MIGRANTS: Sasha Ilyukevich and the “Highly Skilled Migrants” interviewed by Zia Fernandez Ibarreche.
I met Sasha last week, on the streets of London, I was cycling in the morning on my way to work, when I saw a cyclist with a black jacket, like a pearly king, with a white text written on the back “Highly skilled migrant”. I was very curious about this funny display of activism, so I decided to follow him to the next traffic lights, which luckily was in red. I approached him telling him that I liked his jacket, he smiled and replied; that it was the name of his band. I said to him that I am also a highly skilled migrant, we both laughed. In the end I told him that I might contact him to which he replied that his contact details were available on Facebook. The traffic lights turned green and we said goodbye.
Today I am in London fields, interviewing Sasha Ilyukevich, his music is described as “An incomparable brew of post punk electric energy and topical lyricism, London-based Belarusian Troubadour Sasha Ilyukevich and his band 'The Highly Skilled Migrants’ continue to challenge the boundaries of non-English contemporary music. Their forthcoming album ‘Minsk’, released in October 2018, is a rebellious and defiant comment on political and social order in the Post-Soviet era”.
ZF Hi Sasha, good afternoon. How did you come up with the name of the band?
SI: It is part of my own history. I came to the UK on a student visa, then I had an opportunity to remain in this country with changing my status to a Highly Skilled Migrant. This Immigration Programme was introduced by the Home Office in early 2000. Later we, the band, were looking for the name for our group. One of my band members wanted to hear my story coming to London. I mentioned to him my Highly Skilled Migrant Rank. We thought that it would be a great name for our project. There is irony in the name, it reflects on my history, the history of this country and the world in general. Our project also addresses the current political and social issues that we are facing in Europe.
ZF What does migration mean to you?
SI: To me it means simply living. Migration is part of life. We migrate everyday from one side to another side, from one place to another place, from one season to another season. This is how it works in the animal kingdom. This is how it works in the human kingdom. It is basic and essential part of our existence.
ZF In how many countries did you live? What made you establish yourself in the UK?
SI: I was born in Belarus, it was part of the USSR until 1991. I continually lived there until the age of 21. When I was a student in 2001 I came to the UK to do seasonal work on a farm near Maidstone, in Kent. I spent 6 months there picking fruits. I used to visit London almost every weekend and fell in love with this city. I always wanted to live in large urban environment that offers cultural diversity. Later I went back to Belarus to continue with my studies at university. In May 2002 I went to the United States for 6 months, considering a possibility to stay there for even longer. However, America did not appeal to me as much as the United Kingdom. Plus, I always felt European. I decided to come back to London to get more experience and improve my English. After spending all this time abroad I concluded that my Motherland with its unchanging totalitarian regime will never offer to me the same opportunities that I found in London. I also wanted to avoid the compulsory military service in Belarus. So I made a plan how to stay here, in London.
ZF You have been creating music and performing for the last 10 years, where and how were your beginnings?
SI: I started writing music and songs in my early teenage years. I never had an ambition to become a performer until I moved to London. Once, my friend Yo Zushi, who is also a musician, invited me to play an acoustic set at one of his events. A person in the audience, Phil Brunner, saw me performing and later got in touch with me via Myspace offering to form a band. He became my drummer, and this is how it started. Gradually music took more significant role in my life and I have never stopped performing and creating music since then.
ZF Your songs often address political and social imbalances, particularly in the former USSR. Your first album “HA NUMA” was banned from Radio Stations in Belarus due to it perceived political subversion, tell us more about these events and the content in the lyrics.
SI: My first album ‘Ha Numa’ was released in 2009. What happened is that one of my friends knew a DJ from a local Radio Station in Minsk. He liked a couple of songs from the album and included them in to his playlist. One of the songs is called “Son of the Motherland”, I believe became the troublesome one. Two songs were played regularly just before another presidential elections. “Son of the Motherland” has satirical lyrics, it is a fable. In this song I compare myself with a dog. Belarus is pretty much an agricultural country, in a way that many people in rural areas still live more or less self-sufficient. They grow their own fruit and vegetables, they keep cows and pigs. Animals have particular hierarchy and status in society.
ZF The Pecking order.
