A Ukrainian group was about to tour the United States. Now the singer plays solo while her comrades fight.

Oleksandra “Sasha” Zaritska took to the stage at the South by Southwest music festival last month draped in the Ukrainian flag – a moment she had dreamed of for years. But as she sang, her mind drifted to her bandmates fighting a war on the other side of the world.

They were supposed to be there with her. The 29-year-old lead singer of electro-pop group Kazka has long wanted to play the music festival with her bandmates, 35-year-old guitarist Mykyta Budash and 24-year-old woodwind player Dmytro Mazuriak. After the pandemic thwarted plans to do so in 2020 and 2021, they made South by Southwest their first stop on the band’s seven-city tour in the United States this spring.

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Then came February 24.

Prior to that day, Zaritska and her bandmates had met in Kyiv to rehearse and continue their enchanted run to the top of the Ukrainian music scene. Kazka burst into the public consciousness in 2017 after an appearance on the national version of the TV show “The X Factor”. Kazka spent the next five years building on that success, releasing three albums, touring Europe and representing Ukraine in the continent’s hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest. At the end of February, Zaritska and company gathered for final preparations before heading to the United States.

Related video: Ukrainians go home to fight and teach

Then, at 5 a.m. on February 24, Zaritska received a phone call at her kyiv apartment. It was his mother with news: The Russian army was invading. Although the specter has been hanging over Ukraine for months, Zaritska didn’t think it would happen. “We can’t believe in the 21st century – a super modern world – this can be a real war,” she told The Washington Post.

At first, she didn’t believe her mother either. Zaritska scolded her: it’s not something you should joke about.

Then, standing on her balcony, Zaritska heard the explosions. When she realized the war had come, her mind changed. She had to get out and fast.

The plan: to gather with his family and friends at his mother’s house in the forest just outside kyiv. But she had to get there first. The roads were blocked, the gas stations crowded, the supermarkets devastated. Every 10 minutes, sirens began to howl. She waited three hours for the gas. Then she drove six hours to her mother’s house. A trip that normally took 30 minutes had turned into an all-day affair.

But Zaritska arrived home safely. So did other family members and a few friends – eight or nine people in total. They crouched down and waited. In deciding to leave kyiv, Zaritska had felt that it would be safer to go to the outskirts of the capital rather than to its urban center. But soon the Russian army started bombarding the area. All night, explosions shook the walls. They were afraid to sleep. Without a basement for shelter, they could do nothing but run to the bathroom and cower as the bombs exploded around them. Zaritska and the others had a decision to make.

“We [were] scared they’ll just come to our house and kill us,” she told the Post.

Zaritska didn’t wait to find out. She got into a car with her mother, sister, best friend and three dogs. They drove for hours, sleeping through the night in the car before finally arriving in a small village in western Ukraine, near the Hungarian border.

There they rested before joining the war effort. Zaritska’s new mission: to manufacture camouflage nets for the Ukrainian army. Others brought food to the refugees. Then Zaritska received a call. He was Kazka’s producer. He told her that she should still travel to the United States as planned and do the tour, even though Ukrainian law prohibited her male comrades from leaving the country. Zaritska was skeptical. She was not used to performing alone and was torn at the thought of leaving her country at her most desperate hour.

But Zaritska decided that a tour of the United States as an unofficial Ukrainian ambassador was the best thing she could do. Her mission: to keep people from turning away and to force them to keep watching the “humanitarian catastrophe” that her country has become, she told the Post.

Zaritska gave an example: eight weeks of war destroyed much of her hometown of Kharkiv, the country’s second most populous city, she said. When Zaritska was able to talk to relatives and friends who are still there, they were crowded into bunkers.

Americans need to hear this, she said – and not just news, but real Ukrainians devastated by it.

“I [left] Ukraine because I have a big mission and I have a voice,” she told The Post.

At the beginning of March, Zaritska crossed Eastern Europe in hopscotch – Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. While in Prague, she recorded a music video for “I Am Not OK”, Kazka’s new single which the band, collaborating from afar, concocted in the early days of the invasion.

The video opens with Zaritska singing in Ukrainian, accompanied only by the background sound of air raid sirens, followed by the boom of explosions. “I’m going to sing a song about my ‘before’ and ‘after’ life.”

Then a montage: a fighter plane, explosions, Ukrainians bloodied and beaten under the rain of Russian bombs. Zaritska continues to sing, lamenting her new reality – lying awake at 4 a.m., taking life day by day and having no time to dream. As she does so, her fellow Ukrainians – women, children – hold signs with the song’s title.

“Pray for Ukraine”, sings Zaritska. “Pray for Ukraine now.”

Then she stops. The music too. Only one sound remains: the anti-aircraft siren.

After recording the new song, Zaritska arrived in the United States in mid-March. First stop: South by Southwest in Austin. A month earlier, the plan was to sing along with his two bandmates, with the three simply identifying as musicians. By the time Zaritska took the stage, she was alone but stood for something bigger – a country under siege. Instead of performing one of the band’s original songs, she performed Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” with longtime Dylan collaborator Charlie Sexton in what Zaritska called “an onstage revolution.”

“That song – it was like the cry of my soul,” she said.

Meanwhile, Budash and Mazuriak worked thousands of miles away, not playing music but adjusting to new wartime jobs. While Zaritska sang on South by Southwest, Mazuriak volunteered in western Ukraine, turning facilities like schools and gymnasiums into shelters for compatriots forced to flee their homes and hometowns. As Zaritska sang the Ukrainian national anthem in the heart of New York, Budash raised funds to buy European vehicles for the Ukrainian army.

Unlike Zaritska, the two men could not leave the country. Hours after the Russian attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law, banning most men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving. The two musicians said that even if they could, they would not leave. They are needed at home. Also, Zaritska is the best person to represent the band and Ukraine and to communicate the need for more help from Americans and other Westerners.

Budash gave another reason: “We decided to send Sasha to America because she’s more attractive than us,” the guitarist and keyboardist said with a laugh.

Through it all, the three talked, though usually no music or work, Budash and Mazuriak said. Zaritska always wants to know if they are okay.

Zaritska told the Post that she hopes the war will end soon so the three can make music together while Ukraine rebuilds and heals. Performing at South by Southwest and touring the United States had been a goal for years that took six months of planning. Zaritska did, but the performance was not what she expected when she imagined herself on stage with her band. The coronavirus derailed those plans in 2020 and 2021. The war ruined them this year.

Zaritska has her fingers crossed for 2023.

“We really hope that next year is going to be a really quiet year. And we hope that we come to South by Southwest, and we have a real performance – like all my friends will be there.”

Until then, Zaritska embraces her war mission. On March 23, four days after performing “Masters of War” at South by Southwest, she sang her country’s national anthem as the Ukrainian flag was raised in the heart of Lower Manhattan. On March 29, Zaritska met with the head of the Ukrainian consulate in New York to sing and talk about “the madness going on in Ukraine.” On April 2, she performed at a charity gala for Ukraine in Chicago. She did the same at a sister event in New York the next day.

Zaritska was supposed to be back in Ukraine now. Prior to the invasion, Kazka planned to wrap up her US tour with an April 3 concert in Los Angeles, then return home for an eight-stop tour across the country. Instead, Zaritska remains in the United States, preparing to perform in other charity concerts. His mission: to raise funds to send home to help the war effort.

“I have to do it,” Zaritska said.

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