There is so much more to Cossack life, their history and culture than we have space to discuss, at least for now. It’s a minor challenge to decide how to end this brief series, but yet another of their apparent contradictions would be fitting enough.
Perhaps you wouldn’t automatically associate a tradition of heart-felt, even poignant creativity, with a sub culture of hardened mercenaries, capable of conquering and subjugating most of the largest country on Earth? Perhaps you’d be wrong. Yet alongside the historic extremes of violence for hire, there are and have been: long respected traditions of poetry, song, music, and dance throughout Cossack history.
We’ll be largely concentrating on elements of the music here; a vast topic in itself that we can’t do justice to! It’s hard to understate the cultural significance of the art form amongst the varied Cossack communities. Since the collapse of Russian Communism, it -along with many other aspects of Cossack life have re-established themselves, after keeping a relatively low profile for the previous 70 years. NPR exlplains:-
After the revolution in 1917, Cossacks fought on the losing side in the civil war, and they were harshly repressed by the Soviets… (they) are part of a long tradition in Russian music, but mostly in the form of rousing traditional folk songs. Throughout most of the Soviet period, colorful song and dance troupes like the Kuban Cossack Choir were the only expression of Cossack identity that was permitted.
Now they are back, and openly so. Sometimes, you only have to walk down the right street to find an expression of their arts; and I did just that. Not in St.Petersburg; though you’d probably find it if you looked hard enough, -but In Ukraine’s capital: Kiev. I stumbled across three separate, senior gentlemen-musicians busking with traditional (Cossack) instruments and with a distinctive Cossack aspect and style. One even had the appropriate, vintage military uniform and trademark oseledets hairstyle. By the way; the photograph below is of the man himself; currently found performing between Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and Khreshchatyk Metro. Sadly, he didn’t look well when I saw him. I hope he’s ok. I wonder if he’s aware that he’s known across the world, along with Stepan Shcherbak, another of the three whom I was privilidged to witness, -and whose favoured spot appears to be the courtyard of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral .
Incidentally, don’t call the hairstyle a “Khokhol” – as some sites advise. I heard from a native of Kiev that this word is used by Russians as a derogatory term when referring to Ukrainians. I digress; back to the musicians.
The default instrument of choice seems to be the bandura; a portable, plucked cross-breed of fretless lute and harp that is played to accompany the performer’s song. Interestingly, the instrument’s physical style was classified according to region of origin and/or type. You may find Kharkiv-style or Kiev-style banduras as well as orchestral, folk and hybrid Kiev-Kharkiv varieties, if you know what you are looking for of course. There are also rarer versions made to cover piccolo, prima and bass ranges but these never made it to the mass market.
Predating the bandura (although they still may be found) was the Ukrainian kobza, whose players were often referred to as Kobzars, confusingly for us. However when you hear the distinct rolled, Slavic “r”, you’ll realise that the words do sound drastically different. Also, confusingly; the kobza and the bandura were often named interchangeably, although the former ancestor instrument, does, according to reference photographs; veer more towards the medieval lute in appearance.
Other instruments were also incorporated into group events; violins, flute-pipes, bagpipes, drums, hurdy gurdy and more, plus a variation on the hammered dulcimer known as a tsymbaly in Ukraine, or a cimbalom in Russia. Such occasions were usually celebratory; often held after the return from a successful battle and featured song, elements of reenactment and the famous squatting/jumping dance: the Hopak. The moves -and other featured gymnastics- are designed to showcase strength, masculinity, skill, control and other warrior-like attributes. No surprise, really. Over the centuries the dance form evolved to include women and couples, and to become much less of a ‘boys club’ than originally intended.
Similarly, the subject matter of the songs themselves is often drawn from the Cossack tradition of heroic deeds, great battles, epic tales, legendary figures and the like; from a Cossack perspective, that is. As with the instruments and the culture/s themselves; these were also regional and diverse in origin, -with each subculture contributing to the pantheon as a whole. Today there is a movement to document and preserve these works for posterity. You don’t have to be a Cossack to enjoy them, though (perhaps) it helps.
I’ll leave you with a demonstation of why Cossack music is so remarkable: here’s an amazing version of Black Raven (Chornyy Voron) ; an old Donetsk Cossack song. It’s sung from the perspective of a wounded Cossack dying on the battlefield. His final thoughts go out to his loved ones as he waits for death to collect him in the form of the dark bird spiralling overhead. An incredible piece, sadly made all the more poignant by the tragedy that is happening in the region today.
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