A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

Save Yourself

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I am travelling the 1.5 hours to Zaporozhe, the evening before I am to leave for America, in order to witness firsthand a JCC charity fundraiser. The event, a freestyle competition, is called “Сохрани себя,” or “Save Yourself.” Entrance was 10 грн (grivnas), and all proceeds go to the family of Anton, a 22-year-old diagnosed with leukemia.

6:50. I arrive at the Hotel Intourist, not too far from the JCC in Zaporozhe. Vasya, my driver, and I enter and start to look for the event. Having momentarily forgotten what it’s called, I ask the front desk if they knew about the community center’s event (I have been told NEVER to ask about the Jewish Community Center). Not only do they not know, but they stumble a bit over the words “community” and “center” when combined into one phrase. Vasya, meanwhile, has found the hotel’s club, and there I recognize Inessa, the energetic JCC director of Zaporozhe.

7:00. I have checked my coat and chat wtih Inessa for a bit. The event was scheduled for exactly 7:00, so I figure I have at least 20 minutes before it will actually begin. Inessa has introduced me to the club manager, a young Jewish woman who grew up in the JCC and maintained her connection wtih Inessa (aha! That’s how they scored this hot spot!).

7:15. I enter the club and find a comfy place to stand. VERY nice location. It’s rather large, with two bars, a stage, and a dance floor. The place is littered with TV screens featuring different commercials and club promotions. Hip hop is playing on the sound system. Good quality. Loud.

7:30. I bump into Sabina, the coordinator of Do Good, Ukraine! in Zaporozhe (click here to learn about this project I’ve been working on), and her boyfriend, Sasha. We chat a bit. I tell her, in Russian, that the place is sick. She’s impressed I know some slang. I mentally thank Anya and Tolik back at the Dnepropetrovsk JCC for teaching me the word.

By now quite a large crowd has congregated– somewhere between 100 and 150 people, I would say. I feel as if I’m back in the Bronx, instead of eastern Ukraine. Every third guy has a Yankees hat or sweatshirt on, and everyone is dressed as if they lived near the stadium. Baggy jeans, fly sneakers, zip up sweatshirts with American brands for the guys, and the girls are either dressed similarly or as if they were ready to work their corner.

Save Yourself

There are even black people here, which is QUITE rare in Ukraine!

7:45. Nu?

8:00. Finally, the MC and DJ step onto the stage. If I were deaf and could only watch the proceedings, I would think I was at a similar event at Yale. The place has that college feel, full of people my age and younger, watching amateur freestylers battle it out. Some of them have pretty good flow. One even rapped in English his first time up. Other than him, however, I really have no idea what any of them are saying, except for random words I can pick up between all the curses and the slang.

(Let me explain something aobut cursing in Russian. It’s an art. Unlike in English, where we have maybe ten curses, or at least Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television, in Russian they sky’s the limit. I’ve been told there’s an encyclopedia of curses thousands of pages long– I need to find this book incidentally. I have one friend at Hillel who apparently can turn any sentence into a curse. It’s like poetry, only lewder. I would never know this skill, however, even were I to speak fluent Russian, because only the most basic of curses are not forbidden for woman’s ears.)

At first it was really cool to hear Russian rap– 90’s style dance music is really popular here, and I rarely hear anything else– but after a while, I’m getting kind of ansy.

8:30. The first round of competition has ended, and now we have a guest performer. This girl, maybe 19 years old, hair in cornrows, dressed in 80s style high kicks, a pimpin shiny yellow jacket, and aviators is rapping (not too impressively, compared to the earlier talent). Behind her are her go-go dancers, two tall, skinny brunettes in bras, little fur half-jackets, and see-through white pants, each dancing to the beat of her own drum without any regard for the other. Interesting.

Save Yourself

8:40. This chick must have said Спасибо (thank you) at least 100 times in between songs and right before leaving. Her accent was really pronounced, too: “Спайсибо, спайсибо! Спайсибо. Спайсибо!… Спайсибо.” Now for round two of the competition.

8:50. “The best freestyler in all of Zaporozhe” (according to the MC) has entered the stage with his backup vocalist to perform a few singles off his new album. He’s very good, actually. I’m hardly an expert on rap, much less when I have no clue what the lyrics mean, but his beats were great, his flow superb. He also can rap a mile a minute, while pronouncing his words clearly enough so that even I can make out what he’s saying (I could repeat it, but I can’t understand it).

The Best Freestyler in Zaporozye

9:00. The event is scheduled to end at 10:00, but I must make my excuses now, since I still haven’t packed my suitcase, and I have a few emails I need to send before I leave for America. I say goodbye to Inessa (a lengthy process– the woman is so effervescent, she’ll talk your ear off every time!) get my coat, and find Vasya. It was an entertaining and quite educational evening, but I’m not sorry to be leaving early. I got my fill.

Inessa or Sabina will update me about how many people came and, after dividing the money with the club, how much was raised for Anton. Inessa believes it will be a lot. I must say, I am really impressed with the kind of fundraising event Zaporozhe’s JCC is capable of. This bodes very well for Do Good, Ukraine!’s kickoff event there, scheduled for mid-December.

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