Scythian to play Greensboro:
Band fuses Irish, bluegrass and Ukrainian music
America has musical eclecticism baked in. Call it a patchwork or a melting pot, or a pulsing system of tributaries feeding into a great river, or whatever, there’s a rich diversity of musical material that’s just part of the fabric of American life. Every conceivable permutation is possible here — a Mongolian jazz band, a Sri Lankan hip-hop group, Brazilian cowboy singers, you name it. If you grew up, like some of the members of Scythian, in a household with a mother who was a Juilliard-trained pianist, where Ukrainian was the first language you learned to speak, and where NPR’s Celtic-themed Thistle and Shamrock played on the family radio, and where you and your siblings learned to play classical instruments to perform in a touring family chamber orchestra, it would make a kind of sense if you went on to form a hybrid Irish/bluegrass/Ukrainian string band.
I spoke to Scythian’s guitarist and vocalist Danylo Fedoryka, 37, as the band was heading to the New Orleans airport, about to fly to the Pacific Northwest for a string of dates and then on to a week of seclusion in the Mississippi woods for a round of songwriting, before heading back east to play Greensboro on March 11 at the Blind Tiger. This is the season of massive St. Patrick’s Day festivities for bands on the Irish music circuit. Scythian straddles both the worlds of Irish music and the bluegrass/old time scene.
Scythian can sound like They Might Be Giants one minute, with caffeinated nerdy gypsy jazz strains (like on “Cubicles and Tylenol”) or like straight-up traditionalist students of the Chieftains. Elsewhere, they delve into Appalachian old time music. Live, the band takes Irish dance music and soups it up a little, throwing in modulations and rhythmic tricks — muted-cymbal drop-outs, or switching to a danceable backbeat from a steady beat on all fours. Scythian is not quite EDM, but it plays driving string band music informed by contemporary tastes.
“We wanted to keep it acoustic, but we wanted to be respectful to the tradition,” says Fedoryka. “We want to be energetic, but we want to still respect what it came out of originally. We do want to push.”
The band started out as street performers, playing for change on the streets of D.C. and eventually earning a regular Thursday-night gig at one of the clubs there. “This is the first band I’ve ever been in,” says Fedoryka.
Scythian’s name comes from that of a group of ancient horseback nomads from present-day Ukraine. They take their Ukrainian heritage seriously. Fedoryka’s brother, Alex, a multi-instrumentalist who plays fiddle in the group, is the guiding spirit of Scythian. Their sister Larissa, a cellist, sometimes tours and records with the band, which includes longtime member Josef Crosby on violin and bass, as well as drummer Tim Hepburn.
The band’s 2015 record, “Old Tin Can,” is a sort of tribute to their fans and also to their roots. The fans helped crowdfund Scythian’s 2014 record, “Jump At the Sun,” and after the success of that effort the band decided to offer a sort of sonic thank-you to the listeners who made the album possible.
“Old Tin Can” features, among other gestures toward tradition, a cover of the Carter Family’s haunting and lovely “The Storms Are On the Ocean.” The song, in addition to showing an appreciation for the blend of Scotch-Irish and African- American elements that mingle to make old time music, also evokes the sea, a popular subject for Scythian. “We are very often drawn to nautical songs,” says Fedoryka. There’s a connection, says Fedoryka, between the Ukrainian and Irish strands of their music — immigrant zeal and wandering, as well as a tradition of leavening hardship with song and perhaps a drink. Political oppression is another common element between the traditions, with the Ukraine struggling under Russian rule for much of its history, and England long dominating Ireland.
Scythian throws a few peppy Ukrainian folk tunes into their sets, and the songs go over. The band hasn’t taken their show to their eastern European ancestral land yet, but they have toured Ireland, where they’ve also booked “fan trips,” for enthusiastic supporters who want to have a musical vacation and get closer to the band and some of origins of their songs and dances. (There are open spots on the group’s next Ireland trip.)
The Fedoryka brothers and their bandmates seem to thrive on bringing people together with music. In the spirit of NC’s MerleFest, where Scythian has made a meaningful connection with the bluegrass crowd, the band continues to host its own camping and music festival in Virginia over Labor Day weekend.
As proof of the band’s global sensibility, and further evidence of the contemporary continent-spanning musical mash-up going on in America, Fedoryka was excited to plug the opening band on their Greensboro bill, the NC-based Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba, combo of American and Senegalese musicians playing groove-heavy traditional West African music.
“It’s gonna be great international dance music all night,” says Fedoryka. !
Scythian play the Blind Tiger, with Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba, Friday, March 11, 1819 Spring Garden St., Greensboro, 336-272-9888, theblindtiger.com