Ukrainian singer Viktoria Leléka

It is far from easy for an artist to make a major impact amid the hustle and bustle of April’s jazzahead! conference and showcase in Bremen. And yet Ukrainian singer Viktoria Leléka did exactly that.

Her two performances have stayed in a lot of people’s minds. People remember her presence, her voice, her astonishing capacity to bring audiences in, and to make time stand completely still. Thesesuper pictures by Elmar Petzold vividly show that. Her group’s album from last year, “Sonce u Serci” (sun in the heart) is a delight. Text by Sebastian Scotney

Viktoria Leléka at 2022 jaazahead! Photo copyright Elmar Petzold

“I moved to Germany as an adult, but my whole soul belongs to Ukraine,” says Viktoria Leléka. The singer originally comes from a mining town in the Donbas region. She is from a completely Russian-speaking background. She says “I discovered the Ukrainian language and culture later for myself”.

Seven years ago she made the move to Germany, at the age of 24. She first made an impact by winning the Young Jazz Award at the Burghausen Festival in 2018, a unanimous decision by the jury. She was then performing under her married name of Viktoria Anton. After the marriage ended she chose the name of her band as her official surname. Leléka is the Ukrainian word for stork, a national symbol. “I wanted to identify with the Ukrainian  who I am.”

The motivation for her move to the West was to keep improving and developing as an artist: “I already had five years of theatre studies in Kyiv behind me, and been an member of a theatre company.” But increasingly she knew that she wanted to study music, and to do so in Germany, because the level would be higher and more demanding. “I knew I wanted to study with Celine Rudolph.” Viktoria did a first degree in the jazz department at the Hochschule in Dresden, is currently studying for a masters in composition there, and hopes to go on to film school to study film composition.

The fact that she has a strong presence on stage, then, is not something that has happened by chance. “I think that a theatre training teaches you to be as free and as natural on a stage as it is possible to be, to have a definite presence. The theatre training also helps me with telling and conveying a story.”

Povel Widestrand, Viktoria Leléka Thomas Kolarczyk, Jakob Hegner. Photo copyright Elmar Petzold

The album  “Sonce u Serci” has been an important step: she says: It was the first time I had been able to give the album a proper shape to make the songs fit into that. I only realised afterwards that it was concentrating on two thematic areas, and to develop the idea that hat despair and hope co-exist.”

There is, clearly, an inescapable subject here: the very current issue of the war which Putin’s Russia has been raging against Ukraine since the end of February 2022. In fact she has been incredibly active helping in practical ways to assist the flow of refugees, and literally working round the clock to assist them, her role has been as a conduit, with huge numbers of people who have known her from different contexts to either seek or offer help.

The urge to make a difference is not something new. She remembers  going back to Ukraine to give  workshops with children and of benefit concerts before the current war began in Slovjansk in Donetsk Oblast. “These were the most moving  concerts of my life. We could give a message that people who had suffered war were not alone or abandoned.”

Viktoria Leléka. Photo copyright Elmar Petzold

As a long-term social activist she is also aware of the irony of her performances being suddenly in demand: “I try to be positive and think of it as a sign of solidarity. At least there is a platform abroad at a time when  Ukrainian culture is being destroyed on the ground. Ukrainian culture should be seen – like all other cultures –   as a thing of intrinsic value whatever the circumstances. If it has value then it will survive.”

The commitment, the power comes through in performance. Leleka needs to be heard and seen live.

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Viktoria Leléka. Photo copyright Elmar Petzold

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Categories: Features/Interviews

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