YouTube video
Watch the full conversation on the Rural Assembly YouTube channel.

In 2019, folk musician Brother Hill and his bandmates found themselves in a seven-hour jam session with Belarusian musicians they’d met the night before in Athens, Ohio. 

The evening was spent feasting, drinking, singing, shouting, and learning of each other’s traditions for the first time, says Hill, real name Brett. 

That jam session grew into visits to Ukraine and Belarus and birthed a new musical alliance known as Slavalachia (pronounced SLAV-a-LATCH-a). 

In 2022, this musical connection would catapult Hill and his collaborator, Benya Stewart, to the front lines of war, armed with supplies for Ukrainian troops — and, as always, songs. 

When war broke out after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Hill and Stewart organized benefit shows across Ohio. The effort, called From Ohio With Love, has raised more than $80,000. 

“Once the invasion hit, it was obvious that we had a platform with which we could support brave defenders of Ukrainian sovereignty, which we believe in,” he said.

In this episode of Everywhere Radio, Hill talks with Whitney Kimball Coe about Slavalachia, the solidarity of folk music, and playing songs for soldiers in Ukraine.

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Check out the episode excerpts below for highlights of the conversation, and continue on to the full transcript if you’d like to read it all.

Episode Highlights

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Whitney Kimball Coe: Draw the lines of connection for me between your music and the front lines of the war in Ukraine. How do those things come together? 

Brother Hill: The most direct connection from the music to the front lines is the fact that I do have a band mate in Slavalachia who is out fighting on the front lines right now, one of our Ukrainian counterparts. So that was pretty direct. We had begun playing music with Ukrainians back… we’d begun contact in 2019 and then went to Ukraine for the first time in January 2020, as well as Belarus on that trip. And that was kind of where the seeds were planted of this folk alliance, as we call it, that is Slavalachia. And so we had been doing this cultural bridge building for two and a half years before the invasion, and then once the invasion hit, it was obvious that we had a platform with which we could support brave defenders of Ukrainian sovereignty, which we believe in. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: What was it like to deliver these needed items to the front lines? 

Brother Hill: The experience was… I almost say intense, but I kind of hesitate to, because I mean, it was intense and especially looking back on it as intense to consider like, “Wow, that was a lot.” But I mean, I kind of learned during that experience that in a time of great stress where you’re actively hearing artillery fire and sometimes feeling a kind of tremor in the earth and seeing bombed-out, wrecked-out buildings that have been in a war zone for the better part of a year. Sounds very stressful. 

And it is to a certain degree. But I think when you get into an environment like that, there’s a certain… I’ll just speak for myself. My mind tends to not shut down, but focus really tightly on like, “Okay, what am I doing right now? What do I need to do? Where do I need to be? Do I need to be present? Yes, I do. So I’m going to be right here.” And I’m not really thinking about the rest of that. I’m not thinking about, “Gosh, I hope I get to see my family again.” Or I’m not thinking about anything like that. I’m thinking about where am I at right now and what do I have to do right here? 

And so for us, that was, get this car, get these supplies to the boys and get out into the polygon as they call it. I mean, we rolled up into a training pit. It looked like a big dugout pit with all these mounds and a hill that you could run a firing line against for target practice. And when we rolled up, they were in a troop carrier practicing loading and unloading out of this troop carrier in formation. I mean, they were in full out, full on mode preparing to go up about two kilometers away to fight in the trenches within the next few days. 

So I mean, my question to our colleagues and associates. And UA First Aid has only been mentioned in passing, but this is who we collaborate through. These are friends of ours that were Ukrainian students at Ohio University that returned to Ukraine within the first week of the war to begin running supply efforts to coordinate delivery of supplies to various battalions and units out on the front that were in need of assistance in multiple ways. A beautiful thing about Ukrainian civil society, they can really support each other. So when we collaborated with UA First Aid, they were like, “All right, you brought us the supplies, amazing. Now, we think you should come out to the front with us and deliver these supplies and play some songs for the troops, because it would really mean a lot to them.” 

