Ukrainian culture to take center stage at World Beat

Growing up in eastern Ukraine, Inna Kovtun learned to love traditional music through her great grandma’s lullabies. She first sang on the big stage at age six, and has been performing ever since. 

Kovtun’s workshops teaching Ukrainian folk song and dance have taken her around the world, including Canada, Europe and China. Next Friday, June 28, she’ll perform at Salem’s Riverfront Park.

“Even to introduce to audience Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian songs, Ukrainian customs, any way (to) share our culture we will be really, really happy to do this,” she said.

The World Beat Festival, which annually celebrates world cultures through music, performances and food, will feature Ukraine this year. Over 20,000 people are expected to attend throughout the weekend. 

Tickets are $10 a day, or $15 for a three-day pass. It is free for kids under 14 and SNAP card holders. A full performance schedule will be posted to the festival website by Monday, according to organizers.

On Friday, performers will take to the main stage at 200 Water St. N.E. from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. The full festival begins Saturday at 10 a.m., and runs until 11 p.m. On Sunday, it will be from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The festival includes performances on the main amphitheater stage as well as on smaller stages located throughout the grounds in Riverfront Park. Attendees can participate in cultural activities and crafts, learn about different countries, shop, eat, drink and watch dancers and singers perform.

This year’s festival will also include the popular dragon boat races on Saturday, and the parade of nations to close it out, said Executive Director Kathleen Fish. There will be food from 13 different countries, including Nigeria, Romania and a Hungarian bakery. 

“We chose Ukraine as the focus country as it has been in the news a lot over the past two years, yet its cultural traditions are not terribly well known in the U.S. Ukraine’s language, history and culture are distinct and can be traced back for centuries,” Fish said in an email. 

This year’s event brings Ukrainian talent from throughout the region, including an Ashland glassmaker and Keizer dancer Miranda Coleman. 

For Kovtun, it’s a chance to bring attention to what makes Ukraine special in a time of hardship.

Inna Kovtun is a musician, folklorist and ethnographer from Ukraine (Courtesy/ Inna Kotvun)

When Russia invaded in February 2022, Kovtun and her family were living in Kyiv, the capital. Her daughter was seven years old. They lived on the 17th floor, and the bombing and alarms were constant. 

“For me, (it’s) scary also, but when you have child you can’t stay there,” she said.

They moved to Portland a month later. The family had bought tickets to return back home three months later, thinking the war would be over by then. They were never used.

When she moved to the U.S., Kovtun brought a collection of over 1,000 traditional Ukrainian songs, collected over a lifetime of fieldwork. She holds a master’s degree in music and folklore from Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts, and led several groups including the Kyiv Academic Municipal Brass Band.

She said the stage feels like home.

She had already often traveled for work, and after moving to Portland continued to share Ukrainian culture throughout the U.S., including at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In April, she led a workshop at Salem Multicultural Institute, the nonprofit that puts on the World Beat festival, leading participants through a performance of springtime song and dance.

Kovtun said it’s important to teach Ukrainian culture, and show how it is distinct from Russia.

“And explain about how Russia, all of (the) time, tried to kill Ukrainian song, Ukrainian tradition, Ukrainian history, Ukrainian customs. And I think this is so important, to show how it’s beautiful,” she said. 
Every day, she worries about her relatives in Ukraine. Her younger sister is a doctor helping the military.

“Every Ukrainian (is) living now from news to news, and worried about relatives, about the situation. And I’m so happy to help tell about it and share our culture,” she said.

Kovtun will sing on Friday, June 28, at 6:30 p.m. on the festival’s main stage and will teach a workshop on Ukrainian songs on Saturday.

In conjunction with the festival, World Beat worked with DAWN, a Hillsboro-based charity supporting Ukraine through medical and refugee support, to curate an accompanying exhibit on Ukrainian culture at the World Beat Gallery 390 Liberty St. S.E. The gallery will show through August 2.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.