Like most people, I get a lot of email newsletters. One of the newsletters that came in on Friday was one I almost overlooked, but it was advising me that a new sample library was forthcoming – a library of Ukrainian bandura ensemble samples.
“What the heck is a bandura?,” I thought. So I googled and wikied. I found an extraordinary story.
It seems that not even one hundred years ago, something bad happened to the bandura and all of its players, but I’m jumping ahead here. In the Ukraine, several hundred years ago, not only was there a Kossack tradition, but there was also a tradition of wandering minstrels that played an instrument that is a little like a cross between a lute and a harp. It has over fifty strings, tuned chromatically and it was used as a means of accompanying the singers, these minstrels. This instrument, the bandura, is a largish thing that you have to play by almost hugging it.
It turns out that the subject matter of these songs were “thoughts”. The minstrels (the Kobzary) wrote songs about truth, freedom and humanity. Often, they sang these songs outside orthodox churches, as a taunt and shame to the clergy and worshippers within. These songs were like the conscience of the people. The minstrels took the moral high ground and espoused kossack values and virtues. Naturally, these songs and their associated tradition were important to the Ukraine when it was seeking national independence. The songs, or Dumy (pronounced doo-mee), were part of the fabric of Ukrainian identity.
Not surprisingly, the authorities and the church alike, during Soviet times, regarded the bandura players as an inconvenient thorn in their sides. Nazis, on the other hand, were only too willing to exploit and subvert the message of the players. What eventually happened was astonishing.
All of the bandura players in Ukraine were told to gather in Lirnyks for the First Republican Conference of Kobzars, ostensibly an ethnographic conference to disseminate the works of the brotherhood and to record, for cultural posterity, their songs. Having concentrated all of these troublesome musicians in one place, they were then shot by the Soviets.
The bandura and its surviving players were forced underground, or into exile. Bandura works were not published and the instrument was no longer made or played, on pain of death. Eventually, immigrants in the US and Canada resurrected the instrument and the works, but only as a hobby. Most of the best players were actually automobile assembly line workers by day.
So there it was. A musical instrument and its players were temporarily purged from the planet in the name of suppression of truth, freedom and humanity.
Of course, truth, freedom and humanity are more resilient than that and can withstand the crude and brutal actions of people opposed to these values. Eventually, second and third generation exiles began to relearn the instrument and to unearth and extend the repertoire.
It makes me think that more musicians should consider their special place in the world and not view their responsibility to humanity so lightly. Perhaps more musicians today should write thoughtful songs about truth, freedom and humanity, instead of just sex and drugs and rock and roll. Musicians died for their songs defending these precious things.
Just a thought 🙂
You can hear the sound of the bandura in this video. The word “Dumy” is Ukrainian for “Thoughts”, roughly translated.