New York City

In pre-industrial Ukraine, the cheres was a wide, metal-studded leather belt, so thick it could ward off bullets; over time it became a talisman of good fortune for the people of the Carpathian mountains. The band Cheres have likewise become protectors of the rich Ukrainian cultural heritage which is today under attack by the Russian war and propaganda machines; in the face of this existential threat, their vibrant music is a joyful affirmation of Ukrainian identity.

Bandleader Andriy Milavsky’s grandfather Mykhailo Sypko was a talented clarinetist who led the village band in Hryniv, on the outskirts of Lviv. By the age of five, Milavsky was playing a double-headed drum with the band, which was so popular they were booked a year in advance for village celebrations. When his grandfather died, Andriy inherited Sypko’s beloved clarinet, and began formal musical training at age 10. He received a master’s degree from the Kyiv State Conservatory of Music in 1986, and performed internationally with Ukraine’s classical orchestras and top state-sponsored folk ensembles.

It was a rewarding life for a musician, but Milavsky felt the carefully staged pageantry of the state collectives missed something central to his experience of music in the village: “I thought I was the guy who could preserve it properly, the way I grew up with,” he says. “I could put some dust and blood and beer in it.” In 1990, he gathered a group of like-minded musicians, and together they formed Cheres. Milavsky came to New York a year later, and the Ukrainian American community embraced the band’s high-caliber traditional music.

The members of the band represent the diverse traditions that make up the music of the Carpathians, which developed in dialog with the music of neighboring Eastern European communities in Romania, Hungary, Moldova, and Slovakia, as well as regional Jewish and Romani sounds. Today, Cheres includes: Igor Iachimciuc on tsymbaly (cimbalom, a type of hammered dulcimer); Valeri Glava on fiddle; accordionist Victor Cebotari; and Branislav “Brano” Brinarsky playing double bass. In addition to the clarinet, bandleader Andriy Milavsky plays a variety of Ukrainian wind instruments including wooden flutes known as sopilka. Three decades on, the band is rightly celebrated as “the best purveyor of authentic Ukrainian folk music in the United States.”