March 6, 2022 - Blog

The Ukrainian Bandura

Author: Lucas Harris

In light of recent events in Ukraine, we at Lute Legends would like to spread awareness about a lute-family instrument from that area called the bandura.

Up until the mid-18th century, the bandura had frets and was played like a lute.  (Pictured above: the mythical Cossack Mamay playing a kobza-bandura.)

At that point it developed a new form which combined elements of a lute with a zither, having 4-6 stopped strings as well as around 16 unstopped treble strings.  This form persisted into the early 20th century. (Pictured left: classical bandura from the 20th-century, luthier unknown)

Instrumental ancestors of the bandura are mentioned as far back as the 6th century: a Greek chronical from 591 contains a reference to warriors from Ukrainian territories who played an Eastern European lute called the kobza.

In the middle ages, the bandura was often heard in Eastern European courts, much like the lute was heard in Western Europe.  Ukrainian kozaks who played the instrument professionally were called kobzari, who were often blind.  To the accompaniment of the bandura, the kobzari sang epic songs known as dumy (singular: duma) which celebrated the Ukrainian kozaks’ quest for peace and freedom.

(A modern performance of a Ukrainian song on a classical bandura:)



In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a period of renewed interest in the bandura which coincided with a rise of Ukrainian patriotism and national identity.  New banduras, now mass-produced, were made new with innovations in their structure, including a chromatic tuning system with extra strings as well as metal tuning pegs.  (Pictured right: bandura lessons being advertised by Vasyl' Potapenko, c1925)

Shortly after this period, the Soviet government began to suppress the bandura tradition and its players over concern that it was an anti-Soviet activity that fueled the rise of Ukrainian national identity.  Bandura classes were disbanded, and restrictions were put on the making and playing of banduras.  By 1930s, bandurists were disappearing, having been killed, imprisoned, or sent to Siberian labour camps.  A ethnographic conference was organized in 1933-1934 which invited many itinerant musicians to gather in Kharkiv, including blind kobzars and lirnyks (players of the Ukrainian lira).  Some 300 of these musicians were then executed en masse as practitioners of an unwanted tradition in the new Soviet society.

Many Ukrainian bandurists sought refuge in the United States and Canada.  After World War II and the death of Joseph Stalin, some restrictions on bandura playing were relaxed, and yet bandurists continued to struggle as the Communist party forced them to censor their repertoire, removing any elements that were deemed to be anti-Soviet.

Today, bandura courses are offered in all Ukrainian music schools, composers write new works for the instrument and sometimes use it within orchestras.  Yet this important tradition is still fragile as the Ukrainian people have now come under attack once again by their Russian neighbors.


Please see these sites for more information about the bandura:

Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North American page about the bandura

Wikipedia entry on the bandura

New Grove Dictionary Online (subscription required)

(Pictured left: an early mode of bandura from the Chernihiv factory of musical instruments.)