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Kobzari — a millennium-old tradition of wayfaring bards

 

Romko Malko explores the world of kobzari and talks to a revivalist of the kobzar tradition.

 

“In one of the side galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, there is a six-thousand-year old white stone statuette from the pre-Minoan culture of the Eastern Mediterranean. It depicts a blind singer playing a stringed instrument. From ancient times, traditions of epic singing by blind were widespread. Most have been lost for centuries; but in one corner of Eastern Europe, a classic blind singer’s tradition flourished well into the XXth century before being swept away by social, economic, and political upheavals.”

From the booklet appended to a CD, featuring bandura playing

and singing by Julian Kytasty, released by November Music, London, UK,

in 2001 — Black Sea Winds; The Kobzari of Ukraine.

 

Walking the central streets of Kyiv, you are liable to see moustached men, kobzari, rather well advanced in years, sitting at conspicuous places, wearing traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts and loose pants (in cold seasons they retreat into underground passageways and subway stations), playing the bandura, a somewhat odd-looking, many stringed instrument, and singing — or rather reciting to their accompaniment — Ukrainian ballads. Small crowds gather, people stare and listen. Some throw coins into the open instrument case or into a big straw hat, a customary accessory of the kobzar’s attire. But they are not regular buskers earning money in this somewhat exotic way.

I did my own research into what kind of tradition these people represented and found out that it goes many centuries back into history.

There is no telling when exactly, or how the tradition started in Ukraine but there is enough evidence obtained from the chronicles, ancient literature and frescoes to suggest that as far back as the early centuries of Kyivan Rus-Ukraine there were kobzari (though the name for them at that time could have been different) who played the gusli — a stringed instrument — and recited bylyny (literally: true tales). Incidentally, it is known for a fact that the best known medieval Ukrainian epic, Slovo pro Ihoriv pokhid (“The Story of Ihor’s March”; the title of this epic poem has been translated into English in various ways, one of which is “The Lay of Ihor’s Host” — tr.) was recited to the accompaniment of gusli. A stringed instrument which may well have been the precursor of kobza or bandura can be seen in the eleventh-century frescoes in the Cathedral of Holy Sophia of Kyiv, and in the fifteenth-century frescoes of some of the churches of Halychyna in Western Ukraine.

 

Kobzari of old

In most likelihood, the first kobzari were old warriors, wounded in many battles, disabled, often sightless, who wandered from place to place reciting their “true stories” to the crowds at the markets and in town or village squares, often with a church close by. Gradually, the subject matter of these ballads changed and widened to include philosophical reflections, destiny of Ukraine and other themes. Bylyny evolved into dumy, “thoughts.”

“In Ukraine, in the late 19th century, blind singers, called kobzari, still plied the rounds of the country fairs and markets. They accompanied themselves on the bandura, a unique stringed instrument combining elements of Central Asian lutes and medieval Kyivan lap harps. They were professional singers performing a repertoire of epic songs (dumy) that did not have equivalents in the folk song repertoire. They organized themselves into singers’ guilds which imposed apprenticeship terms (generally three years), assigned territories, and spoke their own secret language (lebiyska mova)… There were several cycles of dumy, most dealing with the bloody struggle for the Black Sea steppe between Cossack, Turk and Tartar in the 16th and 17th centuries; laments for fallen heroes, songs about Turkish captivity, a few songs about later Cossack rebellions against Polish rule. As these events receded into the past, new dumy were created that reflected the realities of day to day life… A kobzar’s repertoire also included religious and moralistic songs, lively humorous songs, and instrumental dance tunes” (from the Black Sea Winds booklet).

