Last week saw the world premiere of a wonderful new documentary film titled “The Music of Survival” at the TIFF Lightbox Theatre in Toronto. It chronicles the amazing and somewhat improbable history of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, a group of bandurists whose roots can be traced back to the Kyiv Bandurist Capella, an ensemble of some eight bandurists formed in Kyiv in 1918 under the leadership of a talented musician by the name of Vasyl Yemetz.
The bandura itself is a very ancient instrument with a history that goes back almost a thousand years. There is a fresco in the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv dating back to the eleventh century that shows an instrument looking very much like a kobza, a smaller and earlier version of the bandura. The earliest mention of a bandura in literature is in a Polish chronicle from 1441 that recounts how the Polish King Sigismund III had a Ukrainian court bandurist by the name Taraszko. The bandura likely reached the peak of its popularity during the Kozak era, when wandering minstrels called kobzari popularized its use and created a rich trove of epic songs called dumy. At that time, the bandura was a much simpler instrument comprising of only some 22 strings, compared to the modern standard of some 55 to 65 strings. It should be noted also, that until the past century or so, the bandura was typically a solo instrument.
Bandura ensembles, or capellas as they are better known, are a rather recent innovation, generally credited to Hnat Khotkevich, a noted writer, composer and bandura player. In 1899, he organized the first recorded instance of a bandura ensemble performance in Kharkiv at an archeological conference. It was not until 1918 though, that the first permanent ensemble was formed by Yemetz as noted earlier.
Regretably, the Kyiv Bandurist Capella was rather shortlived. With the advent of Bolshevik control of Ukraine, most of the members of the Capella were eventually imprisoned and shot. In 1941, in the aftermath of the German occupation of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus was formed in Kyiv under the direction of Hryhory Kytasty. It consisted of seventeen bandurists, the youngest being Hryhory’s nephew Petro Kytasty, then aged fourteen. Shortly after its formation, the group was shipped off to Germany where they were initially employed as factory workers in Hamburg. It was not long though before the Germans realized they could make better use of the group for morale raising purposes by allowing them to perform for the large groups of Ukrainian forced labourers in labour camps throughout Germany. This they did so for most of the war, with brief periods of time in Kyiv in between.
At the end of the war, and after many improbable escapes from bombings and the threat of repatriation to the Soviet Union, they wound up in a DP camp Regensberg in the American occupation zone. For the next four years, they performed in numerous DP camps throughout Germany. In 1949, they finally succeeded in immigrating as a group to the U.S. where they settled in the Detroit area. They continued to perform throughout the U.S. and Canada and in 1958 returned for a grand tour of European countries. Since then, they have continued their proud tradition of excellence as the leading proponents of the bandura tradition to this day.
There are only two of the original seventeen founding bandurists left alive today, Petro Kytasty who is approaching 90 and Mykola Lyskiwsky who is 103. Petro Kytasty was able to attend the premiere of the movie in Toronto last week and was clearly overcome by the enthusiastic reception the movie elicited from the packed, sold-out audience in attendance.
It is clear that the bandura holds a special place in the hearts and souls of Ukrainians. In no other ethnic culture is one instrument so clearly symbolically identified with a people, both artistically and historically. The bandura is most distinctly a Ukrainian instrument, one whose sounds embodies the depth and emotional richness that characterizes Ukrainian art, culture and history. The movie, produced and directed by Orest Sushko, more than does justice to this fact. It is a movie that all Ukrainians should experience.