Celtic Junction Arts Review

Ukrainian Benefit Concert

Carillon RoseMeadows

Natalie Nowytski, founder of Musicians for Ukraine
Natalie Nowytski

Collectively, we’ve been experiencing circumstances in which a feeling of helplessness is so pervasive that being able to do something to help—anything at all—comes as a relief. The invasion of Ukraine is one such situation. On June 4th of 2022, the Celtic Junction was able to support the Ukrainian community in a small but valuable way by doing what we do best: supporting the arts. We hosted a Ukrainian benefit concert!

We have a long acquaintance with the Twin Cities Ukrainian community. Like so many things at CJAC, that connection is centered on music. The late, great Peter Ostroushko was a regular performer at CJAC and even granted an interview to be shared by CJAC’s McKiernan Library—but Peter wasn’t the only Ukrainian American to grace our stage. Balkan Party Band Orkestar Bez Ime (OBI) has performed memorably at CJAC over the past ten years (see video) which is how we became acquainted with OBI’s singer, Natalie Nowytski. Nowytski even married OBI bandmate, Scott Keever, in a ceremony held right here, in Inis MĂłr.

Natalie Nowytski and Scott Keever wedding
Ukrainian musician Oksana Bryn (1924-2015)
Oksana Bryn (1924-2015)

Natalie is a Minneapolis-based musician and composer. A first-generation Ukrainian-American and Minnesota native, she trained classically with her grandmother, the legendary vocal coach Oksana Bryn.

Soon after Ukraine was invaded by Russia on February 24th, we wrote to Natalie Nowytski to find out what we could do to help. It turned out we weren’t alone—and in response to these offers from musicians and venues, inspired by the love of her heritage and the desire to help her friends and family in Ukraine, she had the wonderful idea of a benefit concert series: Musicians for Ukraine.

Ukrainian Benefit Concert at Celtic Junction
Richard Kriehn, Dean Magraw, and Natalie Nowytski

Natalie hosts the series which features volunteer musicians and storytellers from the Ukrainian diaspora and its allies. It is presented at venues that donate their space to ensure as many aid dollars can reach Ukraine as possible.

To connect the audience with Ukrainians in Ukraine, she uses the time between bands to share translated poems from citizens there—everyday people who submit their thoughts during the war to Gala Radio, a Kyiv-based radio station Nowytski discovered on a streaming service. “I want people to feel a personal connection to the people in Ukraine, to realize that the people fighting for their lives and the freedom of their country are just regular people, like you and me.”

Natalie O'Shea at the Ukrainian benefit concert
Natalie O’Shea recorded the concert on a bright sunny day.

The concert at CJAC took place on a gloriously sunny afternoon on our beautiful outdoor stage. It began with the dynamic duo of guitar legend Dean Magraw and Guys All-Star Shoe Band veteran, Richard Kriehn. Magraw and Kriehn performed some compositions by their late friend and colleague, mandolin dynamo Peter Ostroushko. Nowytski also made an appearance in their set for a folk song Ostroushko was known to play often at his shows.

The Turkish-Balkan ensemble Makam Baklava performed some folk songs honoring Ukraine’s Crimean Tatar population.

Rada Kolarova (lead vocal), Hristo Alexiev (clarinet), Dan Ryan (bass), and Orhan Ucer (saz, guitar, vocals).

Finally, Ellen Stanley anchored the show as beloved songwriter Mother Banjo. She brought along bandmate Dan Gaarder to round out her set, performing soulful melodies of hope.

As with the rest of the ongoing series, the proceeds from this Ukrainian benefit concert went to vetted aid organizations and grassroots initiatives through Stand With Ukraine MN, Minnesota’s Ukrainian American Community Center’s initiative to direct aid to the most needed areas in Ukraine. You can make a donation at https://donorbox.org/standwithukrainemn