Yuri Fedynsky
Yuri Fedynsky

Singing, Dancing, and Raising Money for Ukraine

by / Apr. 12, 2017 12am EST

Yuri Fedynsky and Julian Kytasty will perform April 29 at Dnipro, the Ukrainian Cultural Center on Genesee Street, to help area Ukrainians and friends send medical supplies to the front lines where Russian-sponsored “separatists” are trying to annex eastern Ukraine, as they annexed the Crimean peninsula.

Fedynsky and Kytasty are kobzars, performers of traditional songs, who accompanies themselves on the 32-string bandura. 

The kobzar (the English equivalent, approximately, is “bard”) was a Ukrainian institution for centuries. The singers were carriers of the unapologetically nationalist traditions of the indigenous Slavic-speakers who have ancient roots in the rich agricultural lands north of the Black Sea, bordering Poland, Hungary, and Romania on the west, and the Volga River on the east. Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe, after France, but except for intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Levy and American political leaders Joe Biden and John McCain, Ukraine is not widely recognized as Europe, because for the past 300 years, it’s been dominated by Moscow. The reaction of the Russian Tsar who read Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s poetry (especially his collection entitled Kobzar) was to issue an edict, in 1876, banning the use of the Ukrainian language.

Fedynsky is grateful for the intense burst of folkloric and musicological work, including recordings, that came about in defiance of that royal decree, just around the beginning of the 20th century. That practice, now derided as “salvage” ethnography, was in full flower. People were quite concerned that the traditions of the kobzar were doomed. In North America, at just about exactly the same time, Franz Boas was rushing out to British Columbia to collect the oral literature whose carriers were losing audiences. Here in Western New York and southern Ontario, those were the years when the great Tuscarora ethnologist J. N. B. Hewitt and his Seneca successor Arthur C. Parker were collecting the texts of the Great Law, the Code of Handsome Lake, the creation story, and the liturgies of so many Iroquois festivals—all out of a well-founded concern that fewer and fewer expert performers, interpreters, and indeed speakers of the ancient language were surviving the pressures of forced acculturation and economic integration. What happened in Ukraine had happened in the 1830s in Finland, when the physician Elias Lonnrott literally cross-country skiied to remote villages to witness and transcribe the oral-formulaic poetry of illiterate singers, poetry that he collected and published as The Kalevala. The same sort of effort would happen in the 1930s in then-Yugoslavia, when Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord witnessed, transcribed, and in some cases recorded the oral-formulaic poetry of the illiterate guslars, who sang epic stories of old wars, heroic conflicts, divine interventions, and moralizing parables.

Julian Kytasty

It’s good that the kobzars had their time with the folklorists before World War I. Fedynsky speaks at length about how important their preservation efforts turned out to be.

What they didn’t know in 1910 was what Stalin would do in 1932 and 1933. Joseph Stalin unleashed the Ukranian holodomor, the man-made famine that murdered as many as 7 million. To the extent that anybody in the West knows this history, the story usually told is that Stalin was at war with the “kulaks,” or recalcitrant peasants who resisted moving to collectivize farms. It was, however, 7 million (or more) Ukrainians who died, not kulaks. The Russians, with unmistakeable thoroughness, targeted the nationalist tradition-carriers who carried their bandura and their lute-like torban. Stalin’s authorities assembled around 300 kobzars in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in December, 1933. The ones who attended were murdered. A kobzar named Heorhy Tkachenko didn’t go to Kharkiv; he went underground, in Moscow, until, in 1978, as a very old man, he returned to Kyiv, and found Mykola Budnyk, a folklorist and musician, who in turn trained Taras Kompanichenko, whose Kobzar Guild included Yuri Fedynsky.

And now, Fedynsky has his own guild, his own music festival, a bunch of students, several acres of land that he and his wife and children work when they’re not playing music or gathering and working the materials, including local lumber, to craft traditional instruments.

Fedynsky is American-born, raised in North Carolina, who joined his contemporary and fellow bandurist Taras Kompanichenko while Fedynsky studied piano at the old and well-regarded music conservatory of Kyiv. Fedynsky performed his own compositions on the bandura in New York in the late 1990s, but both before and after the Orange Revolution and Ukrainian independence in 2004-05, he stuck with the group of folklorists, bandura-crafters, and Ukrainian cultural revivalists who have reinvigorated the indigenous musical and poetic forms that the Russians alternately suppressed and bowdlerized in the Soviets’ 50-year campaign. 

There are plenty of bandura players in Ukraine. The instrument is easy to listen to, with its lute-like resonance and its lush, harp-like flourishes and glissendi. Female bandura bands enjoy popularity. In the 20th century, as the traditional political content of the kobzari was suppressed, the instrument gained a repertoire of transcribed western classical music, as well as a new genre of love songs.

But the kobzar tradition is about communal history, heroes, moral tales, and a defining religiosity. It’s also Cossack music. The right-wing Ukrainian nationalist political movement Svoboda tries, albeit not exclusively, to claim this music as its own; a kobzar like Fedynsky has no illusions about what a trap that would be for him and his fellow revivalists. His solution: to plunge into the context even more deeply, including embracing distinctive regional iteration of the Poltava area. Fedynsky has immersed himself in the specific stylistics of the town where he and his wife and children live. And unlike some of his fellow revivalists, he embraces some of the 20th century stylistics identified with female performers.

He’s the founder of the Poltava Kobzar Guild, and of a music festival that brings together singers, instrumentalists, instrument-makers, ethnomusicologists, and students.

“The kobzars were not concert artists as most bandurists are today,” Fedynsky writes in the program for his forthcoming presentation in Chicago. He is unapologetically committed to the other tasks of old-time bards: interpreting history, engaging in moral education, and specifically, telling the story of the Maidan, the 2014 Ukrainian uprising against the corrupt, Soviet-style protege of Vladimir Putin who was overthrown by a popular rebellion at which contemporary musicians and performers, including Fedynsky, were front and center.

In a recent conversation, he spoke briefly about having been offered a machine gun, perhaps by a fellow rebel, or perhaps by a Russian provocateur, many of which were spotted, denounced, and removed from the months-long protest that eventually succeeded in overthrowing the Yanukovich government.

“We [kobzars] have been targets before,” he said. “I knew this, and I also thought that my way of being effective on the front line was to do what I do.” 

The front line has come to North America for the next couple of months. Fedynsky will be spending time with Ukrainian communities in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, and Buffalo this spring.

Follow Fedynsky and his group on Facebook. Look for Kobzarskiy Tabir July 12-26, Kryachkivka. There’s some nice video of men’s polyphonic choral singing, and of Fedynsky singing in the distinctive regional style with a bandura of his own manufacture. 

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo State and director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.