American-Ukrainian bandurist talks of his love for his newly found homeland and music
at Puzata Khata on Bessarabska ploscha. Hands groomed for playing bandura are but one sign marking him as a musician. Recently returned from a concert in Frankfurt, he said, “Sure,” when I called to propose an interview on Saturday, pausing before adding, “What day is it today?”
In search of a perfect fit
The 31 year-old bandurist has traveled a long way from his hometown in North Carolina. Born to an American father and Ukrainian mother, Fedynskyj always felt a strong tie to his mother’s ancestral homeland.
“It’s a very strange thing, but I knew that at an early age. Once I went to school I realized that these are Americans but I was Ukrainian,” he recalls.
This cultural information, instilled by the Ukrainian-centered upbringing his American-born mother provided, eventually inspired his move to Ukraine eight years ago.
“I got enough of that to be able to get along here and just to have much more in common with the Ukrainian friends I have than most of the American colleagues I had at school,” says the expatriate who now feels more at home here.
“When you change your setting, the things that you’re not so used to you adapt to. And now returning to America, I realize that I just couldn’t live there,” admits Fedynskyj, who has grown accustomed to the spontaneous fluidity of Ukrainian schedules.
While he has adopted the classic Ukrainian neutral visage, Jurij’s mild demeanor and polite manners reflect a natural Southern charm. His family members recently visited from the States. “I’m trying to convince them to repatriate,” he says with a grin.
Breathing new life into old traditions
Jurij Fedynskyj, who first encountered the bandura at summer camp in Pennsylvania, arrived at the Lviv Conservatory in 1998. After only six months, he moved to Kyiv, and found his place with the Kobzar Guild (Kobzarskyj Tsekh).
“This is a group of cultured youth who have gathered around Heorhiy Tkachenko, who is the… renewer of the kobzar tradition in Ukraine,” explains the aspiring kobzar.
Tkachenko, born in the early 20th century, has since passed away, but the third generation of his students is still making their own instruments and performing historical epic songs called dumy. The group contains almost no professional musicians, but members range in age from 17 to 55 and in profession from Arabic scholar to icon painter.
“It’s best if you were a man and blind,” adds Fedynskyj in a deep, warm-toned voice. The kobzar would travel from village to village, accompanying his songs on a stringed lute-like instrument called the kobza, a smaller predecessor to the contemporary bandura.
“This was the cultural elite; they were not musicians in a simplistic sense,” Fedynskyj explains. They knew their history, they knew their culture, they knew their faith, and they transferred that through their performances.
“It was a very serious honor to be known as a kobzar,” says the musician who humbly refers to himself as one who practices the kobzar tradition.
The work of the guild now lies in reconstructing the repertoire of the original kobzars who disappeared in the 1920s, using notated scores collected by folklorists and wax recordings of the singers themselves. Unfortunately, access to resources is highly restricted.
“The things that are supposed to be preserved, they are; it’s just our job to look for them and find them. And they’re being found,” the bandurist says with conviction.
“It’s very powerful information, powerful music. The Soviets didn’t like it. There are a lot of Ukrainians presently who don’t like it,” says the musician of his repertoire. Dumy can go on for 15 minutes, and modern audiences are not accustomed to Old World listening practices.
Fedynskyj emphasizes that the lessons of the old repertoire are as relevant today as when they were originally sung: “The dumy recalling historic events, they weren’t about history so much; they were about morals, about more general things that apply to any age.”
The kobzar musicians perform solo and in ensembles in Ukraine and abroad. “People used to criticize us that we were an ensemble for expats,” says Jurij, referring to two groups he plays with – Karpatiany and Khory Kozacki. Actually, the ensembles play more in Ukraine than abroad; on Sept. 14, they’ll enliven a book fair in Lviv.
Although the early kobzars vanished long ago, the information they harbored still exists in members of the living generation. Jurij explains, “These people don’t all play the bandura, they don’t all sing, but they are cultured. As I get to know those people, the kind of conversations we have, the kind of life that we create… that’s the most important form of recreating the kobzar tradition.”
Inspiring a cultural dialogue
After acclimating to Ukraine, Jurij spent two years in New York around 2001. “People didn’t believe that I was born in America. They thought I was European,” says the musician with a hint of pride. He was much more aware of Americans’ apathy toward their nation’s violent international policies after spending time abroad. Because he takes a critical stance to the nation that raised him, Jurij fears, “People see me as anti-American. People see me as anti-diaspora. Well, it’s not true. I’m one of the truest Americans in the positive sense.”
“It’s very strange that I would have chosen Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian civilization for my civilization,” ponders the bandurist in slow, measured speech that is less a drawl than an indication that he chooses words thoughtfully. He compares his situation of growing up Ukrainian in America to that of Tkachenko, founder of the kobzar guild, who was born in Kharkiv, but moved to Russia, where he could not express his native culture.
There are important bits of information in every culture that most people are not even aware of, but those are the most vital to Fedynskyj and, he speculates, also to Tkachenko. He elaborates, “I think in every civilization there are people who their job is to protect that civilization, to extend it at all costs. So we can’t compromise those bits of information. And it’s not just language, it’s what’s being said in that language, it’s what’s being transferred. And it’s not a person who just plays the bandura and sings – that’s not a kobzar. It’s the person who’s gotten to know that information.”Jurij hopes that with the help of the kobzar tradition, “Ukraine gets on its feet… and become Ukrainians worthy of their heritage.” He fervently believes that the West, if receptive, could benefit greatly from the information preserved in Ukrainian traditions. His work is just beginning, for “once you get acquainted with that old world, there is the obligation to share it.”