The bandura (або, «Яка в бісу арфа, янголи грають на бандурах!»).
November 12, 2012 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Paparazzi by Lady Gaga.


Known since at least medieval times, the bandura is the iconic instrument of Ukraine's folk music, resembling the lute and the oud. Some also see a connection to the Russian psaltery-like gusli, which is, however, strummed rather than plucked. In more modern times, it has diverged from its close relative, the more lute-like kobza, although in earlier times the terminology was doubtless more fluid. Copper has long since replaced the original's sinew strings.

The bandura's master, the kobzar-bandurist, occupies a central place in Ukrainian culture. The image of the blind minstrel who sings lays, recitative laments, and folk epics, his instrument in hand, provided the title and imagery to the cornerstone of Ukrainian literature, Taras Shevchenko's Kobzar. For centuries, bandurists had entertained the royal courts of Poland, Germany, and Russia. Here are some short biographies of historical bandurists, including concert bandurists, folk kobzars (both blind and sighted), and early ethnomusicologists, many of whom suffered under both Imperial and Soviet regimes.

This page (UKR, click on thumbnails) shows some examples of historical variation in the instrument's design. Here is an older-style instrument being played.

By the 20th century, the kobza had fallen into relative obscurity and two main schools of bandura design had come to dominate. The standard or Kyiv-style bandura is the larger instrument. In the Kyiv style of play, the dominant hand plucks the shorter body strings (the prystrunky) and the other hand plays the low strings located on the bridge. This instrument appears in prima and concert varieties. The prima has 55 to 58 strings and is tuned in G major, while the concert bandura is strung with 61 to 65 strings and has a special machanism for changing key quickly (the shestok). By comparison, the so-called Kharkiv-style bandura is smaller, allowing both hands to pluck the strings on the instrument's body. Unlike the Kyiv-style, it is a chromatic instrument. It is also more popular with the Ukrainian diaspora, although it also appears to be making inroads in Ukraine. A quick summary is available here and a demonstration of the Kharkiv playing style is here (sadly without sound).

Both types of bandura are, paradoxically, produced by two factories in Lviv and Chernyhiv, following two historical models (see the historical note).

An amateur instrument-maker's blog details the process of creating one of these instruments. This post explains the bandura's tuning mechanism. The blog's author provides additional details with more photos here. There are professional bandura makers in North America as well.

Here is Hnat Khotkevych, a bandura scholar from the turn of 20th century, playing the bandura in a scene from the 1936 film version of a historical play by Shevchenko.


In recent years, young performers have become media darlings by covering popular favorites. Two of the most prominent such performers are the Kyiv native Yaroslav Dzhus and young Odessite Georgiy Matviyiv (site).

Mr. Dzhus (b. 1988) began with the accordion and wanted to play the harp, but was told that it is an instrument played strictly by women. His bandurist training began in ninth grade. He eventually completed a course of musical education at a local bandura academy, training in performance, composition, and musical direction. Mr. Dzhus's big break came in 2010 with his appearance on the second season of Ukraine's Got Talent, where he reached the semifinals (tryouts, semifinal). Instead of entering the compatition himself the following year, Mr. Dzhus presented the panel of judges with a novelty bandura sextet of young "alternative" performers (tryouts).

More interestingly, Mr. Dzhus also appeared at the 2010 commemoration of the Ukrainian famine of 1932–1933 in Toronto (1 | 2 | 3, just the Carol of the Bells from part 3). While there, he also played a small house concert: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4. More recently, Mr. Dzhus has also appeared with the Roman Archakov jazz project and various guests (1 | 2 | 3) and performed with the Japanese Ukraine-o-phile and bandurist Charlie Sakuma.

Mr. Matviyiv (b. 1987) tends to describe his music as "jazz" and has appeared extensively at national and region festivals of jazz and folk music. Thus far he has released three albums, here listed with sample tracks:Here are some concert and festival appearances: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4. He also covers some classics: The House of the Rising Sun, Super Mario Theme, Monti's Csárdás.

Of course, there are plenty of accomplished contemporary bandurists other than young hotshots like Dzhus and Matiyiv. Take, for instance, accomplished concert musician Dmytro Hubyak, who plays concert pieces (1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5) as well as modern arrangements of folk songs (1 | 2). Oh, and he's covered Ennio Morricone.

The bandura is no stranger to Ukrainian folk rock, either. Here's Kobza, a band that has included a bandurist (with an amplified bandura, no less!) since its inception in 1971: Три трембіти, Зайчик, Впали двi зiрницi, Зачекай.

The substantial Ukrainian community in Canada has preserved the bandura tradition and maintains ongoing ties with the homeland. The Greater Toronto area is home to the Canadian Bandurist Capella, an all-male choir that performs and records a variety of historical and sacred music under the musical direction of Victor Mishalow. Some concert pieces: Тарасова Ніч / Гайдамацька пісня | Розпрягайте, хлопці, коні / Бандуристе, орле сизий | Гoмiн Степів / Грай, кобзарю! Also, here's a sample of their Canon in D and a lovely home recording by one of their younger bandurists.

The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, which is also all male and is based in Michigan, has existed in some form since 1918: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4. Here is an interview with some members: 1 | 2.

And in case you haven't had enough bandura pop covers: bandurist triplets cover Robert Miles (who?), Metallica, Linkin Park, Evanescence, and more.