SI: Precisely. In that song I am a dog. I am a straight dog. There is not much love for dogs in provincial areas of Belarus. Dogs are kept on a chain and often underfed. When you say something that people do not understand they always compare you to a barking dog, who makes no sense. This song is about me just making no sense, about me trying to reach to people but I fail. Nobody wants to listen to me; nobody wants to hear to my message. This is how I felt living in Belarus. Unfortunately, the majority of people either are scared or don’t want to challenge the establishment. At the end of the song I start doubting myself, questioning whether I should become a cow instead of a dog. Cows are always looked after and kept warm in a shelter. I would gain a different status being a cow. The finale of the song transposes into confusing animal languages where I compete with my two superegos – a dog and a cow, mooing and barking.
ZF Animal farm, Orwell.
SI: It has a little bit of “Animal Farm” concept I suppose. I actually don’t think I read “Animal Farm” before I wrote this song. But then in Orwell’s classic the pigs are the main characters. Someone very intelligent had listened to the lyrics carefully and decided to ban both tunes from the radio station right before the election. In the West it sounds almost sensational: Wow! They banned your song! Unbelievable! But in Belarus it is a normal thing when your work is banned. Any artistic expression that opposes the government is not going to be supported by the press.
ZF Last year was the 100 years anniversary of the Red October Revolution. Did you attend any event in London or the Republic of Belarus?
SI: We performed at various events dedicated to this topic last year. Most of them were held at Rich Mix Cinema, British Library and Latitude Festival and organized by the cultural organisation Dash Arts For Dash Arts it was the final year dedicated to the former Soviet states with the focus on both the February and October Revolutions. We also released the single ‘Revolution’ on the anniversary day – the 7th of November, following the new calendar. What I see in this revolution is another human tragedy, pure violence; it did not give us anything good. The enforced Communism caused so much blood, so much confusion and suffering. Great number of people, including my family, were adversely affected by this event. However, I know that some people in the Western World tend to romanticise the Red Revolution, but I personally see it as a catastrophe.
ZF Do you engage into Politics in the UK? What are your views on BREXIT?
SI: I voted against BREXIT but I can also understand the complex situation around BREXIT. It is not just a mistake of this country, it is also a mistake of the European Union. I wouldn’t praise the EU as an unique or perfect form on how we should live. It all sounds good – free movement of people, open borders, free exchange and trade, etc. But when you carefully look inside the system, what is going on in Brussels, I think many regulations should be improved or even changed.
In my opinion, what the government should have done instead of calling for referendum, they should have expressed their national concerns to the EU and proposed some changes within the EU Establishment. This was like a divorce between some husband and wife. Instead of trying to sort out their problems first, they decide to get divorced. At the same time, I do not think that we are competent enough to talk about the economic side, it is very complex, it covers a lot of aspects. The current UK government I don’t think knows how to deal with all these issues. To me it is about improving the functioning of the Union, challenging the corporate aspects of the establishment, but not leaving.
ZF Who inspires you?
SI: On the musical level I am very much influenced by the Cultural Revolution of 60s and 70s – Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Kinks, Velvet Underground, David Bowie, the Clash, also Post-Punk music from Joy Division, The Breeders, Pixies, Sonic Youth. In addition, many Russian poets, such as Velimir Khlebnikov, Daniil Kharms , Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, also had an impact on my songwriting and poetry. In my songs I combine Western and Eastern-Slavic sensibilities to bridge a historical divide and engage understanding between two cultures to reverse prejudice between East and West.
ZF I am a big fan of Mayakovsky I found a book on a street, and then I bought two more of his books of poems. He is a great author and his story was very dramatic because he believed in the Soviet Union but with Stalin he killed himself.
SI: We still don’t know what exactly happened. I would not be surprised that this suicide incident was an actual set up by the KGB or another state agency. The similar incidents happened to many public figures in the USSR.
ZF Do you have any project ahead?
SI: The next show will be at Latitude Festival. Also, this autumn we are releasing a new album – “Minsk”. With this record we would like to raise more awareness of the political situation in Belarus, using Minsk as a prism to split the dislocated reality of the past, present, historical and social agenda of Belarus. More information can be found on my website –
ZF Thank you very much Sasha.
SI: Thank you, it was very nice talking to you.
At the end of our talk, Sasha gave me a badge that reads Highly Skilled Migrant, I put it on my top and wear it proudly.
Thank you for reading.
London, 3rd July, 2018.
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