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SXSW's only Ukrainian artist at stirring Austin showcase: 'I think we will make it'

An all-star cast of top Austin talent on Saturday took the stage at Speakeasy to play a special South by Southwest show: Austin Stands With Ukraine. The show came together at the last minute, as Austin music elder statesman Charlie Sexton joined a roster of locals to stand in for the Ukrainian artists who were unable to attend because of the war with Russia that's devastating their country. Only one Ukrainian artist, Oleksandra Zaritska, lead singer of the popular dance rock band KAZKA, made it to the festival. 

The audience was polite and responsive to husband/wife duo Ghost Wolves, who rocked the stage around 10 p.m., wearing matching T-shirts that said "Make Rock 'n' Roll Not War." (Other artists on the bill included Jackie Venson and Chief Cleopatra.) 

Ukrainian musician Oleksandra Zaritska, vocalist for KAZKA, holds up the Ukrainian flag during her March 19 performance at Speakeasy. Zaritska came to Austin to perform for South by Southwest but had to come alone, because her bandmates stayed behind as Russia wages war on Ukraine.

The crowd was particularly attentive when guitarist Carley Wolf talked about the friendship the band forged with Ukrainian band the Hypnotunez. The band currently is helping refugees who are trying to flee the country, and the Wolves have raised more than $1,200 through their fan network to support the effort. They've set up a GoFundMe to encourage other bands to tap their fans to donate, too

But for the audience — many of whom carried blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags, hanging them over the edge of the balcony, wrapping them around their bodies like a cape — there was really only one artist on the bill.

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As the Wolves finished their set, the crowd pressed forward in anticipation of the performance by Zaritska, who goes by Sasha. Christian Ray Flores, co-founder of the Ukraine Relief Network, said Zaritska had just left the country a few days earlier. Before that, she was working with her band to construct heavy mesh coverings for bomb shelters in Kyiv.

At the Austin Stands with Ukraine showcase during South by Southwest, Oleksandra Zaritska talked about how difficult it was to travel to Austin by herself: "All of my guys are there protecting my country in Kyiv. I really miss them."

Flores encouraged the crowd to come to a rally for Ukraine at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Capitol. Then he called the European pop star to the stage, along with ACL Radio DJ Andy Langer, who introduced her and conducted a brief interview. 

Zaritska talked about how difficult it was to travel to Austin by herself. "All of my guys are there protecting my country in Kyiv. I really miss them," she said. 

She was overwhelmed by the kindness she was greeted with in Austin. She had expected to play the festival solo, but Austin rallied to make sure that wouldn't happen. Michelle Daniel from UT's Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies assembled a three-piece band to help her recreate her hits and worked with Louie Carr, an industry professional who manages Venson helped bring the showcase to life. 

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Before Zaritska started her set, Langer invited her to sing the Ukrainian national anthem, and the emotion hung heavy in the air as at least half of the audience raised their voices for their besieged homeland. 

Austin musician Charlie Sexton takes the stage with Oleksandra Zaritska, vocalist for KAZKA, during South by Southwest on March 19 at Speakeasy.

As Zaritska left the stage briefly, a chant went through the crowd: "KAZKA, KAZKA, KAZKA." She returned as her rock-star self, ready to prove to Austin why her band, with more than a billion online streams, is one of the most popular acts in Eastern Europe. 

She shook her hip-length hair from side to side, waved the Ukrainian flag and sang her heart out. At one point, she grabbed a water bottle and sprayed the front of the crowd like they were at a rock arena.

While she allowed herself the cathartic release of the music, Zaritska paused occasionally to acknowledge the somber circumstances surrounding her appearance. "Every day, civilians die in Ukraine. Every day, children die in Ukraine," she said. 

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Her backing ensemble included Bryan Ray on guitar, Ryan Hagler on bass and Charlie Harper on drums. They were solid, but Zaritska reminded the audience that the band had just come together an hour before the show began. She described the set as "a little bit improvisation," as she asked for the audience's support.

The crowd was with her 100%, singing whole-heartedly to her popular tracks and riding a wave of ebullience to a sweeping a capella moment, as she closed the main part of her set with the smash hit "Plakala."

Then, joined by Sexton and Gary Heimbauer, she played a gripping rendition of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War." She furiously spat the lyrics of the great American songwriter's indictment of war mongers. It was a blistering performance, with Zaritska using her voice to drive the words like daggers into the hearts of those who deserve her righteous wrath.

A fan wearing a Ukrainian flag watches Oleksandra Zaritska, vocalist for KAZKA, during South by Southwest. Zaritska was the only artist from Ukraine to make it to Austin for the festival.

While the bleak circumstances surrounding the event were evident, the mood in the room throughout the show had an air of celebratory determination. 

"Russia is so big, and Ukraine is like a little one, but we have people and we have (bravery)," Zaritska said before her set.  

"There are boys, girls. There are mothers. There are children. There are old men and old women all standing for Ukraine, and I think we will make it," she said. "I think everything will be alright."