Donbas Cabbie Drives Ukraine’s Aspiring Singers to Online Success
10 November, 2019
Passenger Olesia takes a ride in Andrey Turko's karaoke taxi. Youtube / CRAZYTAHO KARAOKE

He’s Ukraine’s answer to James Corden – a cheeky, larger-than-life taxi driver whose feel-good car karaoke YouTube channel aims to give all aspiring Ukrainian musicians a voice.

Andrey Turko's YouTube channel gathers hundreds of views for the videos of him driving citizens and visitors of the central Ukrainian city Vinnytsia for free – if they agree to sing into his built-in car karaoke system and have the video of their performance published. If the passengers' singing impresses him, he will even pay them for the ride.

But Turko’s path to Youtube stardom was not as smooth as his driving. The life of Turko and his family was turned upside down when the war erupted in his hometown in the Luhansk region. 

War Memories

Turko worked in the retail sector and as a photographer, whilst his wife, Svitlana, was a businesswomen – the family, including three daughters, lived a comfortable middle-class life in the small town of Petrovo-Krasnosillya in the Luhansk region.

READ MORE: From the War Zone to Chernobyl 

Then came 2014 and the war broke out in eastern Ukraine 

"People with my position were abused, we began to receive threats," he recalls. 

"Fearing for the health and lives of my family members, I decided to leave."

In May 2014, Turko and his family fled from Donbas with almost nothing, leaving their home and careers for a new start on the other side of Ukraine. The logistics of moving with three small children was fraught with issues, not least finding a new place to live.

"When we needed to rent a house, we could not find one for a long time because of great demand and an unwillingness to rent to such a large family," he says.

New Life

After four months, the family was able to settle in the central city of Vinnytsia. It was a choice partially motivated by fear: Turko says he was concerned that if they did not travel far enough away from Donbas, they may have been forced to move again. 

Like many who had fled the war in the east, the family thought they would be leaving only for a few weeks – but Vinnytsia turned out to be their permanent new home. Despite their losses, Turko immediately threw himself into his new community, trying to find work to support his family; ever the creative, he and his wife even dabbled in jolly gingerbread stencils to make ends meet.

But Turko was always looking for more regular opportunities, and when a friend suggested he looked into taxi driving, he applied to become a cabbie in the summer of this year. Hurtling through the streets of Vinnytsia in the warm, pleasant summer, driving initially seemed to promise a bright future, offering a chance to chat with locals in the city. But the novelty of carting passengers around all day soon wore off: the work was not easy and paid little.

READ MORE: 5 Unreported Facts About Displaced People in Ukraine

Turko decided his rides needed jazzing up.

Love for Music

This was something he recognized the passengers needed too: after he picked up one upset girl, it was only his singing which succeeded in making her smile.

"I love to sing," he explains. "I first decided to sing for clients in order to cheer them up, and after that I decided to give such an opportunity to clients themselves."

With ambitions to cultivate undiscovered musical talent in his new home, Turko equipped his car with audio equipment, including a mixing console and microphones. He also has a trusty set of windscreen cameras, through which he uploads videos of his clients’ performances to his YouTube channel – which is proving to be a smash hit already, despite only being online for three months. If passengers agree to take part and have the videos of their performances posted, they can have the taxi ride for free.

Turko’s karaoke venture is close to his heart: in his youth, he was a vocalist in a cover band, and went on to DJ in nightclubs. His singing took him to top national and international stages: in 2005, he won the (no longer running) popular Ukrainian talent show "Karaoke on the Maidan"  – and, 10 years later, he made it to X-Factor, performing alongside his daughter. 

This stage career had its bonuses for persuading wannabe singers to perform, too: Turko seems effortless in front of the taxi cameras, and with a wide, disarming smile greeting passengers as they slide into the taxi seats, one of his first questions is asking whether they would like to sing. Often, their faces initially betray signs of worry, but when Turko plucks a microphone from a hidden corner of the car and offers it to them, something of his confidence seems to rub off on them, and they nod in stunned agreement.

READ MORE: Life and Work in Luhansk’s Theater Company in Exile

As he switches on the backing track and the beat builds, there’s a mood of suspense, but the taxi is transformed as the music grips its occupants and the passengers begin to sing; the streets and daily life of Vinnytsia flying away behind them. Shimmying to the beat, Turko occasionally fiddles with the mixing console or mimes along as passengers belt out international and Ukrainian pop hits. 

"A talent-show on wheels"

And since summer, his karaoke taxi has enjoyed viral success across the world. 

"I just want people to smile more often," Turko explains, noting the potential that high-quality video recordings have to launch musical careers. He does admit, however, that sometimes his plans fall flat when those with poor singing voices agree to take part.

"Sometimes I managed to persuade them and I regretted it!" he laughs.

But though his venture has come at a cost – with equipment for the car totaling around $1,000 –  he will still pay passengers who impress him with their performances. 

"This is no longer a taxi," he says, triumphantly. "This is talent-show on wheels."

And Turko has many plans for the future too, in order to give back to the community which adopted him. He is driving – quite literally – Vinnytsia’s musical talents towards success and a brighter future.

"I would like to create a platform for creative interaction between people and find people who are ready to write lyrics and music, and those who are ready to be artists," he says.

"I want to make the path to fame easier for talented people."

/By Juliette Bretan