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Nurturing Musical Journey in the Face of War: Personal Experiences of Ukrainian DJs

By: Kristina Kirkliauskaite

ALIS
ALIS. Photo by: Vlad Solovov

Kristina Kirkliauskaite speaks with four Ukrainian artists who now live and foster their music careers in Berlin.


The world counts one year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One year that takes forever for Ukrainians and their supporters. For some Ukrainian DJs, the war became an anger-fear-desperation-forced decision to move out of their motherland and land in Berlin – not only changing their life but also shaping a new perspective on their musical journey.


In this interview, we share thoughts of ALIS, Cheka, Ruslan Mays and Travis – originating DJs from Kyiv, Zaporizhzhya, Odessa – who now live and foster their music careers in Berlin.


The vibrant rave scene in Ukraine


Born in different cities in Ukraine, they have mostly experienced Kyiv's electronic music scene, which can briefly be described as "incredible and uprising" by Cheka or "something you can be proud of if you're local" by Travis.


Before the war broke out, Kyiv was a city that didn't skimp on clubs and festivals, inviting music lovers to enjoy a complete range of electronic gigs from venues and communities like K41, Arsenal XXII, Closer, Keller, Veselka, Drift, Brave!, Otel,, ICKPA, Cxema, Strichka, Laboratorium or Rhythm Buro.



Travis
Travis. Photo: Maria Kotsar

Sharing her experience in the Kyiv rave scene, Travis mentions: "The level of quality of the raves and the clubs was always so high, so every new project that appeared was following standard, and so eventually, you have a dozen sick places and events you want to visit on any given weekend." Moreover, Ruslan adds: "Before the war, Kyiv was one of the club capitals of Europe."


Although the war is still happening, the Kyiv rave community puts possible effort into maintaining the scene.


"Many talented people play and produce in different styles, even in wartime", – says Cheka, and ALIS. highlights: "It is my dream to play in Ukraine again since before the war, its rave scene there was only thriving along with phenomenal clubs, venues and events. All of this has a special place in my heart."


Moving to Berlin after the life-changing morning

The early morning of February 24th was a tragic turning point for everyone in Ukraine and their friends or family outside the country. While ALIS. has been living in Berlin since 2015, Ruslan, Cheka and Travis moved here during the first week of the war. They all share what went through their minds and hearts that fateful morning.


Alis
ALIS. Photo: Lera Skribchenko

"I was embraced by the paralyzing mixture of fear, anger and desperation. Imagine your biggest fears come true. You just couldn't stop thinking of all the worst-case scenarios. And every time I texted my parents and friends, "I hope to see you soon again", I fell into long, deep and brutal mental breakdowns. I couldn't properly eat or sleep and stay on my own for like a week or two, so I spent this time at my friends' places on their couches. I needed someone to calm me down," – says ALIS.


Travis also comments: "Berlin was not my first choice of city to move to, but now it feels like the only logical choice for me. I was lost and confused. I was feeling very sorry about what was going on and also angry and disappointed. And I was watching our people hating each other over one person being able to leave and another person not being able to or choosing to stay."


Further, Cheka adds: "I was lost and didn't understand what I was supposed to do next. All plans built before just turned into dust for one apparent reason. Moving to Berlin was one of the most serious and fastest decisions I ever made. It's horrifying to leave your motherland, your family and your friends in this kind of situation because we can't even imagine what it will be like tomorrow. Every Ukrainian has suffered to a greater or lesser extent, and people need to continue supporting Ukraine in different ways."


"It was unexpected and forced. I understood that it would be easier in a place with friends' support. Before the war, in January 2022, I performed at HÖR at a showcase of the Ukrainian queer community Veselka. After that visit, I had the desire to come back to Berlin to play. Unfortunately, my next visit was because of the war. In March, together with my family, we came to Germany," – notes Ruslan.


In between finding stillness and supporting Ukraine

Settling down in another country can have a different weight on everyone. Especially when you're forced to do that. Gladly Ruslan, Travis and Cheka found their so-called home in Berlin, even under these circumstances.


Travis shares discovering the sweet spot within music and Berlin's culture: "During warm sunny times, I feel really blessed, winter is tense with no snow, but then I am just trying to be as productive as I can, so it's also good. I love my place and can sit at home daily, just working with music. But then I know that when I want to return to society, I can do it easily. The people and places here are amazing."


Ruslan
Ruslan. Photo: Alexandra Barchuk

Wherefore, Ruslan says – "Berlin has become a second home. This city reminds me of Kyiv in some places with its architecture and weather." Also, adding to it, he mentions: "I remember receiving many messages from friends in Europe who offered their homes for family and me when the war had just begun. The closest city to my friends was Berlin. We also lived in Bavaria for a while and, after a little adjustment, returned to Berlin."


