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War buskers: Ukraine musicians raise money to send drone to front line for brother

LVIV, UKRAINE — For the past couple of months, weekend visitors to a massive monument to Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet and nationalist whom Russian Czar Nicholas I imprisoned and exiled for his political views, have watched their children play while taking in the garage rock tones of The White Stripes.

“Everyone tries to do what they can,” explained Viktoriia Mavdryk, a receptionist at a hotel on the square.

For hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, that has meant years of service on the front lines of a grueling war against invading Russian forces.

For the Royal Brass Band, an ensemble comprised of local teenage students inspired by Lucky Chops, the New York City subway band, these street performances are its service — crowd-pleasing tunes to raise money for the military.

“I play because I like to give people emotions that we are playing,” Nazar, an 18-year-old college student who plays the trombone, told the Washington Examiner in English. “People are smiling, and I like it.”

Mykola, the 16-year-old alto saxophonist, agreed. “It’s very happy when [we see] the smiles of people,” he said.

The Royal Brass Band, a group of young musicians, performs for an audience of passersby near the Taras Shevchenko monument in Lviv on June 8, 2024. (Joel Gehrke, Washington Examiner)

They have a more grave purpose, as well — they are raising money to raise money for purchase a first-person drone, one of the civilian technologies that Ukrainian forces have used with lethal effectiveness in the war.

And they have one person in particular whom they hope to help.

“My brother, he is in the war now,” said Nazar, who added that he is stationed near Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that was the scene of a grinding struggle between January and August of 2023.

The intensity of the fighting gave the battle additional symbolic significance for both sides and spurred then-Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin to launch an abortive march on Moscow, a brief but dramatic insurrection that culminated in his apparent assassination.

“Before, we donate just money for other people who collect, and now we just start our own,” Mykola said.

On weekends this spring, the band has turned out to Prospect Svobody, or Freedom Avenue, a promenade that runs through the center of the city to the Lviv opera house. Its sets can run for 45 minutes or so, and in good weather, it’s not hard to gather a crowd. The band members collect donations in cash and through a QR code, reserving a portion of the cash receipts to divide among themselves and devoting all of the electronic donations to the purchase of a drone, which they expect to cost about $1,500.

“One thousand dollars — it’s all we have now,” Mykola said.

They are far from unique among street musicians, also known as buskers, in Lviv. “Most of them are raising money,” said Mavdryk, the hotel receptionist. “All of them are raising money for the army, but not all give 100% of their raised money. … I guess it’s OK because the musicians, it’s the way that they earn money for themselves … but they try to help make, really, a great donation.”

Lviv is far from the front lines, with only occasional alarms sounding to warn of an impending Russian airstrike. “For now, the most awful [thing], I want to say, [is] that we get used to the situation,” she said. “It’s too awful for me to say that we are getting used to the air alarms, to the explosions.”

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Rare or not, the alarms affect life every day. “For Ukrainians, every day is precious because you don’t know what will be tomorrow,” she continued. “You know, we just have a good conversation but in the morning or in one hour or two hours could be [an] air alarm, and we don’t know where the rocket will explode.”

At the feet of Shevchenko, the former Russian serf who became an icon of Ukrainian art and patriotism, the audience seems untroubled by such thoughts. The people are dancing to “Barbie Girl,” the street jazz version.

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