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Ukrainian traditional folk instruments
Leonid Cherkasky, the curator of the state-owned Museum of Theater, Music and Cinema Art, has been collecting traditional Ukrainian folk instruments for 39 years. Today his collection includes around 500 instruments, most of which can still be played.
The Museum of Theater, Music and Cinema Art is located on the territory of the National Cultural Preserve Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery. Leonid Cherkasky’s career as a museum worker began in 1969 when he became head of the research department for traditional Ukrainian folk instruments. Soon after his appointment, Cherkasky began traveling to all corners of Ukraine in search of traditional instruments.
During his first expedition, Cherkasky realized that looking for and collecting traditional instruments would become a labor of love to which he would devote as much time as he could spare. Among his collection’s almost 500 items are the husla, triskachky, buhay, bubon, kobza, torban, bandura, tsymbaly, lira, sopilka, bayan, basolya and other instruments, all of them witnesses and participants of Ukraine’s living history and culture.
Most of the instruments are kept in storage in a building of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Preserve, while some are on display at two permanent exhibitions — one, on the premises of the National Folk Instruments Orchestra, the other, ‘Zhyviyi Struny Ukrayiny’ (‘Living Strings of Ukraine’), at the Museum of Theater, Music and Cinema Art.
Instruments that were crafted recently as well as those made a long time ago are on display at the museum. Some instruments were made by master instrument makers, while unknown craftsmen made others, which were purchased for a song at open-air markets. Some of the kobzas and banduras that form part of the museum’s collection once belonged to the well-known musicians who played them — kobzars and bandurists. Each display at the museum has a tag that provides the date and place of the instrument’s creation, origin and basic principles of its use. Some instruments are more than 200 years old, but sound almost like new when played.
The kobza and bandura, stringed instruments played by plucking, were in wide use by the 16th century. The first kobzas had only three strings, while banduras had five or six. The number of strings gradually increased, and by the 18th century these instruments acquired their final appearance, with banduras boasting from 60 to 80 strings today. Both instruments are regarded as classical icons of Ukraine’s cultural and musical traditions. In fact, the bandura is unique and has no analogs in the world.
The 18th century stolopodibni husla, which is the pride of the collection, was discovered by Cherkasky during one of his first expeditions in Poltava, discarded and decaying among other useless things in a barn. The stolopodibni husla was in poor shape — the sounding board was badly damaged, and it was cracked in many places, with some parts totally missing. The instrument was restored and took its prominent place in the collection. Unfortunately, it has lost its “voice.”
“The husla is considered a traditional Russian instrument, but it was widely played in Ukraine from early medieval times in Kyivan Rus up to the 19th century,” said Cherkasky.
The hudok, with its hollowed-out, pear-shaped body and short neck, played by bowing and plucking, was also in wide use in Kyivan Rus. Strings made from animal intestines were attached to three tuning pegs on the instrument’s flat head. It was widely used by wandering minstrels known as skomorokhs. A similar instrument is depicted in an 11th century fresco in Kyiv’s Holy Sophia Cathedral.
Particularly well represented in the collection is the sopilka, or flute. In addition to the traditional sopilka, the museum collection boasts variations on the flute theme, including the frilka, floyara, dvodentsivka (twin pipes), telenka (flute without finger holes), kosa, dudka and other types of flute.
Traditional instruments in the collection include those that were played by people from the lower classes as well as those favored by people from the middle and upper classes. For example, the torban (a stringed instrument similar to the bandura) was popular with Cossack hetmans, while the tsytra (a box-shaped pizzicato instrument with metal frets) was favored by the burghers.
As one can guess from its name, the kolisna lira belongs to the lyre family of traditional Ukrainian instruments. The lyres of medieval Western Europe had from five to seven strings and their shapes varied considerably. By the 18th century, the kolisna lira was widely known and played in Ukraine, mostly by blind itinerant musicians, or lirnyks, whose songs were usually melancholic in nature, though not always. Lirnyks also played cheerful music at weddings and in shynoks (saloons). Cherkasky’s kolisna liras are in good enough condition to play.
Playing for the instrument
Cherkasky’s ability to play various instruments has helped him to acquire rare antique instruments on several occasions, like his 19th century four-stringed basolya (a cello-like instrument played with a bow). Cherkasky tells the story himself.
