Kobzar tradition in Ukraine

History and present

PNW Kobzar Project continues the authentic Ukrainian kobzar tradition of story telling via the language of music and art songs.

Kobzar  (Ukrainian кобзар) literally means 'kobza player', a performer on Ukrainian stringed instrument of the lute family, and more broadly — a performer of the musical material associated with the kobzar tradition. The professional kobzar tradition was established during the Hetmanate Era around the sixteenth century in Ukraine. Kobzars accompanied their singing with a musical instrument known as the kobza, bandura, or lira. Their repertoire primarily consisted of para-liturgical psalms and "kanty", and also included a unique epic form known as dumas (Ukrainian equivalent of epic ballads, literal translated to English as “thoughts”). 

Kobzardom  in Ukraine is similar to Western European poet-musician tradition such as  Celtic bards, Old Nord/Eddic scalds, French troubadours, and Greek kitharodes. In Ukraine the word kobzar is associated with  the great national poet Taras Shevchenko who was greatly influenced by kobzar traditions. His most famous poetry collection is called Kobzar. Urkainians show Taras Shevchenko the deep respect to his contributions to Ukrainian language and literature by calling him Kobzar. In PNW Kobzar Project concerts, we will include art songs based on Taras Shevchenko’s lyrics as well as the instrumental chamber music inspired by his literary and artistic heritage. 

In addition to artistic aspect, kobzars were also old Ukrainian tradition keepers and news spreaders while traveling town to town and village to village. They played the role of the social media independent from the state authorities. During the time of serf system introduced to Ukraine by the Russian Empire (1783 - 1861) kobzars were those few people in Ukraine who could travel and speak freely though both administrative state and religious authorities of the Russian Empire did everything possible to reduce the influence of kobzars.

There is a myth that all kobzars were blind. It is not a true fact and is actually the myth artificially created during the time of the Soviet Union. Many of 16th to early 20th centuries kobzars were former warriors, and some of them might had been blind because of war wounds. Blind kobzars were not beggars but people of dignity. They become professional musicians who made their living by their singing, story telling,  and performance on bandura or kobza. 

The institution of the kobzardom essentially ended in the Ukrainian SSR in the mid 1930s during Stalin's radical transformation of rural society which included the assassination  of majority of the kobzars of Ukraine.Kobzar performance was replaced with stylized performances of folk and classical music utilising the bandura. 

During the post-Stalin era in the Soviet Union, the concept  of free traveling former warrior, who turned into poet-musician and informal news-sharer, was still too dangerous to the authorities. “Soviet kobzars” were stylised performers on the bandura created to replace the traditional authentic kobzars who had been wiped out in the 1930s. These performers were often selected for training from children with vision disabilities  and although some actually had contact with the authentic kobzari of the previous generation, many received formal training in the academic conservatories by trained musicians and played on contemporary chromatic concert factory made instruments. Their repertoire was primarily made up of censored versions of traditional kobzar repertoire and focused on stylized works that praised the Soviet system and Soviet heroes. 

In recent times, there has been an interest in reviving of authentic kobzar traditions which is marked by the re-establishing the Kobzar Guild as a centre for the dissemination of historical authentic performance practice. 







Photo credits: Ukrainian art and musical instruments images from the the website of Ivan Gonchar Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine

Website: https://honchar.org.ua/en 

License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/deed.en