"Rassvet" publishers, Kyiv
(early printed postcard from private collection)

Ukrainian Minstrels, and the Blind Shall Sing by Natalie Kononenko,

M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1998

"The heart and soul of Ukraine is its countryside: the black, fertile soil; the fields of

golden wheat dotted with the red of poppy flowers and the blue of cornflowers;

the white adobe houses with thatched roofs; the sparking blue streams. In the late

nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this countryside was peopled with the usual

peasants, craftsmen, and peddlers, but also with others who were unique - blind,

mendicant minstrels.

"There were two types of minstrels; 'kobzari,' who played the strummed string
instrument called the 'kobzar,' which later developed into the distinctive, asymmetrical
'bandura;' and 'lirnyky,' who used a crank-driven hurdy gurdy call the 'lira.'

"Kobzari' and 'lirnyky' were professional performers who lived mostly from their art,

though they did occasionally take on such craft as plaiting ropes, which did not require


"Because they did not farm as did the rest of the population, and relied on the charitable impulses of their audiences for their living, they were associated with beggars. But Ukrainian minstrels were much more.

"They were the repositories of tradition and culture. They were the disseminators of the word of God and the major source of folk historical and religious information. Ukrainian singers were disabled people who used minstrelsy as a social welfare institution, and yet many among them were true artists, great performers..."

"Rassvet" publishers, Kyiv
(early printed postcard from
private collection)
"The years from approximately 1850 to 1930 represent the zenith of traditional minstrelsy, or at least,

of available information about this phenomenon.... Stalinist intervention ended traditional minstrelsy,

most minstrels disappeared........exterminated individually or repressed into inactivity. But a few

survived, and available as subjects of study and as performers of a new, Sovietized folklore, who sang

properly adapted traditional texts and composed songs on acceptable contemporary topics, such as

the 'Duma about Lenin.'"


"......the term traditional minstrel applies to minstrels active in the period roughly from 1850 to 1930.

It applies to 'kobzari,'.... ...and also to 'lirnyky', the musicians who play a hurdy-gurdy rather than

a lute. 'Lirnyky are few in modern day Ukraine because when scholars began writing extensively

about minstrelsy, the 'lira' came to be considered a less prestigious instrument than the 'bandura,'

and, of course, the latter became the instrument of choice. In the heyday of traditional minstrelsy,

however, 'lirnyky' were numerous, and in many regions, far outnumbered 'kobzari.'

"We do not know when 'lirnyky' came into being or at what time they came to be considered the same

type of performer as the 'kobzari.' Although minstrels probably existed from the fifteenth or sixteenth

century, the first documentary evidence of them comes from the eighteenth, refers to 'kobzari' only,

and consists of the court records of minstrels being held for trial. One such document refers to

a sighted 'bandura' player, strongly suggesting that 'kobzari' were not always blind.

Postcard mailed to Germany
on May 31, 1916
(early printed postcard from private

"'Lirnyky,' on the other hand, were probably always

disabled. Because at least some 'kobzari' were sighted

and even more because of the striking dissimilarity of

their instruments, we can assume that 'kobzari' and

'lirnyky' were once two distinct categories of musician.

How 'kobzari' and 'lirnyky' came together is one of

the subjects of this book. But from the middle of

the nineteenth century to the Soviet period, 'kobzari'

and 'lirnyky' were one category of minstrel. They knew

each other, belonged to the same guilds, and even

learned songs from each other.

"To be a 'kobzar' or a 'lirnyk,' a person had to be blind. Some were born blind, or

some suffered head injuries....More typically, a child would develop an illness,

such as smallpox or scrofula, that would lead to blindness. At about the age

of ten or twelve, a blind child could be apprenticed to a master minstrel,

which meant moving into the teacher's home and living there for a period of

three to six years.

"During apprenticeship, the child received musical training, learned songs and how to play

an instrument. The child learned a secret language (lebiiska mova) that minstrels used

to communicate among themselves, and was also taught how to live the special life of

the blind merchant, including how to cope with blindness, how to travel, and how to behave

so that people would be willing to give alms.

"The apprentice paid for training in cash, or more often, by begging, turning over the proceeds to

the master. Upon completion of training, the apprentice went through an elaborate initiation rite that granted entry into the profession

and permission to perform and beg for oneself. In some areas, initiation also conferred the right to take on apprentices of one's own,

though more typical, a minstrel had to work approximately ten years and complete a second rite before he was granted the status of

master and given permission to teach...........

