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Winnipeg Mandolin Orchestra keeps Ukrainian culture alive through music


Inside the hall of the Ukrainian Labour Temple, a symphony of sounds you may have never heard before fills the air.

“It’s just something that I do, it’s who I am I suppose,” said Annis Kozub, conductor of the Winnipeg Mandolin Orchestra.

The orchestra rehearses together every Monday evening creating lively melodies led by Kozub who has conducted the orchestra since 1998.

The musical group dates back to 1921 when 13 Ukrainian women struck the mandolin together for the first time in Winnipeg’s North End. The ensemble played traditional Ukrainian and eastern European arrangements, and over time turned into a group of two dozen musicians.

“Now we also have in our current orchestra; flute, clarinet, oboe, guitar, accordion, acoustic base and mandolins,” Kozub said.

“We have a violin, cello and piano player as well.”

Kozub, a graduate of the University Of Manitoba Faculty of Music, has spent his entire life surrounded by music, learning piano at age four and then switching his interest to violin at age 11.

“Both of my parents were musical, my four sisters, so we were what you call a musical family,” Kozub said.

The conductor traces his roots to the Ukrainian Labour Temple as a teenager, where he was very involved in the community.

“There used to be another hall on Euclid Avenue where my family used to do Ukrainian stuff, and Ukrainian school,” Kozub said.

“As a teenager there was more going on here and I actually danced in the dance group, sang in the choir and played violin in the orchestra.”

By the 1960s, Kozub’s interest in pop music propelled him to create a folk trio with his sister and a friend where his knowledge of instruments continued to build.

“We were called Three Blind Mice, sort of a Peter, Paul and Mary configuration,” Kozub said.

“Our friend Murray played guitar and I played bass, that’s where I picked up acoustic bass. They had one here at the hall and I borrowed it and so I became the bass player.”

While continuing his music track at the University of Manitoba, Kozub spent one year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and then came back to Winnipeg by the end of the decade doing gigs as a bass player across the city.

“Word of mouth, people hire you, know you and presumably like you and it just sort of evolved,” Kozub said.

“I was playing around with groups in the city and then Ron Paley came back to town after finishing his gig with the Woody Herman band and hired me to play with him in 1975 at the Holiday Inn downtown.”

After playing bass for many years with Ron Paley’s band, Kozub saw an opportunity to take over as conductor and the 82 year old has not slowed down ever since. He continues to resurrect traditional Ukrainian music and contemporary scores rich in tone.

“It seemed like a natural evolution I suppose for me and it’s a good gig for an older guy,” Kozub said as he laughed.

“This year we’re doing a song called Song of Japanese Autumn which is pretty far from Ukraine. We got that from the Toronto Mandolin Orchestra, our sister mandolin orchestra."

The orchestra will fiddle with scores by Ennio Morricone, tangos, waltzes, choral pieces and after recent renovations to the labour temple, Kozub was able to save a Ukrainian melody and give it new life.

“I did find a score when we were renovating this building, a piece called Ukrainian Suite,” Kozub said.

“Luckily it was all in tact, the score was there and all the parts. So it was like finding a gold mine, and we do that, it’s in our current repertoire.”

Fred Redekop joined the orchestra in the late 1980s through word of mouth from a friend. He currently plays first mandolin in the orchestra, an instrument he discovered in his 30s. He remembers being mesmerized by the instrument’s unique sound.

“For me it was the chemistry, I got the mandolin and I plucked a few strings on it and I just thought, 'I love this thing,'” Redekop said.

“I don’t know why, it’s like a person you fall in love with or anything and I just did. There’s something about the intimacy of holding it to you instead of a guitar or a banjo which is larger, the mandolin just had a connection for me.”

Redekop got his start in music as a rock and roll piano player. He’s also enjoyed time in bluegrass bands when he’s not strumming the mandolin strings for the group. As a member of the orchestra, Redekop said the spirit of keeping older music alive entices him to keep playing.

“There’s a real tradition here and the sound of the Ukrainian music is just something that cuts right to you and I’m not Ukrainian but there’s something about the sound of the music, the liveliness and the sadness that really captured me right from when I first came down,” Redekop said.

Nan Colledge joined the orchestra as a flautist over two decades ago with her husband who plays the mandolin and she enjoys the camaraderie of the group.

“I came along for the ride,” Colledge said.

“I really love the music because it’s quite the mix but it is deeply rooted in Ukrainian tradition with some other things added on top. It’s really different from any other band in the city so it’s not a mainstream band.”

Due to the nature of the band, Colledge said the music choices are a perfect fit for each personality.

“I think we're not all very mainstream people, I think most of us would admit to be slightly quirky ourselves so playing in a band that is slightly quirky too kind of goes with our temperaments,” Colledge said as she laughed.

After 103 years of history, orchestra members are encouraged to keep things going to honour the sentiment first heard in 1921.

“It’s been a lot of hard work from people in the community,” Colledge said.

“The Ukrainian families that have built this place or have been involved have really worked so hard to keep things going over the years, it’s quite inspiring.”

While Kozub acknowledged there are less Ukrainian people now in the orchestra than there were several decades ago, the group has been able to welcome a few newcomers to the stage following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We’re also keeping the culture groups at the Labour Temple alive by continuing the orchestra, it’s the single biggest group rehearsing here,” Kozub said.

The conductor said he often thinks of his group as a hidden gem waiting to be heard. A sentiment felt at a recent gig at the Museum of Human Rights.

“When we played at the museum a few weeks ago, somebody said to me, ‘Annis you guys need a big banner so people will know who you are,’” Kozub said.

The orchestra has a number of performances scheduled over the coming months including their anticipated annual concert on May 11th at the Ukrainian Labour Temple. Top Stories

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