And some more random bits and bobs:
  • The Kyiv Kobzar Workshop (UKR site) is on YouTube and has a channel full of cool stuff.
  • (i.e., "Bandura World") has a big audio gallery with MP3 recordings of bandurists past and present (click on portraits to get to each artist's page with audio clips).
  • Olijnyk, Concerto for Two Banduras and Orchestra: 2 | 3. This may be an older recording of the first movement.
  • An interview with Julian Kytasty, the son of Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus founder Hrihori Kytasty: 1 | 2; an improvisation for bandura and soprano sax; high-brow New York multimedia bandura experience: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
  • Bandura electronica?
  • Bandura Tico-Tico?
  • Google Schemer wants you to "take on the Ukrainian bandura."
  • This super-hammy street performer kept showing up in my search results, so I guess here he is: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4. His name is Stepan Shcherbak.
  • Before you think that all young Ukrainians are bandura-playing angels who wear colorful folk outfits, here's some authentic Ukrainian youth culture.
  • Uh, if you wanted to improve your Ukrainian by reading fan-translated manga, I guess you could?
posted by Nomyte (20 comments total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
I thought this was going to be some rapidly deleted content-less post about someone's favourite tune, but holy crap this is a gigantic post. Nice job.
posted by Brockles at 11:48 AM on November 12, 2012 [11 favorites]

Niiiiiiice post! :)

Seriously, until this moment I wasn't even passingly familiar with the bandura. Very, very cool! Thanks!
posted by zarq at 11:49 AM on November 12, 2012

Brockles: “I thought this was going to be some rapidly deleted content-less post about someone's favourite tune, but holy crap this is a gigantic post. Nice job.”

I knew it wouldn't be – but only because it said "Nomyte" under it. That username is synonymous with excellent and encyclopaedic posts.

This post is not a departure from that legacy. Thanks for another awesome adventure through something I had no idea about, Nomyte.
posted by koeselitz at 11:55 AM on November 12, 2012

Yup, you got me too. Flagging finger primed and ready to shoot and then the first link just blew me away.

And that's before I started exploring the mountain of other stuff. Needs a TOOASLYT tag.

(The Opposite Of A)
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:59 AM on November 12, 2012

My goodness. Well played, sir.
posted by RokkitNite at 12:09 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Outstanding post. Thank you for hours of musical enjoyment!
posted by skye.dancer at 12:13 PM on November 12, 2012

Was just enjoying some gorgeous Iraqi oud music that a local community radio station was playing and discussing the zither soundtrack to "The Third Man." Thanks for this spectacular post on a related instrument I had never heard of before.
posted by twsf at 12:14 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great post! And thought it might not be a Bandura, here is... wait, I'm looking above my post box and see that twsf already posted the Karas third man theme video! That is a brilliant title sequence. Okay, off to listen to more of these great arrangements.
posted by JBennett at 12:54 PM on November 12, 2012

My pop-music-hating husband is over in the kitchen washing dishes and half way through the first track up there said "It's someone playing Paparazzi by Lady Gaga on the... ? What is that ?" which totally surprised me because how the hell does he recognise that song? He did like the instrument: "yeah, it's good because it's just the catchy tune with no annoying woman singing". I'm going to be giving him the side-eye all evening now (you? Lady Gaga? I don't even).

I really like the melodic tone that the music has, it's not quite like any other string instrument I can think of.
posted by shelleycat at 1:17 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

You got me, too. I was all ready to join in on the protests already in progress, but opened the post - and WOW what a post!! - and now am joining in on the congratulations already in progress :)

Excellent post, with some great music to listen to, on this rainy Vancouver long weekend afternoon.

Now if only that Eno post wasn't deleted before I could ask where I could stream the album before buying, looks like I missed all the deadlines.
posted by seawallrunner at 1:21 PM on November 12, 2012

Needs more Gaga.
posted by tigrefacile at 1:48 PM on November 12, 2012

Fantastic post, as usual. Lots to dig into here, and the Gaga was a great hook.
posted by immlass at 1:55 PM on November 12, 2012

I had no idea Lipton was getting into the Ukranian folk instrumental pop cover sponsorship scene, but it sure makes me want a refreshing cup of tea.
posted by eurypteris at 1:55 PM on November 12, 2012

Flagged as iceberg.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:04 PM on November 12, 2012 [8 favorites]

I've got a lesson plan with discussion questions, if anyone wants to, you know, talk about this thing.
posted by Nomyte at 3:06 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Eh, I was waiting for the drum solo.
posted by angerbot at 6:33 PM on November 12, 2012

I almost didn't click, because--you know--Gag-ga, but then I did, and I was like all, WOH, what a post!!

Nice job. Very nice job, indeed. Thank you for introducing me to a unique musical experience.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:55 PM on November 12, 2012

Admittedly I came in here for the Gaga, but this is one hell of a post. Well done!
posted by JakeEXTREME at 11:24 PM on November 12, 2012

Ha, I saw the video and thought, "Maybe I'll go into the post, see if someone can identify the instrument being played." HA.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:44 AM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I discovered the bandura a couple of years ago, on holiday in Italy, when I heard a Ukranian street musician busking. His name is Basilio Momako and he was so extraordinary that I bought the CD, and played it repeatedly when I got home, which is something of a first for a holiday CD purchase.
posted by MinPin at 8:43 AM on November 13, 2012

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