The blind, wandering kobzari often had “guides” to lead them, mostly homeless or parentless children. The old kobzar was for the boy father, mother and teacher all rolled into one, and the boy was the kobzar’s eyes. When they walked into a village, the villagers, hearing of the kobzar’s arrival on the grapevine, would flock to hear him recite his dumy and play the bandura. When the kobzar played lively instrumental tunes, the young people would break into a dance. On Sunday, after the church service, the kobzari sang religious songs, and recited psalms. Some of their messages were of quite a rebellious, incendiary nature. In the seventeenth century, for example, they encouraged and inspired Ukrainians to join the forces of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the struggle for independence, or show disobedience or put up resistance to the Polish rule. In many cases, their patriotic message was very effective.

 

There was a sort of a kobzari school in Zaporizhian Sich (the very heart of the Cossack land) that trained ’students’ not only in playing musical instruments, singing and reciting but also in the martial arts, foreign languages — Turkish, Polish and Russian being the most important “majors”, medicine (that is, use of herbs, charms and spells). The “graduates” were believed to be able to prevent bullets from hitting the targets by spells, to knock the sabre out of the enemy’s hand with a glance, to draw a winged horse on the wall of a prison cell and fly away, sitting on its back, miraculously passing through the metal bars. They were protagonists of many stories and legends; their portraits could be found in many peasant houses alongside the icons. The pictures of Kozak Mamay, wearing the traditional Cossack garb, handlebar moustache, a long lock of hair on the otherwise shaved head, smoking his pipe and holding the bandura, were painted by folk artists in untold number of copies.

Kobzari knew how to almost literally entrance their audiences with their recitals and music so that the events they were singing about acquired the palpability of experience being lived through. Their forceful presentation of moral and patriotic issues made them dangerous in the eyes of the occupiers and enemies. Attempts were made either “to tame” them and make them sing “loyal tunes,” or to liquidate them. As early as in the thirteenth century, a Polish king made an attempt to organize kobzari into a sort of a guild that would control their “repertoire” but since every kobzar was an entity in himself, with his own unique voice, selection of dumy, specific sound of the bandura he played, no “union” was possible and the attempt fell through.

Though every kobzar recited and played whatever he chose himself he would hardly go outside the repertoire prescribed by tradition and by unwritten kobzar code. Also, each kobzar usually had a certain area within the limits of which he was supposed to wander; some kobzari of a higher status were not limited to one particular region. One and the same duma or psalm could be heard in places hundred of miles apart, the only difference being the style in which it was done and variations of musical accompaniment. Kobzari were one of the elements that provided cultural cohesion in Ukraine. Some lands of Ukraine kobzari avoided as being too dangerous to wander across. In Halychyna, for example, the authorities were on the lookout for kobzari who were associated with rebels and outlaws and if they were caught they were publicly executed. Lirnyky (balladeers) were looked upon as harmless homeless wanderers because their songs were devoid of any political or seditious content.

Kobzari had survived the harshest of times of the millennia only to succumb to the total oppression of the Soviet regime. There is some evidence that suggests that in the 1930s, the remaining kobzari were invited to come to Kharkiv for “a congress”; they were all, blind and helpless, arrested and thrown into a pit outside of town; then water was poured over them and they all froze to death in a subzero temperature. The rest died in the famine of 1932–1933. Lirnyky survived for some time longer. The last known lirnyk in the land of Volyn, for example, was known to be wandering about as late as the mid-1980s; in the land of Bukovyna they could be seen and heard in the 1970s. But for all intents and purposes, the phenomenon of wandering kobzari and lirnyyky came to an end. Even their instruments were either destroyed or they disappeared without a trace. A few that remain and that are claimed to be “authentic instruments” of old, are the subject of heated arguments about which of them is “more authentic” or older.

Bandura playing and singing were kept alive though by a number of enthusiasts both in Ukraine and beyond its borders in the communities of people of Ukrainian descent living in foreign countries. But there are no wandering blind kobzari any more anywhere — as it turns out, not quite. At the time when there is a definitely growing interest observed in many countries of the world in music of old times — Celtic is one good example out of many. Medieval and traditional folk music festivals attract large audiences; CDs with recordings of such music are released and bought in hundreds of thousands of copies, but Ukraine does not seem to be involved in this process of ancient music revival. More’s the pity, in view of the fact that its ancient music and singing traditions are still upheld, though on a very limited scale, and it would be a great shame if these traditions died completely. Ancient music of Ukraine does not have to be reinvented or “reconstructed” — it’s there, it’s alive, and all it takes is some effort to preserve it.

