keeps forgetting.

 On social media this week, you noted: “I am amazed how much Polish people are helping Ukrainians. We have a complex history but in this crises, we really know who is who.” Could you elaborate on that sentiment – and offer any other thoughts about Europe’s response to the Russian invasion?

As I already mentioned, Ukraine has strong neighbours and Polish / Ukrainian history hasn’t always been peaceful. But one thing that unites Poles and Ukrainians now is their experience with Russia. Both nations suffered tremendously from the Soviet regime and remember well who was killing their families or sending them to gulags in Siberia. I’m very proud of the Polish people who are standing by Ukrainians and helping them to fight this evil. I wish other Europeans would feel as strongly as Pols to help Ukraine.

You’ll be taking part in a benefit concert for Ukraine in London, on March 13. What more can you tell us about that evening?

When Russia invaded Ukraine, I called my mother and told her I wanted to go back and fight. She said: “Stay where you are and use your music as your weapon as this is a very powerful one.” That’s how the idea of a charity concert in London came to me. In less than 12 hours I’d got the venue, The Cockpit Theatre, and as soon as my musician friends found out about it, I got such an amazing response — I think we’ll have to do a series of concerts. The Cockpit and my friends from Jazz in the Round are just incredible, acting fast and effectively. We will raise funds for Ukrainian musicians and their families, people who will suffer from this invasion.

Pivoting toward the music, I know that Dorothy Ashby sits high in your pantheon of harpists. What did you want to bring to your arrangement of “Soul Vibrations,” and what does it mean to put this forward as a first single from Reflections?

Eddie Otchere

Ashby was an incredible woman — a great musician, a human rights activist, and an educator. We all stand on her shoulders. That’s why her music and her guidance is so important. She made her revolutionary album Afro Harping in 1968 and it still sounds so fresh and modern. I wanted to pay my respect to my role model so opened up my album with her tune from this iconic album.

Brandee Younger released her version of “Soul Vibrations” in 2016. Between Brandee, your London contemporary Nala Sinephro and others, do you feel part of a new wave of improvising harpists? You share some common touchstones; does it seem you also share a sense of mission?

I feel like I’ve being on a mission to promote the jazz harp since I recorded my debut album Inspiration in 2018, that was dedicated to Alice Coltrane. I always wanted to do another album with the material of Dorothy Ashby as these two artists made the vocabulary for the jazz harp. I think all contemporary harpists — classical, jazz or pop — should study the works of these two giants and try to make their own language based on some serious studying. I am very happy to see how contemporary harpists are making their own ways in music today and I hope one day we will have more than two arrangements of “Soul Vibrations” and harp will be welcomed to the jazz world as an equal instrument with endless possibilities and an ever-unique sound.

For more information, visit HipHarpCollective online.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.