When Slava Lepsheiev founded the Ukrainian techno collective Cxema in 2014, “I thought it should be outside politics and just a place where people can be happy and dance,” the D.J., 40, said in a recent video interview from Kyiv.
Until the pandemic, the biannual Cxema (pronounced “skhema”) raves were essential dates in the techno calendar of Ukraine, which has become an increasingly trendy destination for club tourists over the past decade. These parties — in factories, skate parks and even an abandoned Soviet restaurant — united thousands on the dance floor to a soundtrack of experimental electronic music.
But as the Cxema platform grew bigger, and Ukraine’s political climate grew more tense, “I realized I had a responsibility to use that influence,” Lepsheiev said, and to look beyond escapism on the dance floor. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February deepened that commitment, and the war has transformed how Lepsheiev and his team think about their priorities and work.
“I think this war has destroyed the statement that art could be outside politics,” said Amina Ahmed, 25, Cxema’s booking and communications manager. “Now everything is about politics.”
As shelling intensified in Kyiv, the city’s tight-knit electronic music community abandoned clubs and synthesizers to shelter with families, volunteer or enlist in the armed forces.
For Maryana Klochko, 30, an experimental musician who was scheduled to play her Cxema debut in April, it now “feels much more important to be a good person than to be a good musician,” she said in a recent video interview from outside Lviv. Klochko has rejected two invitations to perform in Russia since 2014, and now she has decided to stop singing in Russian. “It hurts to sing in the language of the people who are killing my people,” she said.
Many members of the Cxema team have recently been volunteering in humanitarian efforts, like Oleg Patselya, 21, who has been delivering medicine and food to soldiers at the front lines in Donetsk. Ahmed has been using Cxema’s social media channels to share information about the war. She called countering Russian propaganda with facts from inside Ukraine “working on the informational front line.”
Throughout the history of electronic music, from the 1980s house scenes in Chicago and New York, to Britain’s 1990s rave culture and the techno explosion in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, clubs have created safe spaces for marginalized communities and so have been, implicitly or explicitly, political spaces.
Lepsheiev started to D.J. in 1999 as part of the buzzy arts scene that emerged in Kyiv after the fall of the Soviet Union. Everything ground to a halt with the 2014 Maidan revolution, when violent clashes between protesters and the police led to the ousting of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, swiftly followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Lepsheiev saw this “cultural vacuum” as an opportunity to start something new, founding Cxema to help revive the city’s arts scene and contributing to Kyiv’s emergent position on the European culture map over the past decade.
Now, the war is changing the Cxema artists’ relationship with music itself. “If you hear explosions once or twice, you become afraid of every loud sound,” Klochko said. “It’s stressful to wear headphones because you are isolated, so you could miss an attack.”
In the rare moments artists feel safe to listen, they now prefer ambient or instrumental music to their previous diet of club tracks. “At the moment I don’t see the sense of electronic music,” Patselya said. “I feel nothing when I listen to it.”
A new micro-genre of patriotic club tracks has even emerged, where President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches are grafted wholesale onto a throbbing techno beat.
The electro producer Illia Biriukov, 31, has continued to write music through the war. “In the difficult first days in Kyiv, electronic music seemed like a decadence of peacetime,” he said. He left town with his synthesizers and attempted to work on an album. “But against the backdrop of brutal events it was very difficult to focus,” he said. “Making music seemed useless. I felt this existential question about my skills, like they were no help to anybody.”
Still, he continued making music, partly as a sonic journal of his emotional state. “But when I listen back to those tracks now,” he said, “they feel too aggressive. I’d like to bring a little less aggression into the world.”
Artem Ilin, 29, who has played at Cxema three times, has also kept creating music. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, I could die,” he said. “This pushed me to make music because if I die, it’s OK, but my music will be here and people can listen to it.”
How the Ukraine War Is Affecting the Cultural World
Even when the immediate danger of missiles had subsided, the Cxema team found it difficult to maintain a daily routine. Ahmed struggles to think about the future. “You don’t know if you’ll be able to do anything that makes you happy again,” she said. “Plans become like dreams.”
Under current regulations, most adult men are not permitted to leave Ukraine in case they need to be conscripted into the army. Women can go, but for Ahmed this was out of the question after her partner volunteered to defend Kyiv. Klochko had only recently moved to Kyiv, but she was also determined to stay. “I don’t feel home in any city yet,” she said, “but I’m still home because I’m here in Ukraine.”
Parties are popping up across the capital once more, but most of the Cxema collective aren’t interested in partying just yet. “I can’t imagine going somewhere to dance now when 400 kilometers from where I’m sitting right now, people are dying and soldiers are fighting for our freedom,” Patselya said. “Soon Kyiv will be ours. And after victory we need to rebuild our buildings and our economy. Then we can party.”
Lepsheiev hopes that next spring he will finally be able to hold the 11-hour, 5,000-person party he originally planned for April 2020. When she heard this news on a group video interview, Ahmed’s eyes lit up. “I can’t imagine how much energy we will all have to dance,” she said, before pausing dreamily. “It will be such a relief.”