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A Ukrainian jazz club provides joy in Odesa despite the invasion

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For many Ukrainians, the sounds of the past two months have been air raid sirens and explosions. In the southern city of Odesa, along the Black Sea, some residents are trying to replace the sounds of bombs with the notes of jazz. NPR's Tim Mak has the story.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The first time I was in Odesa about a month ago, I heard a rumor about a jazz club. Like so many businesses in the city, it had shut down. But I heard they still did impromptu shows. So when I returned to Odesa this week, I had to see if this was true.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: I'm walking up the stairs of this five-floor club and theater that had been a social hub before the wars. It's called Perron Number Seven. There's a club cat stalking the halls and some turtles in an aquarium. The walls are covered in hip art and promotional posters of shows from better days. They do some theater, but a lot of jazz - one stage specifically designed for electric jazz and another for acoustic. And in the shadow of the war, I found some life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: This past weekend, they put on a series of theatrical performances, including a short play on a Ukrainian man in love with a culturally Russian woman. It's a comedy that chronicles his attempt to Ukraine-ize (ph) his beloved.

(APPLAUSE)

MAK: This is Yaroslav Trofimov, who co-owns the club with his wife, Julia Bragina (ph), explaining why they haven't shut down completely.

YAROSLAV TROFIMOV: Let me tell you a story. The biggest air missile strike in Odesa - the sky was black because it was a lot of fire in the middle of the city. We all woke up at 6 o'clock in the morning and run into the shelters. And at 2 o'clock at the same day, we started our performance of theater on the balcony.

MAK: And as the smoke billowed and the dust settled, Yaroslav had a provocative question for the 100-person audience who had assembled in the square below.

TROFIMOV: I asked the guests, do we fear? Do we feel fear right now? Are we scared? And people said, no, we are not.

MAK: Perron Number Seven has since held free outdoor theatrical and jazz performances.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAK: We met shortly after the sinking of the Russian naval vessel, the Moskva, just some 60 nautical miles from where we're sitting. Yaroslav was drinking homemade gin.

TROFIMOV: They really want us to be scared. They want us to lay low. They want us to stop all our normal life and not walk in the barracks with the dogs. And I can say the direction for every person who has in its mind that war will make us fear, the direction is very simple. They should go with the Russian warship. We will not be scared.

MAK: He and his friends got together and played a famous jazz song, "When the Saints Go Marching In."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAK: And they changed the lyrics to when the ships go bottom in, referring to the sinking of the Moskva.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

MAK: Like millions of their fellow citizens, Julia and Yaroslav initially thought about leaving when the war broke out. Julia even said goodbye to the club as if it might be the last time they saw it.

JULIA BRAGINA: We didn't know what to do. We grab some luggage. We buy this little cage for our cats (laughter) just in case we need to evacuate all these cats with us.

MAK: She jokes that they didn't leave because their two cats don't get along. But they also realized their club was important not just for theater, but it could also be used by volunteers and civilians who wanted to organize ways to alleviate suffering in the war. The heart, the soul of this club remains jazz, though, a place where people and musicians once came to laugh and sing and hear music.

BRAGINA: A lot of guys from New York, from Chicago, from Europe, a lot of American musician.

MAK: A local photographer, captured this weekend's jazz performance on the balcony and posted a number of photos of the audience below as they watched the performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAK: There was smiling. There was laughter, but there was something even more profound than that - residents enjoying a slice of serenity, a moment of peace in a time of war.

TROFIMOV: If your life will be ruined in one day, if your businesses will be devastated forever in one day, if you will lose everything except of your sense of humor, you will easily understand why do you love in the middle of the war.

MAK: Yaroslav said that the last few days have been especially menacing for the city's residents.

TROFIMOV: You may not know, but last three days, Russians sending a lot of messages to the Telegram, to the Instagram, to the SMS, to people in Odesa, writing, we are know who you are. We know where you live. We know that you are against Russians.

MAK: He says their biggest weapon is laughter and creativity, more important even than the foreign weapons that have become iconic in this war.

TROFIMOV: That's why we keep meeting each other and telling stories and jokes, because there's the same frontier. There's the same weapon as - I don't know - Javelin or Bayraktar or something else.

MAK: Julia says this is a joyous place. Odesa is known as a laid-back city by the sea, a place that's relaxed and relaxing. But now, during the war, there's so much anger here, too, towards the Russian artists and musicians who used to be part of their community.

BRAGINA: It's hard to say, but they're not people for us anymore. Yeah, that's mean. That's gross to say. We ate a lot of Russian content - you know, poetry, literature, theater. I studied the theater. It was, like, the greatest example. And now, understand, it does not exist. It was a fake. All this was fake because it didn't affect the people. It didn't open their eyes. It didn't make them think critically.

MAK: Yaroslav talks about a dichotomy, about having panic attacks and fits of laughter in the same day. There's a war outside. The frontlines are just one major city away. But jazz is still playing in Odesa, and that's what makes life worth surviving for. Tim Mak, NPR News, Odesa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.