 

The effort

There is an art agency in Kyiv, Art Veles which makes such an effort. It releases recordings of Ukrainian ancient music, kobzari’s included. Within its project called Moya Ukrayina. Bervy (www.ukrfolk.kiev.ua), three CDs have already been released. The first one contains music and recitals of Mykola Budnyk, a kobzar who was instrumental in reviving the authentic kobzarstvo (kobzar music and tradition); Budnyk himself learnt it from a nonagenarian kobzar, Heorhiy Tkachenko. Budnyk founded “a kobzar’s guild” in Kyiv with a purpose of preserving the ancient tradition of kobzari and lirnyky. Unfortunately, Budnyk died before the CD was released and it added a poignant note to the posthumous release. The second Bervy release contained recordings of Taras Kompanichenko, a kobzar who plays mostly the kobza, also an ancient stringed instrument. And the third disc, The Ukrainian Epic Tradition, was entirely devoted to folk songs, all of which had come to us from ancient times. Listening to these songs, I felt as though transported to a world long gone, the world of battles, of sabres clanging against metal or hitting flash, the world of the wild steppe, of women waiting for their loved ones to come back home, of cruelty and of courage, of treachery and of gallantry.

I have discovered that in the early third millennium there were people in Ukraine who recited the dumy, sang psalms, played the instruments, exact replicas of those that existed hundreds of years ago. And that there are people who enjoyed listening to the 21st-cenrury kobzari.

 

A kobzar interviewed

I had a chance of talking to Taras Kompanichenko, and used this chance to ask him some questions on behalf of the Welcome to Ukraine magazine.

Your favourite instrument is kobza, isn’t it?

That’s correct. I used to sing all kinds of songs, some of which came down to us from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the songs of rebels and outlaws included. I found it to be quite romantic, but later I focused on the music and songs that the kobza is best suited for — religious songs, psalms. I think both Tkachenko and Budnyk were the main influences. I include traditional kobzar pieces into my repertoire, and I make it a point to show local differences, the way kobzar songs were performed in the lands of Podillya, Kharkivshchyna, Poltavshchyna and Lemkivshchyna. I find them so beautiful. Ukraine is rich in local tradition, there are so many different styles of kobzar performance — one and the same song may sound so different depending on where it was performed.

It is widely believed that the higher the level of epic and folk traditions in a nation, the higher is the level of that nation’s self-awareness. Do you agree with it?

I think I do. I’d even say that a nation cannot survive as a nation without such traditions. The Church is the foundation on which our nation stands, with the kobzar tradition being one of the vehicles for passing the historical and cultural memory on, from generation to generation.

Did the kobzari sing only in Ukrainian?

No, some of the songs were sung in Polish — a sort of cultural exchange. Some of the old blind kobzari sang in Ukrainian or Polish depending on which church they would themselves sitting by, Orthodox or Catholic. And the songs also varied depending on who they were addressed to, but some ballads dealt with the subjects well understood both by the Ukrainians and Poles — there was a lot, indeed, in the history of these two nations that was shared, both good and bad, tragic and happy. Ukrainian listeners appreciated songs about Cossack Holota or Honta, and Polish listeners were happy to hear a song from the times of old, or a psalm performed in Polish. The old kobzari were looked upon as teachers of life, almost prophets. The Poles found in them something mysterious and romantic, and for the Ukrainians the old kobzari were inciters whose mission was to wake the Ukrainians up from their lethargy and inertia, to pass on the cultural heritage of the ancestors. In the nineteenth century, ethnographers and poets who studied and collected dumy and kobzars’ poetic legacy in general, focused on their rebel-rousing side, on the historic events poeticized in dumy rather than on other aspects of kobzars’ repertoire. But such an approach unjustly narrows kobzars’ scope and scale.