We had an Ohio flag that was signed, “From Ohio with Love.” My father … my people, various friends, old friends and people I hadn’t even met before signed this, just messages of hope to people over yonder to these troops that this is going to be delivered to. Just like, “Take care. We’re thinking about you. ‘Berezhy sebe’:  Take care of yourself. And this was something we were ready to go present to these troops out on the front. And I was like, “Of course, I’m ready to go through whatever just to show them that we’d be there. But let me ask you my friend, Lasik, of UA First Aid, is this necessary? Are they going to care?” 

 And he was very confident they would, that it would mean a lot to them. And I’m like, “All right, let’s go. I’m not going to turn away from the opportunity to support people who really need it and who it would do good for. And if you believe it would, then okay.” We’ve been driven over there in a vehicle with a couple soldiers, friends of ours who were kind of on a two week break. And we open up the back of the car, Ben and I, and there’s like a guitar, a mandolin and a drum, the bar and Irish drum that I play, on top of a Kalashnikov rifle, some body armor, some helmets and some magazines. 

And so we’re kind of setting this aside to take up our instruments, and Ben and I look at each other, we’re like, “We’re doing this? Ain’t got no other choice now. Here we go, man.” So we walk out into the polygon and this great commander, this incredible fellow who, they called him, Achilles, he’s a noted and legendary commander out on the front. He says, “Time out boys. There’s these Americans that are going to sing for you now,” while there’s just this constant rattling of artillery fire in the background. And we’re like, “Ooh, here we go.” So they paused for about 15, 20 minutes and we sang a couple of Ukrainian tunes that we’d learned and sang an old Appalachian protest song, “Which Side Are You On?” which we adapted back in 2020 for the Belarusian protests that broke out. And we kind of modified this Appalachian protest song, which was coming from Harlan County, Kentucky. 

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Slavalachia’s rendition of the protest song “Which Side Are You On” (via Slavalachia on YouTube).

It’s a legendary tune a lot of people across Appalachia are familiar with. I was familiar with it from my youth. I remember recordings of Pete Seeger singing this song. And I come from three generations of union workers on either side, my father’s hand, mother’s side. So this kind of idea was just ingrained in my being, though not a union worker myself. I’m a musician. And so the adaptation of this song to represent both Ukrainian and Belarusian struggles is perfect too. In this situation, really focus in on the Ukrainian and sing this song in Donbas, a really contested region with a very contested history. It’s a contested identity on the land of in Donbas in the coal region of Ukraine. And so taking a song like, Which Side are you on?” written by … Florence Reese, her husband and her father back in the 1930s were both coal workers. And they had to rally the people that asked this question, “Which side are you on?” And we’ve got this whole battalion then singing this song and crying out on the land of Donbas, “Which side are you on?” And the power of that, and hearing us all singing together. I mean, the response from some of these soldiers, not many of them speaking superb English, but some of them speaking good enough English to get the point across. 

This isn’t just medicine for our bodies, it’s medicine for our souls. The capability of feeling whole and human again after you’re so numbed. I was describing this numb feeling you kind of have to take on being in those environments to keep your head on straight. And these boys have been in this for months, sometimes years. And having that numbness, that drone of the reality of war, just constantly battering at your mind. To then have the capability to sing with people, especially when a lot of these boys on the front lines might not think that anyone else outside of Ukraine gives a damn about what they are doing or who they are or what they’re fighting for. And then to see some folks from some mountainous region in the United States show up with a flag from their people that says like, “We’re here. We’re thinking about you.” And sing songs of solidarity together meant a lot.” 

And the soldiers were taking the watches off their wrists. And the commander is taking the Bender Rivka, this Ukrainian commander’s hat off his head to hand it to me to say, “Thank you. Thank you for coming.” And God rest his soul, he passed away three weeks after that on the frontline fighting. And so that’s why this work has got to go on, because if unfortunately our close comrades there pass away, then it’s got to be the next generation that knows, “Yo! Folks are still here for you. We’re still doing what we set out to do, which is support you in your time of need as an ally.”

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