Ukrainian Folk Music (extra credit blog)

coat of arms

  The Ukrainian coat of arms

Ukrainian folk music is the traditional music of an Eastern European country, one that my entire family is from. The culture of this country, as I have witnessed in all the times that I have visited it, is most evident in the West, where the language spoken is actually Ukrainian and not Russian, and the people have a strong and unbending nationalistic spirit, one that was oppressed for centuries and centuries with tyrannical rule. Despite a previous ban on various facets of Ukrainian traditional culture during the Soviet era, the folk music of the country has always been preserved and has always been performed at various events, both somber and festive, such as weddings, birthdays, funerals, and during the holidays, especially Easter and Christmas, which are the most important holidays of the calendar and are celebrated for a whole month. These folk songs are not only evident in Ukrainian music, but in Russian compositions as well, as renowned composer Peter Tchaikovsky was known to use some of the melodies from these songs in his work.

traditional clothing

Traditional Ukrainian clothing

Although I was born and raised in New York City, my parents have always made sure that I know these songs and know about the culture of the country of my ancestors and current family is from. I not only went to a Ukrainian school for twelve years throughout my childhood on the Saturday of every week and studied topics such as geography, literature, culture, religion, and language/grammar, but I also attended a Ukrainian musical institute for ten years for piano. I attend a Ukrainian traditional church on Sundays as well. Thus, I am most definitely involved in the same traditions that my family grew up with, and am not completely foreign to the country when I do travel to visit my family there. Learning about the culture and the heart and soul that goes into these folk songs very much transferred into my piano studies as my teacher would assign many traditional songs for me to memorize and perform at concerts for holidays and around the calendar year, and I tried my best to play these songs with the same spirit that I have heard them performed.

Currently, many regional groups throughout the country still exist in order to preserve these traditions of folk music and the Ukrainian heritage. One of the groups is Kozaks (or Cossacks) whose origins stem from the very roots of the country’s distant history, dating back hundred of years. They are patriots who refused to live under tyranny (which is cast over Ukraine’s history). The word “Kozak” means “free person.”

The Bandura is one of the most traditional Ukrainian instruments, which is a stringed zither which is played similarly to the way a harp is played, but it is tuned the way that a guitar is, and has about sixty strings. Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko, Ukraine’s greatest and most infamous poet, writer, political figure, and folklorist, is almost always painted or pictured with this instrument, which thus reaffirms its deep roots in the culture. The Kobza is a four stringed instrument which is plucked or strummed as well. Of course the side drum is popular in most of the folk songs as well as the violin (skrypka), the flute (sopilka), and even bagpipes (duda). Usually trio musicians play folk songs which consist of the three main instruments that are almost always used: the frame drum, violin, and bass viol. Depending on what kind of song is being performed, sometimes there will be a group of both men and women, and sometimes only men, or only women. The women usually have a graceful dance that accompanies their performance, as the country and its heritage has always emphasized traditional gender roles and the beauty of them in relation to the culture.


Bandura – traditional Ukrainian instrument

Ukrainian folk songs could be classified into four different groups. The first group is ritual songs, which entail carols (for holidays), spring and winter songs to welcome the seasons (such as “hayivky” which is spring dance and song usually performed after the Easter holidays), songs for holidays for Saint Nicholas and Koliada (Christmas carols), and “Ivana Kypala” which is a holiday celebrated on the 6th and 7th of July of every year for the summer solstice, when days are the longest. The second group is wedding and harvest songs. The third is historical and political songs (predominantly performed by the Kozaks). And the last group is lyrical songs which talk about life, love, family, and society (Katchanovski 182). These kinds of songs in particular tell stories of human, raw, and sincere emotion. Just listening to these songs being performed live with the traditional instruments never fails to give me goose bumps, as I have always been one to analyze the spirit with which something is performed, especially a song which talks about the kinds of emotions just about everyone has felt through the kinds of life events just about everyone has experienced, from good ones, to bad ones. The type of singing that is employed in Ukrainian traditional folk music is white voice singing. This technique employs an open throat technique that sounds something like a composed scream, I’m really not sure how else to explain it. It is a very unique type of singing, that you will only understand when you actually hear it, and well, you would probably describe it the same way.

Most countries in Eastern Europe have a story to tell in regards to breaking away from the reign of the Soviet era, and finally embracing their own traditions and culture without fear of being silenced or punished for it. I have always taken pride in my roots, and have always continued to immerse myself in the music and traditions of Ukraine, even though I am a first generation child of immigrants in America. The folk music of any country tells a story, one that sparks a nationalistic pride, tears of memory, or just reflection of one’s life events. So as I listen to these songs, I always imagine a different world, in a time far before the one we live in now, a night where stars shine brightly in the sky, where young souls dance freely around a fire, singing songs of their heritage and the generations that preceded their own.

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Works referenced:

  1. Katchanivski, Ivan, Zenon Kohut, Bohdan Nebesio, Myroslav Yurkevich. “Historical Dictionary of Ukraine.” Lanham. Scarecrow Press. 2013. Print.
  2. Kopka, Deborah. “Welcome to Ukraine: Passport to Eastern Europe & Russia.” Dayton. Lorenz Educational Press. 2011. Print.


Below are some clips which capture the spirit of Ukrainian Folk Music very well! 

Above is an example of upbeat happy dance music, to which the Ukrainian traditional dance, the “Hopak” is usually performed.

This is a traditional Ukrainian folk song which is centuries old. It captures the spirit of group/choir performances.

This is an absolutely stunning performance, which captures the spirit and soul of a very popular Ukrainian folk song (she is also playing the traditional instrument that I mentioned, the Bandura!) It brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it.

Lastly, here is a more modern take on one of the most famous Ukrainian folk songs, by a very popular rock band of the country, “Okean Elzy.” I am a huge fan so I just had to include this one!