Okean Elzy, with front man Svyatoslav Vakarchuk second from right
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Okean Elzy, with front man Svyatoslav Vakarchuk second from right

I won’t put on airs: I can’t speak or read a word of Ukrainian. And I’d never heard of Okean Elzy (“Elza’s Ocean”) till I got a press release last month alerting me to their show on Sunday at the Riviera Theatre. The subject line of that e-mail referred to this group from Lviv simply as “Top Ukrainian band,” which hardly seized my imagination. It’s not even phrased properly to work as a hyperbole! But after a bit of research, I’m pretty confident that Okean Elzy are in fact the most popular rock band in Ukraine—which all but guarantees them a large, ecstatic audience in Chicago.

Okean Elzy appeared in a local Pepsi ad campaign in 2001, after the marketing company that Pepsi hired found the band to be the overwhelming choice of the under-21 demographic, named by nearly 90 percent of respondents. In 2005, front man Svyatoslav Vakarchuk (one of only two members who’ve stuck around since the band’s founding in 1994) was designated a United Nations Development Program Goodwill Ambassador for Youth in Ukraine, a position he held for two years. And in December 2013, Okean Elzy played in Kiev for tens of thousands of people (or more accurately, near tens of thousands of people) during the Euromaidan protests that precipitated the February 2014 revolution.

The group has a strong activist bent, advocating for peace and democracy as well as other forms of self-determination. It’s also intimately tied to youth culture not just in Ukraine but throughout the region. But despite its English-language website, Okean Elzy has almost no crossover audience in the States—I must’ve watched a dozen videos on the band’s YouTube channel without seeing a single comment in English.

The most recent Okean Elzy album is 2013’s Zemlya (“Earth”), but today’s 12 O’Clock Track is a new video of an old favorite—the title track of the 2000 LP Ya Na Nebi Buv (I think it means “I was in heaven”). The dazzling live performance footage ought to give you some idea of the devotion these guys inspire from their fellow Ukrainians.

A headstrong but melancholy rock ballad, “Ya Na Nebi Buv” reminds me at times of something a Slavic Dire Straits might’ve done in the early 80s. It seems like a very easy song to get sentimental about—its combination of wistfulness and resignation (with the caveat that I don’t know the lyrics) reminds me of the feeling I get reading Chekhov. (I happen to be in the middle of a collection of his short stories this week, and I just finished “The Kiss,” so that’s not as pretentious as it sounds.)

YouTube video

Okean Elzy plays at 9:30 PM on Sun 3/1 at the Riviera Theatre; tickets are $75, and the show is 18 and up.

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.