“I came to the village of Bilotserkivka in Poltava Region on a wet autumn Sunday. When I arrived at the house, the person I wanted to see wasn’t home. Eventually, his son arrived instead. The boy said his father knew I had come to look at his basolya, but he was playing at a party, and could I please go there? When I did, it didn’t take long to realize I had to join the musicians, so I picked up a violin and played polkas, hopaks and kozachoks until late into the night. But I got the basolya in the end!” Now the instrument is part of the museum collection.
“All kinds of things have happened during my travels. Some were simply funny, some odd, but others were more dramatic. Once, in Soviet times, when I was on a visit to the village of Velyka Bahachka in Poltava Region, I was told that one of the villagers had an old kobza. I went to talk to the instrument’s owner, but the young man who let me into the house started shouting, ‘I won’t give you anything! Tell me what happened to my father!’ I realized something tragic must have happened which was in some way connected with the instrument. Perhaps someone squealed to the KGB and the kobzar was arrested and thrown into prison. So many Ukrainian kobzars died in concentration camps… I never learned what actually happened with the man. He just disappeared.”
The story about the acquisition of an old flute is more cheerful. At the end of the 80s, Cherkasky traveled throughout the Rivne region looking for old instruments. A man told him that he had seen an old flute at his aunt’s place in the village of Velyki Ozera. The man took Cherkasky to his aunt’s house, but for some reason the collector doubted the woman would agree to part with the flute. The moment they walked in the man said, “Here’s someone who’s come all the way from Kyiv to check if samohonka (homemade vodka) is made here!” (at the time, the Soviet government had launched a campaign against alcohol drinking and samohon making). That introduction actually helped make it easier for the flute owner to part with the instrument after she became convinced that Cherkasky was not a law enforcement officer but an instrument collector from a museum.
On another occasion, “I had to use an ax to get to a bandura in a barn. You see, the woman who owned it kept the instrument in a barn. The cold front that hit the village after a warm spell froze the puddle at the door of the barn solid, and I had to work hard to free the bottom of the door from the ice.”
Cherkasky bought several drymbas (the drymba is a horseshoe-shaped instrument with a steel tongue which is held close to the mouth and plucked with the fingers) for next to nothing at fairs in Kosovo in the Hutsul region.
From the town of Rukhiv he brought a buhay (literally, a bull; here, a musical instrument) — a small barrel covered with a tightly stretched piece of leather, with horse hair affixed at the middle. One plays this curious instrument by rinsing one’s hand in kvas (a fermented soft drink made from black bread), and then pulling the horse hair with that hand, with the pitch changing as the player moves the hand up or down. The instrument’s name changes with the size of the barrel. The biggest, with a 30–35-liter barrel, is called a berbenykha; the next in size with a 20-liter barrel is a berbenytsya, and the smallest, a berbenyatko. It was a berbenytsya that Cherkasky added to his collection.
The collection also boasts an old volynka brought by Cherkasky from the village of Roztoky, Chernivtsi Region. This instrument is similar to the bagpipe. Its appearance in Ukraine dates from the 16th century.
Leonid Cherkasky likes to conduct tours of his traditional instruments collection himself. As he stops to tell the story of a particular instrument, he picks it up and plays. The combination of scholarship and musicianship creates an unforgettable impression.
Photos have been provided
by Baltia-Druk Publishers
A bandura from the collection of the prominent
Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko.
Late 18th – early 19th century.
A bandura made by Ivan Sklyar to be used at concert
Reconstruction of a kobza made by Ruslan Kozlenko.
A hudok of 19th century.
A stolopodibni (shaped like a table) husla.
18th century. These stringed instruments, which
were mostly in the possession of the nobles and
clergy, could produce loud, reverberating sounds.
A kolisna lira. Late 18th – early 19th century.
A three-stringed basolya, 19th century.
Though it looks like a cello, the basolya was used
only as an instrument in playing folk music rather
than academic classical music.
A ziter, 19th century.
A volynka from the Land of Hutsulshchyna.
Dvodentsivkas,or double flutes.
Drymbas of various kinds and sizes.
A buhay from the Land of Hutsulshchyna.
The book Musical Instruments of the Ukrainian
People by Leonid Cherkasky was published by
Baltia-Druk Publishers (www.baltia.com.ua) in 2007.
The book has been issued in Ukrainian and English.
It features authentic folk and concert instruments
used in folk instrument ensembles and professional
orchestras, as well as other capacities.