Monday, October 12, 2009

Russian Folk Instrument of the week: Russian Balalaika

The Russian Balalaika is a triangular guitar with only three strings. When I learned to play the Russian Spoons in the smelly Rooskie whore, er brave Russian choir, this summer many of my friends picked up this simple but beautiful instrument.

The balalaika appeared first in the Ukrainian language in the 18th century in documents from 1717-1732. It is thought that the term was borrowed into Russian where it first appeared a poem by V. Maikov "Elysei" in 1771. The instrument soon became very popular with Russian Jesters (skomorokhi) who ridiculed the tsars, the orthodox church, or other facets of Russian society.

A popular notion is that the three sides and strings of the balalaika are supposed to represent the Holy Trinity. However, this is probably not true as the balalaika was used by the jesters who really rather peeved the church. Also, musical instruments are not allowed in Russian Orthodox liturgy.

A likelier reason for the triangular shape is given by the famous Russian writer Nikolai Gogol in his unfinished novel Dead Souls. He states that a balalaika was made by peasants out of a pumpkin. If you quarter a pumpkin, you are left with a balalaika shape.

Another theory implicates Russian boat craftsmen. Before Tsar Peter The Great, instruments were not allowed in Russia. When Peter allowed them, only the boat builders knew how to work with wood. The balalaika looks a little like the front of a boat, if held horizontally.

Another theory comes from a Russian tale: during the Mongol invasion of Russia, a Russian man from Nizhny Novgorod was captured by Mongols, but the Mongol Khan liked him because of his musical talent, released him and gave him a guitar. When the Russian man returned home, he took 3 of the strings out of the guitar, so that he would be able to repair his guitar if he breaks one of the strings, and that way he was left with a 3-string guitar. I find this one to be absolutely ridiculous as Mongols don't like anyone and almost always brutally murdered their captives.

Anyway, there you have it. The Balalaika. Так интересно, нет?

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