Ukrainian Crafts: Musical Instruments

The Ukrainian folk music instrument known as the kobza, is a lute-like stringed instrument carved from a single block of wood, which is played by plucking its strings, either with the fingers or a plectrum attached to a ring on the middle finger. It has a medium length neck which may or may not have frets on it. The instrument is thought to have arrived in Ukraine with Turkic people who traveled from Abkhazia to settle in the Poltava region in the 13th century. The name ‘kobza’ is of Turkic origin and a player of the instrument is referred to as a ‘kobzar’. The instrument gained recognition in the 16th century, and in the 18th century was modified to include treble strings referred to as prystrunky, literally meaning ‘strings on the side’, a referral to their placement in relation to the original strings. Kobzars were very often blind and played the role of wandering minstrels to earn their keep. By the early 20th century, the kobza fell out of favor having been replaced by other musical instruments, including the bandura.

Combining elements from the lute, zither and kobza, the bandura is a traditional Ukrainian musical instrument which is played by plucking its strings. The pear shaped instrument has a neck similar to that of the kobzar, but is more streamlined, and has anything between 12 and 68 strings. The prystrunky – the ‘strings on the side’ of the kobzar – are the main strings of the bandura. Musicians who play the instrument are called bandurists, and although the bandura is different from its predecessor the kobza in a number of ways, it is sometimes still referred to by this name. While the kobza was carved from a single block of wood, the back of the bandura is usually carved from willow, cherry, poplar or maple wood, with the soundboard traditionally crafted from spruce and the bridge from birch.

Both kobzas and banduras are beautifully hand crafted, some with simple carved or painted designs and other intricately decorated. Not only are they much loved musical instruments, they are works of art. While the kobza was all but abandoned in the early 20th century, it experienced a revival in the late 1990s which continues in the 21st century. The Kobzar Guild of Kiev has been a driving force behind this revival among music lovers who appreciate the tradition behind the melodies.