The Hidden Meaning Behind The Ukrainian Instrument Highlighted At The Grammys

Many musicians perform at the Grammy Awards each year, and 2022 is no different. However, amidst the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, one Ukrainian musician will be performing a touching tribute to her country alongside singer John Legend. Siuzanna Iglidan is a renowned Ukrainian opera singer and musician who is trained in playing the bandura — the national instrument of Ukraine.

Iglidan said that it was a dream come true when she received an invitation to perform at the Grammy Awards. According to WGN 9, Grammy producers extended an invitation to the musician after they watched her play the bandura in a video posted online. Since news of her performance was announced, Iglidan said that she has been overwhelmed with emotions with the amount of support she has received, especially during a difficult time for her home country. She added that she got emotional during rehearsals and was glad to have been given the opportunity to showcase the music and culture of Ukraine.

What is the bandura?

The bandura — also called kobza — is a string instrument typically used to play folk music in Ukraine. The modern version can have anywhere from 20 to 65 bass and treble strings, with each string producing only a single note. According to historical references, the earliest known players of the bandura were Ukrainian warriors in the 6th century but back then, the instrument was smaller in size and had fewer strings than its modern counterpart (via Britannica).

As the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus notes, the bandura is the perfect instrument that exemplifies Ukraine. The sound the instrument produces is comparable to a harp or lute and has a wide dynamic range, making it a versatile instrument. In the 15th century, the bandura was most commonly used as the accompaniment to ballads sung by blind musicians, and by the early 20th century, performers started to incorporate their views about the ruling powers when they performed. As a result, the bandura was deemed an instrument that played the music of rebellion.

The bandura's significance in Ukraine

The bandura is important in Ukraine, not only because it's the country's national instrument, but also the tragic history connected to it. In the 1930s, Soviet political leader Joseph Stalin pushed to eradicate the Ukrainian culture. Bandurists — most of whom were blind — were also seen as a threat, as they sang about Ukrainian traditions. This resulted in the persecution of bandurists. Some were arrested, others were shot, and Stalin even went as far as to invite a few hundred bandurists to a congress only to be executed, as reported by Brama.

After the tragic massacre of the bandurists, the bandura became a symbol of patriotism for the Ukrainian people. Those who were able to escape traveled to different countries, such as Canada and the United States, where they were able to continue playing the bandura and singing songs about their culture without the fear of oppression (via Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus). Banduras were mass-produced after the death of Stalin, and today, there are organizations dedicated to preserving the history and culture associated with the instrument.