"Once initiated, a 'kobzar' or 'lirnyk' would return home to his family and then begin to travel and beg, hiring a boy or a girl to serve as guide ('povodyr'). Children who accepted this job were orphans or crippled in some way; they too needed an alternative livilihood because they could not participate in the normal farming economy of the Ukrainian countryside. The guide would live with the minstrel, receiving food, clothing, and a small wage. When a guide had earned enough money to live independently, he or see parted with the minstrel; and usually became a craftsman or a trader, most often making musical instruments, presumably having learned about those from the master. The minstrel would then hire another guide.

"A minstrel tended to avoid begging in his own village and to have a circuit of villages other than his own that he would visit on a regular basis. Arriving in one of these villages, he would stop at a home and sing outside its windows, beginning with the begging song ('zhebranka,' 'proshba,' or 'zapros'). This announced his presence and allowed the inhabitants to decide whether they could afford to give him alms. If they could give nothing, they would so inform the minstrel, and he would proceed to the next dwelling. If they could give only a small amount, they would come out to the street and offer a coin or cup of flour before sending the minstrel on.

"People who could give more would invite the minstrel into the courtyard or into their home. Here the minstrel sang for as long as he was welcome. He would sing religious songs ('psalmy') and historical material ('dumy' and historical songs--'istorychni pisni'). Sometimes he would be asked to sing a few happy songs for the children.

"In payment for this extended performance, he might receive a piece of cloth or some baked goods, some sausage, a larger amount of flour, or several coins. If the residents were particularly interested in minstrels and wanted to chat with their guest, they might invite him to stay for a meal.

"After the minstrel had concluded his performance or his meal, he would sing a song of thanks and farewell ('blahodarinne') and proceed to the next household. When night fell, the minstrel would sleep in the home of the local 'kobzar' or 'lirnyk' or at the church. The next day he would sing at other homes in the same village or travel on down the road to the next one.

A.D.P.L. publishers. Imported
stationery Co. New York
Printed in Germany (early printed postcard
from private collection)

The photo associated with necrology
after banduryst Parkhomenko's death
in 1911. The old men are passing away,
but the youth will carry on.
"Rassvet" publishers, Kyiv
(early printed postcard from
private collection)

"The best time to go begging was when people had

the most money and the road conditions were still

good; between harvest and the winter snows. But

this optimal time was of short duration so minstrels

traveled whenever weather permitted. If a minstrel

arrived at a village in summertime, then all of the men

would be out working into he fields and the people at

home would be women and children. This means that

a substantial part of a minstrel's repertoir had to appeal

to a female or juvenile audience.

"Performances at homes seem to have allowed the minstrel

the greatest opportunity to display his artistry and range of

songs. Religious songs were basic to minstrelsy, and a man

might start with these, singing about Varvara, the Great Martyr,

or about Oleksii, Man of God, who went off into the desert for

the sake of his faith and returned thirty years later, so

transformed by his experience that he was not recognized

by his family. Very popular was the song called 'Lazar' (Lazarus)

or "The Two Lazars,' the story of the rich brother who mistreats

his sibling and is punished by God in the afterlife (based on

Luke 16: 19- 31).

"A minstrel might sing 'The Orphan Girl,' a song resembling

a fairy tale,only with a sad ending, which tells of an girl

mistreated by her stepmother, or he might sing about

the Last Judgement or the premonitions of the Virgin Mary.

This was a safe and lucrative repertory.

"Behaving in a seemly manner was extremely important to minstrelsy. Suspicions of impropriety always

dogged the profession, and when in doubt, it was best to stick to pious material. Reminding people of their mortality with mentions of

death and the Last Judgement, and giving the audience positive examples of charity and piety and negative examples of punishment and

stinginess, this material predisposed the listeners to generosity.

(photo taken in August 1902 in Kharkiv during the XIIth
Archeological conference), printed in Stockholm

People who invited a minstrel into their homes might be pious folk wanting

to hear religious material; but more likely, they were familiar with the minstrel's

art, perhaps even aficionados of it, and they would want to hear the full range

of what a singer could do. In a home, a minstrel might be asked to sing historical

songs and 'dumy' in addition to religious songs.

" 'Dumy,' or epics, are songs about war. There are 'dumy' about the conflict with

the Turks and the Tartars, and about Khmelnytskyi and the uprising against

the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth. Among them are many songs about the deaths

of heroes in battle. A whole cycle of epics tells about Cossacks in Turkish captivity,

languishing in prison and suffering beatings and privation.

"A very interesting group of epics, called the 'dumy' about everyday life, tells

about widows, sisters, and wives, and has little to do with battle except in

the sense that the women suffer because their men go off to war. This group

of songs was likely aimed at the many women who would be in a home, listening

to an invited minstrel ".


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