Tradition and Tragedy – Ukraine’s Kobzar Minstrels

Listen closely and the Ukrainian wind may still carry an ancient song sung by blind minstrels, a song that tells a spellbinding tale of Cossack courage and their heroic quest for Ukraine’s freedom. Traveling from village to village as ox-drawn carts stumbled across muddy roads leading into dark forests, Ukraine’s minstrels once trudged past Baroque churches with Greek domes and mosaic Virgins pieced together from crimson, turquoise and emerald fragments and wandered freely across the Ukrainian steppe. Indeed, Ukraine’s blind minstrels, called kobzari, are special in the country’s history, in part, because of their traditional customs as well as their tragic ending.

Playing the kobza, a precursor to the bandura, these trained musicians plucked and strummed the instrument similar to European and Eastern lutes by touch. As far back as the nineteenth century, the kobzari formed “guilds” to apprentice boys and girls as young as five or six to master musicians. Not all apprentices passed the initiation test, however, and in an effort to offer a future to a child without sight, the kobzari guilds sanctioned beggars allowed to perform some of the songs namely the “begging song” and the “song of thanks.” The repertoire of the kobzari masters emphasized religious and epic tales, called the duma, performed outside churches and monasteries, village fairs and festivals. Guided by a sighted child, a povodyr, who worked for food, clothing and a small wage.

Kobzari, like other peasant villagers married and created families. Only blind children were allowed to be minstrels however, and other minstrel children became farmers. Absorbed into the culture and history of the country, the kobzari were welcomed by the villagers as their songs brought good luck for the soul until Stalin’s rise to power in 1939.

Threatened by any demonstration of “national art”, Stalin considered the kobzari and their guilds an example of counterrevolutionary activity. Determined to exterminate the blind minstrels, Stalin tricked the guilds into coming to a “convention” of kobzari. “Life is better, life is merrier,” Stalin wickedly declared. Minstrels eagerly traveled to the convention from all over Ukraine, coming from tiny, forgotten villages, to celebrate their talent and history. A living history gathered only to be met with a barrel of a gun when Stalin’s henchmen assassinated nearly all of the existing kobzari.

Decades later, the songs of the kobzari have been resurrected from the annals of history. Many receive conservatory training rather than being apprentices to masters, and many more musicians are sighted. Traditions endure, however, and Pavlo Stepanovych Suprun, a contemporary blind kobzari, continues to sing surviving epic songs and composes his own material in the traditional vein of the Ukrainian kobzari. History may be occasionally silenced, but often, history refuses to be ignored.