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Kobzar Taras Kompanichenko
Taras Kompanichenko is a kobzar — a musician and singer who plays Ukrainian traditional instruments and sings Ukrainian traditional songs, some of which are hundred years old. The Khoreya kozatska Ensemble, of which he is a leader, takes part in Krayina mriy, Moloda hvradiya and other folk music festivals which are regularly held in Ukraine. Mr Kompanichenko was interviewed by Oksana KYRYCHENKO.
What kind of music material do you select for the music and songs that you perform?
I perform age-old folk songs that have come down to us from the past. I do “reconstructions” of the epic ballads, Cossack psalms, Cossack songs, I use old Ukrainian poems of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for my performances as well.
I would not say that it is a usual thing for a young person to be interested in ancient music, to learn to play traditional instruments. How did you get interested in the Ukrainian music of the old times in the first place?
I don’t think I can find a simple answer to your question. Probably it just comes from somewhere deep in one’s consciousness where the collective memory of one’s nation resides. In childhood, many of us are very curious and we explore all the nooks and crannies of the place where we live… I remember my grandparents had a very old sewing machine which had lots of small drawers. I just loved opening them and exploring their contents — it was such a great fun to fish out thimbles, spools of thread, broken old watches, all sorts of bric-a-brac. My grandfather said he was so sorry there was no memorabilia left from his father who had been a victim of Stalin’s Great Terror purges. But there were some books and other things of sentimental value that had survived from his own young years and they were of a great significance for me. There was some magic in those things, witnesses of the past, part of the family continuity... Kobzar music is a link with the past, a link in the cultural continuity.
Was there anyone who influenced your cultural choices?
It was my father who got me interested. He told me that when I was about two he gave me the first tiny bandura. I remember that I learnt to play a popular Ukrainian song, Chervona ruta, on it. Later, with the encouragement from my father, I learnt to play the regular-sized bandura, and playing the bandura you can’t help playing old Ukrainian songs.
Where does the name of your music group come from?
“Chorea” is an ancient Greek word which came into many European languages through Latin. The original meaning of the word is “chorus” but in its later usage it has come to mean a nervous disease and also it has retained its music connotations in such words as “choir”, “choreography”. In the Ukrainian musical terminology “khoreya” is an old song and tune to which you can dance. Incidentally, there are notes of “Khoreya kozatska” that date from probably the late sixteenth century which have been discovered in the archives of Bratislava, Slovakia.
One can presume that your Khoreya kozatska Ensemble is made of like-minded musicians.
Not only musicians — we have also a folklorist and a historian as members. But we are all enthusiasts of ancient Ukrainian music. We want to revive the traditional Ukrainian music, to reestablish the musical and cultural continuity. We want to demonstrate the depth and value of the Ukrainian cultural heritage.
How do your audiences react to the music you perform? Can people of today relate to the music of the distant past?
Of course they can! After the performance is over, people in the audience linger on, they are reluctant to leave. Both slow, meditative pieces and pieces with military, marching rhythms find their response in our audiences. Mind you, during our performances, all the members of the band both play and sing. It creates a very special atmosphere, a very special mood…We believe that people should sing much more than they do now, they should be encouraged to sing as they used to in the times of old on various occasions — and without any special occasion too. Nowadays people passively watch television, and the tradition of singing has actually been lost in the cities. Luckily, it lives to a certain extent in the countryside. There used to be songs sung at feasts, on religious holidays, at the wakes after funeral, at weddings. Choirs used to sing in churches, and thank God they continue to do so during the religious services. Every religious and traditional holiday in Ukraine had its own songs which were sung by all the participants. Some songs were very chaste and pure — but there were bawdy and racy songs too!
Are there any kobzar music festivals held?
Last year, on the Feast of the Trinity, which coincides with the traditional Ukrainian feast of Zeleni svyata (Green Holidays) we organized a festival, Kobzarska triytsya. We are planning to hold such festivals in the future. The Ivan Honchar Folk Art Museum held an exhibition devoted to the history of kobzar music.
I know that traditional kobzars were much more than musicians and singers — they knew how to treat certain diseases with medicinal herbs, they were to a large extent the conscience of the people, they sang of very profound, existential matters. What about the kobzars of today?
I wish all the kobzars of today were like the kobzars of old but it’s hardly possible in today’s world. But I do believe that a kobzar should be a sort of medium, a magician, should have knowledge of things sacral, should posses knowledge of the medicinal herbs and of many other things. I do believe that music is a sacred phenomenon — and an enigma too.
