Glorification of good in archetypical Ukrainian music

20 Aug 2021

Can you imagine a musical instrument that is comparable in sound and expression to the harpsichord or harp? Such a unique multi-stringed (up to 65 strings) instrument is called the bandura.

It was created by the Ukrainian people. No other instrument can compare in its timbre to the bandura. The incredible richness of the bandura timbre is striking. It is possible to imitate the harpsichord, organ, harp, or guitar. But the timbre of the bandura is inimitable.

The bandura is a very ancient instrument. Its ancestor is the kobza, a folk musical instrument of the lute family.

The wandering elders-singers played the kobza. They were wise spiritual people who rejected the dubious benefits of this world and worldly glory. They went from city to city, from village to village glorifying God and spreading eternal spiritual values: wisdom, kindness, righteousness. They proclaimed faith in the victory of good over evil.

The kobza was extremely popular among the people. The Cossacks of the times of the Ukrainian Cossack State greatly appreciated and loved it. They thought that God himself created this musical instrument.

The Cossacks treated the elders-singers as God’s messengers on Earth. The keepers of the archetypical memory and spiritual traditions of the nation, the elders-singers conveyed the divine wisdom through their singing.

The elders-singers united in brotherhoods. There were masters and disciples there. Those who wanted to join those brotherhoods had to not only be able to play the kobza (bandura), sing dumas (folk ballads) and songs, but also undergo a special initiation into brotherhood.

The masters taught the beginners the divine spiritual science, the mystical language of brotherhood. When a disciple was initiated into the kobzar, the ‘examiners’ meticulously ascertained whether he possessed the necessary moral qualities.

Charters of brotherhoods were based on the principles of high morality and spirituality. It was a kind of code of honor. Those who violated it and thereby discredited the spiritual movement itself were deprived of the right to be named a kobzar.

The most important virtues among the kobzars were the observance of the unwritten laws of honor and conscience, respect for the near ones, readiness to help brothers, honesty and justice in relationships.

The elders passed on spiritual traditions through special books. All knowledge was communicated only orally, from heart to heart. The elders were sure that the recorded thing over time begins to “fornicate” – to distort its original essence.

Surprisingly, the content of those books was easy to remember, though everything was communicated orally. Partly because the books were written in poetic form. Full of divine and human wisdom, they gave answers to the most important, vital questions of human life. The disciples made a vow under no circumstances to reveal to the uninitiated the mysteries into which they were initiated.

The halo of mysticism that surrounded the elders-kobzars contributed to the creation of numerous legends about them.

Volodymyr Kushpet, a modern Ukrainian musician, bandura and kobza player, Honored Artist of Ukraine, and teacher devoted many years of his life to a deep study of the traditions of Ukrainian itinerant singers and musicians.

In his book The elders’ traditions: itinerant singers and musicians in Ukraine (19th – early 20th centuries), he cites an interesting legend recorded by Fyodor Kudrinsky in 1894.

…“Once the shepherd heard wondrous singing in his dream. The heart singing. He jumped up from the ground and looked around. Suddenly he saw a big bull lying in the clearing. The bull was amazingly white, only his gilded horns were shining. The bull lay chewing grass, ate his full.

A bit away from the bull, some elders sat in a row on the grass. One, two, three, four … twelve white elders, with faces like on icons. They seemed to be asleep. “What’s happened to them?  thought the shepherd and began to gaze intently at the elders. He saw they were blind.

The elders were so much alike, like brothers. They were of the same height, and all had long white beards.

The first elder raised his staff and struck the ground with it. And all the others at once got up as one.

The elder struck the ground a second time with his staff. The other elders took their hats off their heads. Their hair was white.

The elder struck the ground a third time with his staff – they took their lyres and kobzas and began singing loudly together:

The white elders sang about God’s world, about the Danube and the Dnieper, about the mountain of Pochaev and the Divine Mother, and about many other things.

When they finished singing, they put on the hats on their heads.

The shepherd looked around him and got frightened. Behind him – “Oh, mother dear!” – there were countless animals of all kinds: bears, foxes, wolves… The animals lay peacefully, listening to the elders’ singing.

The shepherd looked up and saw countless birds of all kinds on the trees.  There were white-sided magpies, ravens, corncrake owls, cuckoos, and many other strange birds, whose names he did not even know.

The first elder came to the bull, took him with one hand by the horn and with the other hand leaned on the staff. The brothers placed their arms on each other’s shoulders and came to the elder.

The bull obediently got up and went to the forest.

The elders followed the bull. The birds flew after the elders. And all the animals also went after them.

Then the elders stopped. The first elder took off his hat, bowed and said, “Thank you, kind people, for your favor. And goodbye, because only once we sing in one place, and then we go to another place. A good song should not be sung very often. Live in peace, don’t worry and be healthy!”

The attitude of people towards the kobzars was special.

The Ukrainian folklore portrays the image of the kobzar Cossack Mamai. Mamai is the personification of the Cossack-knight of those times. People venerated him as a saint. Folk paintings depicting Mamai were placed in iconostases along with icons of other saints almost in every Ukrainian home.

Usually, Mamai is depicted sitting cross-legged and looking into eternity. He holds the kobza in his hands.

In a narrow sense, Mamai is a prototype of the Cossack who devoted his life to serving the people. In a broader sense, Mamai personifies the ideal of the Ukrainian nation. He is the perfect man in whom the earthly is closely intertwined with the heavenly.

His entire image is an amazing unity of wisdom, kindness, righteousness, peace and beauty.

The image of Mamai is undoubtedly brought from above.

Mamai is filled with endless love for the Heavenly Kind Father, Christ, the Divine Mother and all the creation of God. He seems to mysteriously converse with Them. And They in return pour out tender warm love on their adored son. Mamai for Them is the personification of all righteous humanity.

We can see certain symbols in almost all the paintings depicting Mamai: the tree (mainly the oak), the horse and the kobza.

The oak symbolizes the invincible power of the All-Good Holy Spirit and immortality. The oak is the tree of cognition of good and evil.

The horse symbolizes striving for light, dynamism, flight of thought, fidelity and devotion.

The Cossacks called the kobza their faithful wife. They did not leave it either in peacetime or in battle,

In the mentality of people, a song is a mysterious form of a heart-to-heart conversation of the soul with God. The strength of a warrior is not a weapon. Invincible righteous warriors are filled with the All-Good Holy Spirit, have the cover and protection of the divine forces over them.

And music helps to open the soul, to better express the state of the heart, feelings and thoughts. It helps people to be heard by Heavens.

The singers-kobzars are like the Cossack Mamai fill the space around them with kindness, love, wisdom, peace and harmony.



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