March 10, 2017

The lost instruments of a lost Ukraine


For the first time in 100 years, the original bandura, kobza and torban will be heard.

Most people of Ukrainian descent, at some point or another, have had the chance to hear Ukraine’s beloved national instrument, the bandura. Many people agree that the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, originally from Poltava and Kyiv, was considered to be the leader of diaspora culture, after its relocation to North America after World War II. Over the past several decades we’ve also had the chance to hear many virtuoso, solo bandurists not just from the diaspora, but more recently from Ukraine itself. We’ve had the chance to hear several varieties of the bandura, including the Kharkivska, as initially developed by Hnat Khotkevych, and then later by the Honcharenko brothers of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus. Most of us began playing the bandura on the Soviet-produced Chernihivka, even today a preferred instrument of most bandurists.

The banduras that most of us have heard in modern times are generally considered “traditional folk instuments.” But what most don’t realize is that this idea is largely a myth. The fully chromatic bandura, complete with modulating mechanisms and 60 steel, high-tension strings is a modern instrument, designed to play not traditional, folk music, but rather modern arrangements and compositions, even though usually based on traditional folk melodies. The truly traditional folk instrument known as the bandura has been forgotten for around 100 years.

As a result of modern progress, noisy streets and, of course, as usually the case, Soviet cultural repression, Ukrainians in the 20th, and 21st centuries have been deprived of knowledge of the original bandura. That instrument was, in fact, very light and compact, had wooden pegs with about 20 diatonic gut strings, and was tuned to a specific traditional tuning. Not only was the traditional bandura lost, but so were several related instruments once known and loved by Ukrainians, namely the kobza and torban. They were almost completely erased from the national conscious.

But, as a result of recent research, we now have the chance to discover our ethnic or traditional national instruments for the first time, this spring. I myself, originally from Raleigh, N.C., have spent the past 15 years in Ukraine researching the original bandura, kobza and torban. From studying authentic construction, to researching archaic repertoire, to mastering traditional playing manner and technique, the initial stages of reconstruction have taken place. Now it’s time to share that wealth of musical culture with the North American diaspora.

From this March to May, I’ll be “kobzaring” in a similar fashion as the traditional, blind kobzars would have. I’ll be traveling to the main diaspora hubs such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, etc. There will be some fixed dates at museums and cultural centers, but mostly my schedule will be open to wandering region to region, and house to house.

The kobzars were not concert artists as most bandurists today are. They had their own unique philosophy of how to spread their word to those who needed to hear it. I will be presenting these three musical and cultural treasures through lecture and demonstration. I’ll also share my experiences in living in Ukraine as a cultural pioneer, working with ensembles such as Haydamaky, Karpatiyany, Khoreya Kozatska and Drevo; as well as creating the Poltava Kobzar Guild and the festival “Drevo Rodu Kobzarskoho.”

This spring we’ll have the chance to experience “Kobzaring in the New World.” More information can be found at