For a number of centuries
the Bandura was one of the most
popular folk instrument of the Ukrainian
people. It was preceded by the Kobza,
which was similar in construction and
required a playing technique similar to
that of the lute. The early Kobza had
a relatively long thin neck, a round
or pear shaped body with frets tied
around the fingerboard. It can be noticed
from early iconographic sources however, that
some of these early instruments did
not have frets. In the 17th century,
shorter treble strings known as prystrunky
were added to the right side of the
soundboard in relation to the strings
strung along the neck. This instrument
become known as the Bandura, to distinguish
it from its predecessor.
The Kobza-bandura was played throughout Ukraine from a relatively early period. It enjoyed unrivaled popularity amongst the Ukrainian Cossacks, being taken with them on military campaigns. Later wandering scholars such as the philosopher Hryhory Skovoroda, who is known to have played the bandura well and composed music with it for his poetry, earned living by playing the bandura while journeying through the countryside.
Photo: Kozak Mamai
The 16th and 17th
centuries - the Cossack era, when Ukraine
fought against the Turks, Tatars and
Poles, was also a period of intensive
development for the bandura.
Examples of the creativity of the era have survived in the form of oral historic epics called dumy and in many of the historic folk songs of the time. These epics were an integral part of the repertoire of the wandering bards known as Kobzari, (literally - Kobza players).
The Kobzari were not just narrators of the events of those times but were often participants in the actual historic events which they described in their epic dumy. They played an active role in uniting the people of the land against foreign intruders. Foreign invaders, realizing the kobzari's influential role, were known to torture them when caught. For example in 1770 Prokip Skriaha, Mykhailo of Sharzhypol and Vasyl Varchenko had their throats cut for the fact that they played their banduras for the Haidamaky during an insurrection against Polish feudal lords.
With each passing year the number of kobzari seemed to decline. In the second half of the 19th century it was thought that the famous kobzar Ostap Veresai was the last kobzar. This proved to be wrong, however their artform become the center of interest of ethnographers, artists, poets, and writers. The importance of the kobzar in Ukrainian culture was once again demonstrated when famous Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko named his collection of poems "The Kobzar".
Among the first academics to study and propagate the bandura was the renown Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko. He wrote the first books which analyzed the bandura and its repertoire. In 1908 Lysenko established the first formal bandura classes in his music school in Kyiv.
Photo: Bandura-virtuoso - Vasyl Yemetz (1935) : Founder of the
first Bandura chorus in Kyiv, 1918.
Hnat Khotkevych was
one of the most important contributors
to the development of the modern bandura.
He was a virtuoso performer on the
bandura and published the first book
of instruction for the bandura in Lviv
in 1909. Later, in 1913 and 1914,
similar handbooks were produced by the
bandurists Vasyl' Shevchenko, Mykhailo Domontovych,
and Vasyl' Ovchynnikov in the cities
of Odessa and Moscow.
Although the first ensemble of non-blind bandurists made up of university students was performing by 1906 under the direction of Mykhailo Domontovych in Kyiv, the first semi-professional bandura ensemble was formed in 1918 in Kyiv during the brief period of national liberation under the direction of the bandura virtuoso Vasyl' Yemetz. This ensemble became enormously popular in Ukraine and quickly became one of the major centers for the development of the modern bandura.
Later in 1925, another important
bandura ensemble was established in Poltava.
Under the direction of Hnat Khotkevych
and Volodymyr Kabachok, it soon became
the leading ensemble and a rapidly increasing
force in the propagation of Ukrainian
In 1935, the Poltava and Kyiv ensembles were merged to form one large Kyiv State Bandurist Chorus, however cultural development in this decade were severely repressed by the Soviet authorities.
The Second World War brought some relief to the combined Bandurist Chorus from the political pressures of the Stalinist purges of the 1930's. Bandurists who were not mobilized or evacuated from Kyiv re-formed in 1942. As a protest at the brutal treatment of Ukrainian arts and people under the Soviet regime in the 1930's, the group sought asylum in the West. After WWII they moved to Detroit in the USA and are known there as the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus. Their chief conductor and artistic director until 1984 was Hryhory Kytasty.
Those bandurists who remained in Ukraine were regrouped in 1948 into a new Kyiv Bandurist Chorus directed primarily by a non-bandurist Olexander Minkivsky. Its current conductor and artistic director is Mykola Hvozd.