Talking about her experience, Cheka notes the evolving music career and discovered friendships: "Right now, I'm trying to get used to living in Berlin, to find myself here even temporarily, and to grow up as a DJ, thanks to my friends supporting me here. I had friends here before the war started, and to be honest, I have moved thanks to one of them. ALIS. is also a Ukrainian DJ. We invited her to play in Kharkiv and participate in our Ukrainian tour with the collective Laboratorium, and we became really good friends."


Moving to Berlin 7+ years ago, ALIS. put her focus, heart and creativity towards supporting Ukraine and all Ukrainians who were also moving to Berlin. She says: "When everything happened, I hosted 2 of my friends from Kyiv and a cat for a month in my small one-room apartment, and I think we managed to live quite sustainably together. It was quite obvious to offer help with my already seven plus years of experience in Berlin, German language knowledge and some first steps in the Berlin DJ community. Helping my close friends get bookings, guest mixes or other jobs is a natural phenomenon."


Adding to that, ALIS. actively participates in fundraising parties to support those who need it the most: "Fundraising parties, EPs, merch sales, etc. make a huge difference, and I can definitely feel the power of the community. I personally collected over €6k by simply placing a donation box at parties where I played or creating a PayPal pool. The whole amount was donated to different volunteer collectives or individuals affected by the war and is reported on my IG page. I am really grateful to every person supporting us. Donating money from my fees also became a daily routine." She also has organized one fundraising party herself.


Shifting to a message-driven musical journey


Multiple intercultural changes and emotional roller coasters create a combination of a newly formed perspective towards many parts of life. It wasn't an exception for ALIS., Cheka, Travis and Ruslan.


When it comes to music, Travis feels the war has affected her deeply: "Still, being away from my motherland has impacted everything, from music selection to how I perform. Without being too obsessive, I am kinda trying to represent as much Ukrainian music in my mixtapes and shows as possible. I started to dig a lot through Ukrainian releases, there is a lot of very crazy and cool stuff, and I am happy to see people in Berlin or Vienna going crazy over another sick dubstep track written by Kyiv homies. I want to keep working with Ukrainian projects in the future, and will definitely release some collabs too."


Although coping with emotional pain, Ruslan highlights embracing and learning to express his feelings through music: "When you come with pain, it's not easy to adapt to another country and do creative work. Every day you cope with the news from Ukraine, and at the same time, the intense scene of Berlin inspires me to keep believing in music. This "bipolar life" is reflected in my creativity. I am still learning to translate all these emotions into music and performances."


Cheka
Cheka. Photo: Shlemko Veronika

Cheka shares being warmly welcomed and inspired by the community in Berlin: "Despite the stress, I found people who supported me, developed in music, and started learning how to produce and support my country from abroad. I overcame my emotions, moved on to my goals, and found myself a super hard-working and strong person."


Further, ALIS. notes the importance of bringing a clear message to the Berlin rave scene and the whole world – "saying "no war" is not enough now. You have to prove your words with actions" – mentioning that, she adds: "I will never share a booth with a Russian artist who hasn't shared a clear anti-war statement or done anything to support the victims. Or saying "no war" and then organising huge events or playing gigs in Russia to earn some cash, a part of which will be taxed to kill my people and destroy my home is a no-go for me, and I am not only talking about Russian artists who play in Russia now."


Advice for others coming to Berlin – how to settle


For more positive reflections, aka final interview remarks on their current journey, ALIS., Cheka, Travis and Ruslan share some important tips for new-coming DJs moving to Berlin.


ALIS. notes the essence of hard work and learning the local language: "The only thing I'd say is that It's not gonna be easy, and you have to work really hard to achieve your goals and make it as a DJ/producer here. I genuinely recommend you try to learn a bit of German, and don't forget to take care of yourself."


Cheka recommends every DJ coming to Berlin be sharply focused and work on reaching their dreams: "There are many opportunities for DJs and producers here, which is one of the reasons I moved here, and you have to be really hard-working and stress-resistant to find your place here and have a solid motivation to build your part of life outside of your home country. For me, it's a temporary part of life, I hope."


Staying authentic to yourself and being dedicated to your creativity – the message that Travis sends: "In Ukraine, you might have felt much more important than you will be feeling in Berlin, and this will be frustrating for you. You will have to start from the beginning, but it's OK. Many more doors will open for you in the end. And for newbies: don't be afraid of well-known competition. In Berlin, there are as many parties as DJs. If you have something catchy, if you are original and confident, you'll be noticed very fast."


Running down his personal experience, Ruslan shares his three quick tips: "Have the support of friends, establish good communication with new people in the club scene, and actively show your creative skills in music in the form of sets and tracks."


How to Support Ukraine

Any kind of help matters – support these organisations to stand together with Ukrainian people:

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