The Birth of the Victoria Doukhobor Choir

By Johnny Popoff

Doukhobor singing is one of the most important parts of my life! I was raised in a tight-knit community in Grand Forks, BC, where my exposure to both the Russian language and to the unique a cappella style of Doukhobor singing began essentially from birth. From about the age of two or three, I began to attend Sunday School, and was immersed in the rich sounds and nuances of hymns, psalms and folk songs. I was never shown how to sing, how to harmonize, or even how to start a song! These came naturally, from listening, from feeling and anticipating. My entire musical world, particularly my ability later on to play the piano by ear, stemmed mainly from this immersion in Doukhobor singing at a very early age!

Throughout my life, I have been blessed with a continuous thread of opportunities to sing the songs of my ancestors, in the language of our mother country, which has resulted in a sort of duality to my existence as a born Canadian. It's as if my family, both nuclear and extended, as well as most of my closest friends, comprise this other world... a world outside of daily normal English-speaking life in Canada... a world which seems more like it belongs in Russia. Whether it's singing songs at Christmas around the dinner table, or around a campfire in the summer, whether I'm at a choir practice or at a Moleniye, this feeling of being in another world has always pervaded my consciousness. I lose myself in the beautiful harmonies, I become invigorated by the powerful swells, and I feel very much alive. Doukhobor singing defines a huge part of my existence, it seems... And it connects me with every other person present. Our souls unite through song, our common Doukhobor heritage and Russian ancestry brought to life!

My experiences singing in choirs during my teenage years were amongst the most important of my life, providing many of my best memories. Meeting fellow young Doukhobors from the Kootenay-Boundary region and elsewhere resulted in many lifelong friendships. Without a doubt, it was our collective experiences through choir tours that bonded us! As a member of the Jubilee Doukhobor Youth Choir, I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba in 1997, and to Russia, Georgia and the Ukraine in 1999. My two siblings and many of my first cousins participated in both tours, as did many other friends. I knew that something special had been started, and I wondered how it might continue into the new millennium...

With several milestone Doukhobor celebrations in the mid to late 1990's came a surge in choir activity, particularly among the youth, as well as the long-overdue reconciliation among Doukhobor factions within Canada that resulted in the inclusion of all Doukhobors in many of these new choirs. The Jubilee Choir was born out of this new wave of brotherhood, forgiveness, and new hope for the continuing Doukhobor evolvement in Canada and beyond. It seemed like anything was possible!..

Yet, when I attended the 2001 Doukhobor Youth Festival in Castlegar, BC, and performed as the youngest member of the Grand Forks Doukhobor Men's Choir, I was disheartened by the fact that there was not a single Youth Choir performing that year, and what seemed like only a handful of youth in the audience! What had happened?

At that particular time in May of 2001, I was on the verge of making one of the most important decisions of my life. Having already attained a two-year diploma in Contemporary Music & Technology from Selkirk College in Nelson, BC, would I now choose to study music composition at UBC in Vancouver, or at the University of Victoria? Prior to coming to that low-key Festival, I still wasn't sure, as there were pros and cons to both music programs, to the Universities, and to the cities themselves. I knew that if I moved to Vancouver, I would probably join the Lower Mainland Doukhobor Choir, but what about Victoria? There was no established choir, and yet I was aware of many Doukhobor young people studying and living there, including some of my friends and fellow alumni of the Jubilee Choir. One of those was Danielle Jmieff, who was also at that Festival in 2001, and echoed my concern at the absence of any youth choirs. In addition, at that Festival were Victoria residents Stephanie Landucci and her Doukhobor mother Virginia, with whom I became acquainted. It turned out that Stephanie was going to be starting her first year as a voice major at the UVic School of Music that September! I was already aware of another new friend enrolled in the UVic Music Program as a piano major – Andrei Sherstobitoff, whom I had bumped into quite by accident during a visit to Victoria a few months earlier. I was soon to discover the fateful significance of such a chance meeting…

And so it came to be that my decision to also attend the UVic School of Music and move to Vancouver Island was essentially made by the end of that May Festival. I thought about it and then told some of my friends that I had decided to go to Victoria and even half-joked that I was hoping to start a Doukhobor Choir there so that we would perform at the next Festival in 2002.

Actually, there was no joke to it, as I really did feel determined to personally ensure that the youthful momentum that had been generated by the Jubilee Choir in the late 1990’s would not be lost in the new century, but rather, would expand and flourish! Thus, from the very beginning in February of 2002, the newly formed Victoria Doukhobor Choir embodied that same all-inclusive, non-discriminatory attitude towards any Doukhobors who were interested in participating. In that first year, our 12-member group included Doukhobors from all three of the main factions within Canada, and the animosity and divisiveness that had plagued our elders in the 20th century were virtually non-existent. We were Canadian Doukhobors! That was what mattered most, not our varying histories or group affiliations. In fact, our diversity enriched us! Most of us were born and raised in the Kootenay-Boundary region of BC, but we also had those who were born on Vancouver Island and even on the Prairies! We were mainly in our twenties, but we also welcomed those who were younger or just young at heart, such as our talented “celebrity elder”, Frank Konken, with over half a century of singing and musical performance in his resumé!

Admittedly, some of the people I approached, both at the UVic Campus and by telephone, were a bit reluctant to join the choir at first, but my persistence paid off! In the end, everyone who was in that first group of 12 felt the spark of something special. Indeed, we were embarking on an exciting journey that to this very day shows no signs of abating. We became a family, and that family would only continue to grow. Year after year, people of both Doukhobor and non-Doukhobor background heard about our Victoria Doukhobor Choir and wanted to join. We welcomed all with open hearts, and have forged many new lifelong bonds! It has been particularly uplifting to witness so many people rediscover their long-lost Doukhobor heritage, having been raised outside of the main communities. In addition, there continues to be a steady wave of Doukhobor young people from the Interior enrolling at UVic, many of whom have become enthusiastic Choir members. Add to all this the fact that our Island family has become strongly linked with our brothers and sisters from the Lower Mainland Doukhobor Choir, and it’s easy to see why there is no stopping this momentum of Doukhobor community building and cultural celebrating on the West Coast of BC. And the singing just keeps getting better and better!

As the director of the Victoria Doukhobor Choir from its origins in the winter of 2002 until the summer of 2007, I can honestly say that no experience has been more fulfilling in my life thus far! It was a dream come true! Still, I never imagined just how successful we would become in pursuing our collective vision of preserving the songs of our common ancestors and sharing them with brothers and sisters and the general public all across the west – from Saskatchewan to Seattle! I am particularly inspired by the combined talents and dedication of all members of the Choir, many of whom have also studied music, bringing a new, modern element to an old musical tradition. My good friend Andrei Sherstobitoff, who was an invaluable assistant to me from the very beginning, took over as director in the fall of 2007, and I know that the Victoria Doukhobor Choir is in capable hands!

The icing on the cake, of course, would be to see what we have created in this first decade of the new millennium continue far into the future, sharing with even more of our brothers and sisters, including those way back in the country of our origins… Mother Russia!

Vancouver Island Doukhobor Community Association - Copyright 2008