Overshadowed by Russia, torn by inter-ethnic strife, and languishing in poverty, Ukraine is seldom thought about in terms of its culture, yet its musical heritage in rich. Its church music is a heady blend of medieval and Romantic influences, its folk songs are as earthy and sparky as any from Russia itself. But its most arresting sound is that of the bandura, which Ukrainians have long regarded as their prime national instrument.
It looks like a lop-sided lute, with a bulging belly and truncated neck, and it can have anywhere between 21 and 60 strings. It's played like a harp - both hands plucking, both free to play high or low - and its warmly resonant tone is indeed mid-way between the sounds of harp and lute. But over the past 100 years its practitioners have suffered a tragic fate.
In the 19th century the bandura was the province of guilds of blind minstrels called kobzari, who used it to accompany their epic ballads. By the time of the Revolution, it had been adopted by urban musicians, and pressed into service as a background to choral music. The Soviets first espoused the instrument - expanding the range of its pitch - but then set about erasing the kobzar tradition. First the blind singers were vilified in the press as "parasites", "unnecessary relics", and finally "enemies of the people". Then they disappeared: some in the famine of 1933, many others through arrest and execution. Some were invited to a Congress of Traditional Singers, from which none returned.
Today the kobzar tradition is alive once more, partly thanks to folk-music groups in Ukrainian universities, but principally because its flame has been kept alight by expatriates in America. Some - like the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus - fled West in the 1940s; others, like Heorhiy Tkachenko (1998-1993), spent most of the last century promulgating the kobzar gospel in America. A remarkable CD has just been released by third-generation bandurist Julian Kytasty - Black Sea Winds (NVR 2012-2), on which traditional kobzar songs are blended with Kytasty's own compositions. If you listen to this beguiling stuff, I guarantee you'll want to get your hands on a bandura, to see what you can do.