Meet the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, Sharing Culture Through Music

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On a recent Saturday afternoon in Parma, members of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus gathered for an all-day rehearsal.

The group consists of about 50 singers and players from across North America, including a dozen men from Northeast Ohio. Many members flew or drove to Ohio for the occasion.

 “They’re various ages,” said Oleh Mahlay, the conductor and artistic director. “We have someone that’s 14, who just started with us, and we have gentlemen that are in their mid-70s.”

Oleh Mahlay leads the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus in rehearsal [ideastream]

Mahlay worked on things like tempo and phrasing with the musicians, who are all volunteers.

“This is not just your ordinary choir, when you come in and sing maybe on Sunday in church,” said Nazar Kalivoshko of Hinckley. “This is a brotherhood really.”

The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus passes on a culture through its music, and, at times throughout its 100-year history, performing has come with a great cost. 

“Governments were very frequently scared of the bandura and the bandura players, because they were the oral history of the nation and of the culture,” Mahlay said.

The music dates back centuries with traveling performers sharing stories through songs. After WWI, the Ukrainian government organized a professional chorus, which is the foundation of this group.

“But then the 1930s came and Stalinist purges, persecutions, imprisonments, jailings, executions. And members of our group, conductors, bandura players, singers, they were imprisoned, sent to Siberia or executed,” Mahlay said.

Surviving members performed in WWII displaced persons camps before emigrating with other Ukrainians to the U.S. Many members settled in Detroit for work in the auto industry and revived the chorus, which continues today with new players and singers from across the U.S. and Canada.

Andrij Birko also teaches the bandura in Michigan [ideastream]

“Bandura is actually rather difficult to play,” said Andrij Birko, a third-generation member from Michigan.

Birko described the instrument as a cross between a lute and a zither.

“It has a neck like a guitar, and it’s got a huge belly,” he said.

The bandura’s “belly” is covered with strings, and each one is a different note.

The ensemble features more than a dozen bandura players with the chorus, and its distinct sound is especially meaningful to Andy Fedynsky, director of the Ukrainian Museum Archives in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.

“It’s something I’ve experienced and known about since I was a little boy,” he said.  

Fedynsky has all sorts of records of the group’s history, including programs and posters from concerts held around the world.

The group has played everywhere from Severance Hall in Cleveland to the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Last fall, the chorus returned to Ukraine to perform.

Volodymyr Murha, a member from Michigan who moved to the U.S. with his parents at age 2, takes pride in bringing the music to people around the world. 

“You’re sharing something that is enticing to the people you’re sharing it with, and it makes the world a little bit more — no, I’d say a lot more interesting,” he said.

The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus returns March 17 for a concert at the Cleveland Museum of Art.


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