Sitting on the grass, drinking kvaas

I’m back from Kyiv* now, with a happy and exciting visit still fresh in my mind. This is partly thanks to the beautiful music I’m listening to now, discovered on my third day.

Wandering past the Golden Gate – the historic gateway to the old city of Kyiv – I came across a group of singers and musicians playing what I now know to be traditional Ukrainian instruments. I stopped to listen for a moment, then a few, then leant against a tree to enjoy the sweet voices and trill of the lute-like kobza, which to my ears sounded like something from a past era. As it turns out, many of the instruments, tunes and lyrics used by these musicians have changed little over centuries, with the knowledge being passed on both by word-of-mouth and in written form.

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As the evening unfolded, I found myself sitting on the grass, drinking kvaas (a weak beer made from fermented rye bread) in a circle of new friends, humming along to songs I didn’t understand, but, by the end of the evening, had started to learn.

kievjuly13Having made the acquaintance of Taras, Valeriy and their friends, I went to two more of their concerts over the course of the week, one at the Ivan Gonchar museum, the other at the book museum in Pechersk Lavra, the large twelfth century monastery complex on the edge of the Dnipro river. Both concerts were organised to raise money for the Ukrainian troops, something that many Kievans I met feel very strongly about, believing there to be a real danger of Putin’s soldiers invading Eastern Ukraine. Personally, I think that the addition of more troops can only lead to more division and violence, in a volatile situation which has already led to over 1,500 deaths. I hope peaceful means can be found to prevent the gyre from widening further.

During the Soviet era, when Ukraine was part of the USSR, the Ukrainian language was supressed, as was any expression of traditional folk culture which suggested a greater loyalty to something other than the Soviet state. Indeed, Ukrainian musicians frequently came under attack, with kobzars and bandurists being specifically persecuted, and even being executed under Stalin in the 1930s. Despite this, the musical tradition has survived, and perhaps because of it, is passionately celebrated and defended by a a number of talented musicians. Banduras and kobzars are still produced under a Guild system in Kyiv.

kievjuly11kievjuly10In my last post, I included a clip of a performance of ‘De Libertate’ – ‘Of Liberty’, a song I’ve been enjoying without understanding it’s meaning or origins. I’m including it here again with the lyrics. Thanks to Dmytro for this translation.

Of Liberty – an 18th century poem by Hryhorii (Gregory) Skovoroda

Що є свобода? Добро в ній якеє? What is freedom? What good does it have?
Кажуть, неначе воно золотеє? Some say it is like gold.
Ні ж бо, не злотне: зрівнявши все злото, No, I say. All the gold of this world
Проти свободи воно лиш болото. Compared to the freedom is only dirt.
О, якби в дурні мені не пошитись, Oh, I’d never want to become a fool
Щоб без свободи не міг я лишитись. Left without freedom.
Слава навіки буде з тобою, Let the glory ever be with you,
Вольності отче, Богдане-герою! The father of freedom, Bohdan** the hero!

 

*I’ve changed my spelling from Kiev to Kyiv, since the latter better reflects the Ukrainian pronunciation.

** Hryhorii Skovoroda mentions Bohdan as a positive historical figure, but this connotation is not as widespread now.