When did this interest of yours in kobzars begin?

It dates to my childhood. I began by playing a small bandura designed especially for children. College helped to gain more knowledge, but it was mostly the environment in which I was growing up that encouraged me. My grandparents were of a particular importance in this respect. I began writing down my grandma’s songs when I was still in my teens. I was afraid she might die and take all those old folk songs she knew with her into her grave. Then seeing my interest, my father gave me money for a big bandura. I was learning fast, but it was back in the Soviet times and in public I had to sing Russian songs, accompanying myself on the bandura! The Ukrainian language, particularly in Kyiv, was spoken in some families, but in most cases, in public people spoke Russian. When I studied at a technical school, I kept playing the bandura and singing Cossack songs, hoping that there’d be no squealer among the Ukrainians I socialized with. But the head of the school did know of my interest in music, and once on a day when Lenin’s birthday was marked, I was asked to play and sing a song about this leader of the Bolshevik revolution. Well, I did sing a song of the kind that they wanted me to sing, but afterwards I began singing Shevchenko’s poems. The audience was ecstatic but the head of the school was in trouble… Later, in the late eighties and early nineties things began to radically change, those were exciting times of national revival. I remember I sang popular songs playing my bandura and it seemed at that time to be almost revolutionary. Ukraine regained her independence and little by little, some of the old traditions, kobzars included, began to come back. I met Mykola Budnyk at a concert in the Trapezna Church in Lavra Monastery in Kyiv. It was Budnyk who introduced me to the authentic kobzar music and reciting, it was he who introduced me to the kobza. I fell in love with the instrument, it was always by my side, even when I went to bed. Budnyk introduced me to some other kobzars, the great Tkachenko among them. Tkachenko was like a bridge that connected the kobzars of old with the new kobzars of our generation. Tkachenko was a great inspiration for all those who studied with him.

But do you really think kobzarstvo is not a thing of the past? Who needs it in the twenty first century?

Of course, in the traditional sense, kobzarstvo as a phenomenon is dead, but some elements of it are being revived. There are various centres — at some universities, music schools and elsewhere — at which kobzar music and recitals are studied and brought back to life. The Kobzari’ Guild is also doing a good job. But there’s also busking, a sort of cashing in on the kobzar revival movement. The blind kobzar of old and performance on stage or in the subway trains are incompatible. Some find these bad imitations of kobzari exotic, but it is the church that should be the focal point if we are talking true revival. It was nearby churches that kobzari used to sit, giving their message to the people… Yes, I think there’s still a need in kobzarstvo. It’s hard to imagine an Orthodox church without a church choir — in a similar way, it’s hard to imagine a true kobzar without a church in the background. The blind kobzars of old addressed themselves straight to the people’s heart; in a way they were healers of human souls. Characteristically, they were often seen performing near the hospitals maintained by the church… Once, I played at a market place in Kaniv. People stopped by and asked, Why did you choose to play here? Go to Shevchenko’s grave! Those kobzars who sit around it are not the real McCoy, they are a sort of decoys for attracting tourists — there’s no soul in their singing and playing. The kobzari of old always played either nearby a church or at a market place, or a town square… Another time, I was riding in a commuter train. It was rather late, and there were quite a few of beggars and drunks in the carriage. They talked loudly, swearing, fighting among each other. Unfortunately, that’s the usual thing at a late hour in a commuter train. A friend of mine happened to be ridding in the same carriage with me, he spotted me, came up to me and asked me to play the kobza which is always with me. Well, I did begin playing and singing, and all those drunks, those down-and-outs, stopped their noise and began listening! And then, they came over offering candies and biscuits and coins, thinking I’m just a busker. I refused saying they’d better keep their offerings to themselves, they needed them much more than I did — and they actually listened to my songs! I saw something change in their eyes, there appeared light in them, the light that was lit by the old kobzar songs. It’s such people who need the kobzar message ahead of anybody else. I’m sure of that.

 

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