We can’t say exactly why music has so great influence on people, and why, since ancient times, people have used a wide range of materials and household items to produce sounds. But for sure, music was an integral part of happy and sad events, of religious rites and everyday life. Music is one of the most important components of the culture, and as cliché as this might sound, it’s the soul of the nation, its history, and centuries-old traditions. Ukrainian folk musical instruments are known since ancient times and have deep roots in the national culture. On the murals of St. Sofia Cathedral (11th century) in Kyiv musicians that played on the different stringed, percussion, and wind instruments are depicted. Let’s find out more about the most popular folk musical instruments and which of them are still used in modern times.
This unique and distinctive wind instrument was listed in the Guinness World Records as the longest musical instrument in the world. The Trembita is made of solid wood and looks like a tube length of which is up to 4 meters. It was widespread in the Western part of Ukraine, particularly in the Carpathians, and used mainly by hutsuls. Shepherds used the trembita to communicate with each other and to send some messages from a hilltop to a village. This instrument makes impressively beautiful low sounds and nowadays we can hear the trembita not only in folk but also in modern Ukrainian music.
The Kobza and the kobza players (kobzars) are probably the most recognizable symbols of Ukrainian culture. Supposedly, this lute-like stringed instrument appeared in Kyiv Rus but become extremely popular only in the 16th century, in times of Cossacks. For example, famous folkloric hero Cossack Mamay was traditionally depicted with the kobza. The strings of this instrument plucked with one hand and pressed on the fingerboard by the other. The kobzars played on their instruments and sang “dumy” – epic songs which depicted different historical events, glorified Cossacks and their heroic acts. The kobzars were well-respected and beloved by the locals, and the kobza became a national symbol. The kobza is often confused with the bandura; these instruments are related but have some differences.
Ukrainian bandura, which is often referred to as “Ukrainian harp”, allegedly originated from the kobza and almost displaced this instrument in the 18th century. The bandura is larger than the kobza, it has a longer neck and more strings. A classical instrument had 5 bass strings and 16 accompaniment strings. Over time, however, the appearance of the instrument and the number of strings has changed; modern bandura has 10 – 14 and 40 – 50 strings respectively. The bandura playing is pretty much the same asthe harp playing: the strings are plucked with fingers of one or two hands, and the strings are not pressed against the frets. The bandura has an incredibly melodious sound; nowadays this instrument is studied in music schools and often used by musicians.
This ancient stringed instrument in closely related with the kobza and the bandura. The torban was appeared in the 18th century and became widespread among Cossack leaders and Ukrainian nobility. It has some common features with European theorbo but has additional strings as Ukrainian kobza. The torban playing is almost the same as the kobza playing. It is said that even Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa and famous poet Taras Shevchenko played on the torban. Unfortunately, this instrument with beautiful sound was almost forgotten till the end of the 19th century.
One more folk instrument that associated with Cossacks and epic historical ballads (dumy) is the lira. The history of this instrument goes back centuries. The lira had been used in Western Europe since the 10th century, and since the 1600s it had become popular in Ukraine. Ukrainian lira, which was called wheel lira, is a type of the hurdy-gurdy; usually, ithad three strings and a wooden wheel. While playing, the performer rotated a wooden wheel, which rubbed against the strings. Often the lyra players were blind; they were respected by people and invited to different celebrations and events.
The sopilka is one of the most ancient folk instruments, widespread all over the country. This wind instrument that looks like the fife and belonged to the lute family most commonly was used by shepherds and peasants. The sopilka is usually made of wood, has a length up to 40 cm and 6 – 8 holes for fingers. Modern sopilka has 10 finger holes and is often performed by musicians and folk ensembles.
No one Ukrainian wedding was complete without lively and cheerful music of the tsymbaly. Tsymbaly-like instruments were widespread in many countries; in Europe, it was known as the dulcimer. In Ukraine, the tsymbaly became popular in the 16th – 17th centuries. This stringed and percussion instrument consists of a wooden deck, often trapezoidal, and 16 – 35 strings stretched over it. To play on the tsymbaly, the musician had to hit the strings with two small sticks. This instrument was commonly used by popular Ukrainian folk ensembles – Troisti Muzyky, along with the violin and the tambourine.
In Ukraine, the surma is often associated with Cossacks and military music. This oboe-like wind instrument has been known in the country since the Kyiv Rus but became widespread only in the 16th century. Every regiment of Cossacks had its own surma players who could not only play the music but also give signals. The surma was made of wood and had a double-reed mouthpiece; it could have different size and number of finger holes, usually from five to ten. Nowadays wooden surmas are very rare. Modern surma is a brass instrument, frequently used in folk ensembles and orchestras.
Buhalo and Tarilka (Cymbal)
Percussions are, probably, the most ancient instruments that were ever created by people. Ukrainians used a large variety of percussions, especially in lively and dance music. Some of the most interesting folk instruments of this group are the Buhalo and the Tarilka (Cymbal) which were frequently joined together.
The buhalo is a type of big drum, which was fixed to the musician with a belt, so it was possible to dance and play at the same time. To the one side of the buhalo was fixed the tarilka (cymbal) – a round instrument made of metal. Musician played on the buhalo with a stick, and on the tarilka – with a metal stick or another cymbal.
Basolia (Bass viol)
This distinctive stringed instrument became popular at the beginning of the 18th century and mainly in Western Ukraine. The basolia looks like the violoncello and has from 3 to 5 strings. The Basolia has never been used as a solo instrument; traditionally, it was used in the folk ensembles such as Troisti Muzyky. To play on the basolia, the performer had to put the instrument on the knee, like the guitar, and played with a bow; with the other hand, the musicians pressed strings on the fingerboard. As we can see, Ukraine has a rich collection of unique and ancient musical instruments which draw attention to music admirers. Fortunately, nowadays we can not only see these instruments at the museums but also to listen to them and enjoy their beautiful sounds.