Telling the Stories of Ukraine With Music

Long ago, blind minstrels traveled from village to village performing lyrical ballads and poems on an instrument called the kobza. Playing for food and a few coins, these musicians told spellbinding tales of Cossack courage and their heroic quest for freedom. In time, wandering minstrels were replaced by professional musicians called kobzari who developed epic songs called the duma sung with banduras, a 65 string lute-like instrument played in minor key. Today, traditional folk music and the bandura are still popular with musicians singing songs of love and despair on the streets of Kyiv and in the subway stations.

Ukrainians have always had a fondness for storytelling through music. It is said that Ukrainians sing when they are very happy and when they are very sad but mostly, Ukrainians sing at weddings, on birthdays, and on holidays. Music, like poetry, is like breathing for Ukrainians and deeply embedded in the country’s cultural perception and self-expression. Even Ukraine’s national anthem, entitled, Ukraine is Yet Alive, can be heard on the national radio station twice a day.

While traditional folk music holds a special place in Ukrainian culture, the country boasts a number of musical tastes and talents. Choirs can often be heard practicing in churches. “Music schools” sprinkle the country providing children the opportunity to study music for eight years, learning to not only play instruments but understand the wealth of folk, classical, chamber, and symphony music Ukraine offers.

International visitors and contemporary Ukrainian music connoisseurs may be most familiar, however, with Ruslana, the 2004 winner of the international Eurovision Song Contest. Her album, “Wild Dances”, is the first album to go platinum in Ukraine. Inspired by Ukrainian folklore, Ruslana has made her mark mixing traditional ethnic rhythms and dances with modern-day rock, adding another chapter to this country’s rich musical history.