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Ukrainian Minstrels: kobzari, lirnyky

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    Ukrainian Minstrels: And the Blind Shall Sing
    "Ukrainian Minstrels: and the blind shall sing" by Natalie Kononenko

  • Virtual Bandura Museum
  • More N. Kononenko fotos at U. of Virginia

  • Ukrainian Minstrels
    by Natalie Kononenko

    Kobzar Ostap Veresai and his wife Kulyna. The photograph was taken in 1873 when Veresai performed at the Archeological Congress in Kyiv.

    Kobzari are folk professional minstrels unique to Ukraine. One thing that makes them special is the musical instrument which they play. This instrument is called a bandura and it developed out of the kobza, from which kobzari take their name. The kobza was a plucked and strummed symmetrical instrument similar to other European and Eastern lutes. Additional strings were gradually added to one side of this instrument so that it became more and more asymmetrical. At the time of the famous kobzar Veresai, the bandura had twelve strings; as it exists now, the bandura has more than 60 strings and is held and played more like a harp than like the kobza, other lutes, or earlier versions of the bandura.

    Kobzar Stepan Artemovych Pasiuha in his old age. Photo taken in 1910.

    Kobzari are special also because they had to be blind. Traditional kobzari, as they are attested from the middle of the nineteenth century, when scholars first began collecting information about them, to 1939 when Stalin called a convention of kobzari and had most of the participants shot, were highly trained professionals. They were mendicants and were organized into church-affiliated guilds.

    Kobzar Nykonor Onats'kyi and his guide. Photo taken in 1910.

    The guilds enforced a system of apprenticeship to a recognized kobzar master and an initiation test. From what we can tell, all blind children, girls as well as boys, could be apprenticed and most people entered apprenticeship at an early age, sometimes as young as five or six. Many children did not complete apprenticeship, however, and became guild-affiliated beggars, rather than professional minstrels. The guild sanctioned beggars could perform some of the songs known by kobzari.

    An unknown lirnyk and his guide.

    Almost all of them knew the begging song or zhebranka and most knew a song of thanks called the blahodarinnia. Only full- fledged minstrels, however, could play a musical instrument and perform the full repertory: zhebranka, blahodarinnia, religious songs or psalmy, epic or dumy, historical songs and satirical songs.

    The blind kobzar Ehor Movchan with his sister back in his home village Vekykyi Pysarets, Sumy region; photo taken in 1968.

    The most important item in this repertory was the religious song. Some of the most popular religious songs are the ones about Lazar (Lazarus), about the martyr Varvara (St. Barbara), about Oleksii, Man of God. There were also songs about the Last Judgement, the Passion of Christ, and related materials, such as the very popular song about an orphan girl. While scholars were most interested in the epics songs (dumy) performed by kobzari, the village audience valued the psalma or religious song and the benefits to the soul brought by listening to a kobzar and giving him alms.

    9928s.jpg 9916s.jpg
    Kobzar Demian Symonenko with his guide or povodyr. Photo taken in 1915 in the Stol'nyi region. Kobzar Oleksa Chupryna performing at the grave of Taras Shevchenko in 1979.

    Kobzari performed in a variety of venues. They would travel from village to village led by a guide called a povodyr. The povodyr was usually an orphaned or a poor child who worked for food, clothing, and a small wage. Upon arriving in a village, a kobzar would go from house to house singing the zhebranka. If he was invited inside, he would perform psalmy and whatever other songs his hosts requested. Upon leaving and receiving his payment, he would sing the blahodarinnia.

    An unknown lirnyk and his family. The photograph is from the Romen region, dated 1925-30.

    Kobzari also sang outside churches and monasteries, especially during religious festivals when many people were in attendance, and they would go to cities to perform at fairs or iarmorky. Kobzari, like other villagers, had small plots of land, were married and had families. Their children did not become minstrels unless they, too, were blind. Most minstrel children became farmers, just like their village neighbors.

    An unknown lirnyk and his guide or povodyr. Photograph taken along the roads of the Volodar region in 1905.

    Kobzari worked alongside lirnyky. Lirnyky are professional minstrels who have not received much scholarly attention but were more numerous than kobzari in the Ukrainian countryside. Lirnyky were also blind and belonged to the same guilds as kobzari. They performed the same repertory. They often learned from kobzari and kobzari learned from lirnyky, both during apprenticeship and subsequently. Lirnyky were virtually identical to kobzari except for one thing: they played a strikingly different musical instrument.
    The same lirnyk and guide seated, 1905.

    The lira, from which lirnyky take their name is a hurdy-gurdy. It has a crank-driven wheel which rubs three strings and produces a continuous drone. The melody is played by lifting keys which depress one of the strings. Because the lira is so different from the kobza and bandura, it is probable that kobzari and lirnyky were once separate categories of performers.

    Two adult mendicants, one carrying a lira.

    Lirnyky are widely attested. They existed throughout Ukraine, into Russia and western Europe. They are always pictured as blind. Kobzari have a narrower province which coincides roughly with the territory of the Hetmanate. There is also evidence that sighted kobzari existed in the distant past. This suggests that kobzari were once the minstrels of the military, specifically Cossack regiments, while lirnyky were always blind mendicants.

    At the Historico-Ethnographic concert in Kyiv in 1929.
    Soviet era "activists" in the field of folklore and culture.

    Kobzari were probably absorbed by lirnyky when the Cossacks were disbanded. Absorption was on the basis of analogy. As lirnyky were affiliated with the church, so kobzari were associated with religion, either because Cossacks were seen as guardians of the church, or because kobzari performed a quasi-religious function, singing over men fallen in battle so that their souls would rest in peace.

    The celebration of the 80th birthday of Markevych, a kobzar from Bilotserkva.

    Today there are many more kobzari than lirnyky. Many are sighted. Many play in bandura ensembles, continuing a tradition that allowed amateurs to learn how to play the musical instruments of professional minstrels, often under the guidance of kobzari, just as long as they did not use their knowledge to earn a living.

    Pavlo Suprun performing at a cafe in Kyiv.


    Most contemporary kobzari receive conservatory training rather than studying with kobzar masters. Pavlo Stepanovych Suprun is a contemporary blind performer who lives in Kyiv. He tries to continue and develop the traditions of old by singing epic and historical songs and by composing his own material in the traditional vein. His best known composition is Duma pro Chornobyl' which is based on a poem by Mykola Chychkan.





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