Gone are the days when a traditional Ukrainian instrument, bandura, was associated with blind minstrels. In the hands of 25-year-old Georgiy Matviyiv this bulky string lute can sound like a double bass, a guitar, a harp, a percussion instrument and even a vinyl disk played by a deejay.
He’s one of the few musicians in Ukraine on a mission to break from the bandura’s epic history, which was preempted by kobza, a favorite instrument of Ukrainian Cossacks and blind musicians, or kobzari. Lyrical and heroic, their songs painted great historical moments and the hard life of the peasantry, similar to the poems by Ukraine’s greatest bard Taras Shevchenko, who is now also known as the Great Kobzar.
Shevchenko’s barely noticeable portrait at the bottom of Matviyiv’s instrument is perhaps the only link between the bandura’s rich legacy and its jazzy present. Dressed in plain jeans and a T-shirt instead of traditional vyshyvanka during his concerts, Matviyiv does have some folk songs in his repertoire but even they sound differently, sometimes like Spanish flamenco.
“Only recently people began to understand that with bandura it is possible to play a variety of genres,” says Matviyiv sitting in a cafe in downtown Kyiv. The young musician from Odesa claims that he invented 16 new ways of playing bandura and can play new age style, jazz and blues. Television talent shows helped him to popularize his skills.
Wild West Jazz by Georgiy Matviyiv
Matviyiv’s competitor, Yaroslav Dzhus, also got his head start during a TV casting. The 23-year-old Kyivan impressed the jury on the same talent show by playing Beatles, Metallica and Queen on his bandura. Dzhus has also made a cover on Lady Gaga’s song “Paparazzi,” which quickly became popular on YouTube. He didn’t win the show but signed up for another one, this time as the producer of the bandura sextet Shpylyasti Kobzari.
While this sextet gives folk songs a rocky twist, Matviyiv, who is half Georgian and half Russian, has no deep relationship with Ukrainian national traditions.
“When I started playing the bandura no one in my family knew this instrument exists. They did not know what this word even meant,” said Matviyiv. “My family wanted me to become a banker and sent me to a math class at school.”
When I started playing bandura no one in my family knew this instrument exists. They did not know what this word even meant,” said Matviyiv.
Ironically, his parents’ calculated decision led their son to music anyways. Matviyiv’s teachers decided to reward the best students in mathematics with a bandura class, since they believed that people talented in math could be talented in music as well. Matviyiv, who was 12 at the time, was one of those allowed to attend the unusual class.
It was fate, recalls Matviyiv now. He went on to attend a music school, then college and finally entered Odessa State Music Academy.
Soon, he learned that tapping the body of the instrument makes it sound like percussions; and striking and rubbing the strings with his palm edge conjures a sensation of a DJ spinning a vinyl. He was so thrilled to discover all these new elements of play that he is going to write a thesis on this topic, Matviyiv said.
After winning several musical contests including the 2009 All-Ukrainian Bandura Art, he says there are still plenty of musicians who outperform him in academic techniques.
Among his heroes, Matviyiv names Dmytro Hubyak, a recognized 29-old bandurist from Terebovlya, Ternopil Oblast, who plays classics by Vivaldi, Bah and Beethoven and jazz by Duke Ellington and Ennio Morricone, apart from composing his own music for the bandura.
As jazz critic Oleksiy Kogan summed it up: “When a young man goes on stage with a bandura he prolongs the life of this instrument.”
To hear Matviyiv's music, look for his two CDs “On the Edge” and “Exit” at umka.com.ua.
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