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Kobzari are folk professional minstrels unique to Ukraine. One thing that makes them special is the musical instrument which they play. This instrument is called a bandura and it developed out of the kobza, from which kobzari take their name. The kobza was a plucked and strummed symmetrical instrument similar to other European and Eastern lutes. Additional strings were gradually added to one side of this instrument so that it became more and more asymmetrical. At the time of the famous kobzar Veresai, the bandura had twelve strings; as it exists now, the bandura has more than 60 strings and is held and played more like a harp than like the kobza, other lutes, or earlier versions of the bandura.
Kobzari are special also because they had to be blind. Traditional kobzari, as they are attested from the middle of the nineteenth century, when scholars first began collecting information about them, to 1939 when Stalin called a convention of kobzari and had most of the participants shot, were highly trained professionals. They were mendicants and were organized into church-affiliated guilds.
The guilds enforced a system of apprenticeship to a recognized kobzar master and an initiation test. From what we can tell, all blind children, girls as well as boys, could be apprenticed and most people entered apprenticeship at an early age, sometimes as young as five or six. Many children did not complete apprenticeship, however, and became guild-affiliated beggars, rather than professional minstrels. The guild sanctioned beggars could perform some of the songs known by kobzari.
Almost all of them knew the begging song or zhebranka and most knew a song of thanks called the blahodarinnia. Only full- fledged minstrels, however, could play a musical instrument and perform the full repertory: zhebranka, blahodarinnia, religious songs or psalmy, epic or dumy, historical songs and satirical songs.
The most important item in this repertory was the religious song. Some of the most popular religious songs are the ones about Lazar (Lazarus), about the martyr Varvara (St. Barbara), about Oleksii, Man of God. There were also songs about the Last Judgement, the Passion of Christ, and related materials, such as the very popular song about an orphan girl. While scholars were most interested in the epics songs (dumy) performed by kobzari, the village audience valued the psalma or religious song and the benefits to the soul brought by listening to a kobzar and giving him alms.
Kobzari performed in a variety of venues. They would travel
from village to village led by a guide called a povodyr. The povodyr was
usually an orphaned or a poor child who worked for food, clothing, and
a small wage. Upon arriving in a village, a kobzar would go from house
to house singing the zhebranka. If he was invited inside, he would perform
psalmy and whatever other songs his hosts requested. Upon leaving and
receiving his payment, he would sing the blahodarinnia.
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