I know that in search for the materials for your songs you peruse old books. Any particularly impressive finds made recently?
I discovered a collection of church chants published in Lviv in 1700, and one of the songs from that book, Sticheron Dedicated to Archangel Michael, impressed me greatly. Another book that I recently discovered was published in 1762 and it is also devoted to church songs and hymns.
You use the word “discovered” — discovered where: in libraries, archives?
No, the two books that I’ve just mentioned were given to me by my disciple and good friend Yaroslav Kryska. He bought them at a second-hand bookstore in Lviv. I collect old books which are devoted to ancient music, and I work in libraries that have old books. When I travel, I make it a point to visit second-hand bookstores and very often I’m in luck. In some cases, it’s something totally mysterious. Five years ago, for example, when I was in Krakow, my intuition told me that I should look for such-and-such book in such-and-such store — and can you imagine — I found what I was looking for!
It’s a great experience even to be holding an ancient book, an incunabulum, in your hands! The feel of the old leather of the cover, the old paper, the engravings, inscriptions written on the pages by former owners or readers – all of these things take you into a very special world! You travel in time, you become part of history. I’m not looking just for any old books — I want those that are devoted to music. And I had to learn how to read the old music notation, how to decipher all kinds of signs. I did that, and the enigmas of the music past are slowly opening to me. It takes quite a long time to decipher the old musical notation and special signs. Only when it’s done I can move on and turn the notes on paper into music.
Does it happen that you discover an old poem rather than old notes which you use for making a kobzar song out of it?
Sure it does! I admire old Ukrainian literature. It is a great source of inspiration for me. One of my recent discoveries is Ioan Velychkovsky, a seventeenth-century poet. His poetry is fantastic! He is a sort of a Baroque-time modernist! He experimented with new forms in poetry, he wrote acrostics, he introduced new rhyming schemes and rhythms. Some of his poetry is like a labyrinth of words — and it makes you so happy when you do get through these labyrinths!
Is it only the poetry of the distant past that inspires you?
No, not only of the past. I’ve used poems of Ihor Kachurovsky and of Danylo Kulynyak who are the poets of the twentieth century. Some of the poets of the so-called The Executed Generation (Ukrainian poets of the 1920s and early 1930s who were later arrested on trumped-up charges and put into concentration camps, or executed by firing squads) have been a great inspiration for me. I find Mykola Zerov’s translations from Horace, Catullus, and Virgil to be the great, highly inspirational poetry… In 2003 I went to the Solovetsky Islands in the White sea in the north of Russia, where the soviets had a concentration camp mostly for intellectuals. I wanted to see that place which used to be a sixteenth-century monastery, then a concentration camp and now a sort of a tourist attraction. I was overwhelmed by what I saw and felt there. The writings of Zerov and other poets of his generation became much more transparent for me… I believe that music can re-establish the links in the cultural continuity that got broken.
Is there any message that you would like to pass on to aspiring and budding kobzars?
Kobzars must be pure in their hearts, they must have noble and honest goals. They must feel the Wind of Life and find the right direction. The great Ukrainian poet, Vasyl Stus, who spent years in soviet concentration camps and in exile, wrote that “I feel pain when I don’t hear the Voice of Heaven.” Kobzars should be tuned to that Voice. When you hear that Voice and let others hear it through your music and songs, you feel truly happy — you know that they are needed by the people who want to hear that Voice and you help them hear it. It’s wrong to assume that music played by me and by Khoreya kozatska targets only a small number of Ukrainian culture and ancient music enthusiasts — we hope that the time will soon come when many more people will hear the kobzar message which comes from the very heart and soul of Ukrainianness.
Photos from the archives of the Khoreya kozatska Ensemble
The Khoreya kozatska Ensemble of Ukrainian
Ancient Music, which is led by Taras Kompanichenko,
performs songs and ballads that are several
centuries old. They are well received by all kinds
of audiences. The instruments they play are exact
replicas of the traditional Ukrainian instruments,
and they make the instruments themselves.
Khoreya kozatska Ensemble rehearsing in the
Taras Kompanichenko playing the kolisna lira —
an ancient Ukrainian instrument (a sort of a
Taras Kompanichenko performing at a concert in
commemoration of the 75th anniversary of
Holodor — Great Famine of 1932–1933.
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