One of my preferred ways to connect with a foreign culture is through music. In the case of Ukraine (and before that Ireland), music was one of the factors that got me interested in the country in the first place. I’ve been a huge fan of Ukrainian Black Metal for well over a decade now. Many bands deal with folkloric themes, and that’s how I came across the bandura (which is often used in intros).
The first time I heard the crystalline twang of the bandura live was in L’viv. I knew the instrument and its sound from recordings. However, I had never had the fortune of listening to it until I saw a bandurist in the city center. I stopped to listen to him play a melancholic duma, a type of traditional Cossack lament, and threw a few hryvnia into his case.
“It’s a bandura, a traditional Ukrainian instrument!” said the musician proudly as he let me have a closer look at the huge stringed instrument that rested on his lap.
Seeing young people embrace the tradition of Kobzarstvo is not only refreshing but nearly a miracle. Kobzartsvo refers to the tradition of playing Ukrainian stringed instruments, namely the bandura and the kobza. The name comes from Kobzar—traditionally blind itinerant musicians who wandered around Ukraine playing dumas like the one performed by that young bandurist in L’viv. What’s miraculous about that is that the tradition survived oppression and liquidation by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
The kobza and bandura have a common origin; the names were even used interchangeably for centuries. The musical culture around these two instruments encapsulates the rebellious spirit of Ukraine. Furthermore, the name kobza is of Turkic origin, but the instrument is a variation of the European lute. That perfectly embodies the multiculturality of Ukraine’s history.
I decided before my second trip to Ukraine that one of the things I wanted to learn about was the bandura and the country’s musical tradition. That goal pointed in one particular direction: Kharkiv.
Songs of Grief and Solitude
Kobzars, their instruments, and their music took shape in the Hetmanate, which was a Cossack territory in today’s Central Ukraine that existed between the 17th and 18th centuries. The art of playing those haunting Cossack songs on the bandura was first spread by itinerant musicians, but eventually made it all the way to the palaces of the Russian Empire, which by the end of the 18th century had annexed much of Central Ukraine.
Though the Russian nobility took a liking to the music of the Kobzars, they still disdained Ukrainian culture. The Russian Empire implemented a campaign to colonize and russify Ukraine almost immediately after the abolition of the Hetmanate. This attitude eventually led to the Ems Edict from 1876 by Alexander II, which banned every expression of Ukrainian culture and the usage of the Ukrainian language. The ban applied to printed texts, theater plays, and music. This spelled the end for traditional music in Ukrainian, and by extension the bandura, until 1902.
The early Soviet years brought about the revitalization of Ukrainian culture as part of Lenin’s policy of Korenizatsiya from the 1920s. This attitude, however, was short-lived: Stalin distrusted Ukrainians, and saw kobzars as subversive and their repertoire as a repository of Ukrainian nationalism. The Soviet state persecuted kobzars (and other representatives of Ukrainian culture) throughout the 1930s. The single most devastating blow to kobzar tradition came in 1932, when hundreds of blind musicians went to Kharkiv for a supposed convention—and were summarily executed by the Soviets upon arrival.
As a result of this, the traditional world of kobzars disappeared almost completely. After Stalin’s death, the government rehabilitated kobzars—within the framework of the state’s ideology. Banduras started to be mass-produced, and a new, contemporary version of Soviet bandurists appeared.
The bandura experienced a revival after independence, and seems to be becoming more and more popular. Modern-day bandurists are no longer itinerant blind men, but young men and women who studied the instrument at university—like the vyshyvanka-wearing bandurists I saw at Independence Square in Kyiv.
Bandura Music in Kharkiv
Kharkiv is a major city in northeastern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border. Ukraine’s second-largest city usually conjures images of industry and Soviet architecture. However, it is also of particular importance for Ukrainian music. It was no coincidence that Stalin convened the kobzars of Ukraine to that fatal convention in that city. Today, a monument with a broken kobza reminds people in Kharkiv of the liquidation of the kobzars. Incidentally, Kharkiv is also the cradle of the Ukrainian Metal scene.
While in Kharkiv, I hoped that I would run into someone playing the bandura. I felt like I had to listen to the instrument’s bittersweet sound in that city. Then, on my second to last day there I stumbled upon a poster that caught my eye: The National Ukrainian Bandura Orchestra was playing a concert at the local philharmonic the next day. Right then and there I changed my plans for the rest of my stay. I bought a ticket and decided to take the night train back to Kyiv after the concert.
The day of the concert I said goodbye to my hosts and made my way to the city center. I arrived at the philharmonic sweating from walking with my backpack (and probably smelling rather awful) and took my seat. The auditorium was packed, and many people in attendance wore vyshyvankas. The whole house roared when the musicians took the stage; they were all carrying their instruments and dressed in elegant and colorful Cossack traditional clothes.
The crisp and piercing sound of the bandura, mellow and urgent at the same time, seemed to contrast yet harmonize perfectly with the thunderous boom of the choir, whose passionate performance made the walls of the philharmonic reverberate. The banduras were accompanied by accordions, dulcimers, trombones and, of course, a kobza.
During the first song, the audience got up on their feet and started clapping and even singing along. Afterward, everybody sat back down, but as the concert progressed, people became more animated. Members of the audience approached the stage in between songs to give flowers to the particular soloist in turn. Next to me sat an older lady wearing a traditional embroidered shirt who, after finding out I was traveling through, gave me some additional information about the particular piece that we had just heard after every song.
During the last song, everybody got up on their feet again: People clapped, sang along and even whistled. The soloist finished his song with a powerful “Slava Ukrayini,” to which the audience roared back “Heroyam Slava!” in unison.
The concert was beyond epic. The bandura ensemble was celebrating one hundred years of existence, and what a better city to do it than Kharkiv. I saw the concert as an homage to the kobzars murdered by the Soviets and a celebration of Ukrainian culture. The symbolism of this tradition flourishing where their predecessors were murdered was too strong to be overlooked.
I had found kobzarstvo, and it was Metal as fuck.
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