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The only Ukrainian artist at SXSW wants world to know about 'genocide' of Russian war

Ukrainian band KAZKA plays every show as if it is their last, lead singer Oleksandra Zaritska said through an interpreter on Friday at Fareground in downtown Austin. 

Zaritska, who goes by Sasha, said the band had been preparing for a trip to the South by Southwest Music Festival for a very long time. Even in a worst-case scenario, they couldn't imagine that something like a war would disrupt their trip. 

More:Charlie Sexton, Jackie Venson, others to join Ukrainian musician at SXSW

She is the only member of the band to make it to Austin. She's also the only Ukrainian artist on the official SXSW lineup who was able to come to the festival. Ukrainian military law prevents men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, and the other women in the band decided to remain in the country to volunteer. Zaritska made the difficult decision to travel to SXSW alone, because she felt bringing her music and message abroad could have a powerful effect.

Oleksandra Zaritska of KAZKA is the only artist from Ukraine at South by Southwest.

She will perform a short solo set at the "Austin Stands with Ukraine" showcase on Saturday at Speakeasy. Prominent Austin musicians Jackie Venson and Charlie Sexton are set to appear. Zaritska also will be joined by a special guest on a cover of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War."

KAZKA began playing the cover as Russia amassed hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the Ukrainian border.  

"They were there for several months," Zaritska said via email. "Just to drive an entire army to the borders of Ukraine is a very unpleasant idea.  We knew that Putin hated Ukraine, but we did not want to believe that the war would still begin."

Any doubts the band had about singing the final verse which begins with the lyric "And I hope that you die/ And your death will come soon," disappeared as the war began, she said.  

"We are dealing with an absolute evil that hates us as a nation," she said. 

It's a departure for the seven-piece ensemble KAZKA, which is primarily known for danceable electronic rock that incorporates traditional Ukrainian sounds. According to a news release from the band, their single “Plakala” (“Cry”) holds the record for the most online streams of any Ukrainian artist. The SXSW appearance will be her first time performing alone, she said, graciously asking for the support of the audience.  

Local acts Ghost Wolves and Chief Cleopatra also are on the bill Saturday, with more to be announced. Co-sponsors of the event include the Texas Music Office and the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas. Both have employees who worked on arranging the event.

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The war in Ukraine turned the lives of ordinary Ukrainians upside down, Zaritska said. 

"It's really, really, really scary," she said in English. She showed a cell phone video of air raid sirens going off outside her house. The sirens go off multiple times a day, sending families running to their bathrooms for shelter. 

Oleksandra Zaritska of KAZKA looks at a video on her phone of planes flying overhead while air raid sirens go off outside her home in Kyiv.

Since she left her country, Zaritska said she's been able to stay in touch with her bandmates. Most of them remain in Kyiv, where they are staying in the bomb shelters, "but they are alive and safe," she said through the interpreter. 

A news release about her trip characterized it as a mission "to inform the world about Russia’s military crimes and intentional genocide of Ukrainians."

"Every day, women and children die, missiles are being shot into civilian buildings, schools, hospitals and churches. Ukraine is an independent and sovereign country, and we will protect its integrity and the right to live the way we choose and wish to live," Zaritska said in the release. 

Oleksandra Zaritska of KAZKA of Ukraine discusses the war and why she decided to attend South by Southwest on Friday, March 18, 2022. Zaritska is the only artist from Ukraine at the festival.

Speaking through her interpreter in Austin, she called on NATO and the world to make Ukraine a no-fly zone.  

"While the people of Ukraine are fighting on the ground and protecting its territory as much as they can, the sky is still left open," she said.

She said establishing a no-fly zone is "a first priority as for every Ukrainian, for every singer, politician and citizen."

She also said she wanted to raise awareness about Russian attacks on Ukrainian nuclear facilities. 

"That's why it's not just a threat to Ukraine, but to the entire world," she said. 

If you go at SXSW

"Austin Stands With Ukraine" kicks off at 8 p.m. on Saturday at Speakeasy (412 Congress Ave. D).