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Author: Shaun Williams

Odessa, Yiddish Pearl of the Sea exploring the city’s Jewish musical heritage

Odessa, Yiddish Pearl of the Sea

I finally visited Odessa this summer after nearly three years in Ukraine.  Due to the bulwark of Communist nostalgia known as the “Transnistrian Moldavian Republic” through which trains have been denied passage since 1990, the journey from Chernivtsi to Odessa requires making a huge 16-hour circle north to Lviv then east to Ternopil and south through Vinnitsia into the Odessa region. Ultimately, Odessa was worth the trip.

A typical Odessa street, with bicycle, Lada and Ferrari
A typical Odessa street, with bicycle, Lada and Ferrari

The city has a laid back, jocund flair that Kyiv lacks– perhaps it’s the sea, or the obvious wealth that the (sometimes legal) shipping trade has brought to the region.  Odessa is also unique in Ukraine for its multiculturalism; while Kyiv and Lviv were also once home to large Jewish, Armenian and Greek communities, Odessa’s ethnic diversity seems to have weathered the past eighty years better than Ukraine’s other cultural capitals. Thus it is not uncommon to see Turks, Tatars, Roma, or Hassidic Jews in the centre, and a delightful variety of restaurants and cafes specialize in non-Ukrainian cuisine that is actually good.

The embodiment of "golden oldies" dances to a freylakhs on Deribasovskaya
The embodiment of “golden oldies” dances to a freylakhs on Deribasovskaya

During my first visit to Odessa’s city park on Deribasovskaya St., I happened upon a local brass band playing old “Odessa songs” including many well-known Jewish tunes like “Limonchiki” and “7:40” to the delight of the mob of elderly dancers that surrounded the bandstand.  The scene was unlike anything I had seen in Ukraine before– sure, Lviv has its Sunday folk song choir on Shevchenko Square, but it is usually solemn and nationalistic – Odessa’s got yidishkayt!

Two weeks later, I was back in Odessa for the 4th annual International Klezmer Festival, where my friends Forspil (an excellent Riga based klezmer-rock band) as well as Ukrainian brass band Konsonans Retro were playing.  For me, the other highlight of the festival was Kyiv’s own Pushkin Klezmer Band whose sound I would describe more as Balkan-Jewish, owing more to Serbian-Romani singer Šaban Bajramović than to their Russian literary namesake.

Below: the Pushkin Klezmer Band performs in Kyiv, January 2011.

Odessa’s Jewish cultural heritage is perhaps most evident in the multitude of Russo-Yiddish folk and popular songs that remain popular today.  Songs extolling the city’s virtues and beauty–as well as those playfully hinting at its darker side–have been popular since Lenin’s New Economic Policy of the 1920s, an era often deemed the Soviet “jazz age”.  I decided to examine some of these songs’ lyrics and the colorful history behind them.

Leonid Utyosov

It is impossible to discuss the genre of Odessa songs or music of the NEP without acknowledging the tremendous contributions of Leonid Utyosov (Леониид Утёсов).  Born in Odessa in 1895 to Jewish parents (his real name was Leyzer Vaysbeyn), Utyosov dropped out of accounting school to become an acrobat in the circus, later working as a stand-up comedian and finally, a singer.  He eventually created a style of jazz based on American and French big-band music that included theatrical, comedic and Yiddish elements.

Although he lived much of his life in Moscow, Utyosov’s songs often focused on his home town.  In his autobiography, he responds to the Yiddish saying “Ades iz kleyn-Pariz” (Odessa is a little Paris) with “Париж должен у Одессы ботинки чистить” (Paris should shine Odessa’s shoes).  Many of his songs utilize the distinctive “gangster” dialect of Odessa’s seedy “Moldavanka” district–one of the city’s most impoverished, predominately Jewish neighborhoods, and also the setting of Isaak Babel’s 1923 “Odessa Tales”.  One of Utyosov’s best known songs about Odessa, “С Одесского кичмана” (From the Odessa Jail, 1932), a gangster-themed remake of an old Proletarian war song, tells the tale of two escaped convicts, one of whom is mortally wounded:

From the Odessa Jail

С Одесского кичмана
Бежали два уркана,
Бежали два уркана тай на волю.
В Вапняровской малине
Они остановились.
Они остановились отдыхнуть.

Товарищ, товарищ,
Болят мои раны.
Болят мои раны в глыбоке.
Одна же заживает,
Другая нарывает,
А третия застряла у в боке.

Товарищ, товарищ,
Скажи моей ты маме,
Что сын её погибнул на посте.
И с шашкою в рукою,
С винтовкою в другою
И с песнею весёлой на губе.

Товарищ малохольный,
Зароют моё тело,
Зароют моё тело в глыбоке.
И с шашкою в рукою,
С винтовкою в другою
И с песнею весёлой на губе.

За що же мы боролись?!
За що же мы страдали?!
За що ж мы проливали нашу кровь?!
Они же там пируют,
Они же там гуляют,
А мы же – подавай им сыновьёв!


From the Odessa Jail
Fled two criminals,
Two criminals ran free.
In a new hideout
They stopped.
They stopped to rest.

Comrade, comrade
My wounds hurt.
My wounds hurt deeply.
One is healing
The second is bleeding,
And the third bullet is caught in my side.

Comrade, comrade
Tell my mother
That her son perished at his post.
With his sword in his hand,
With a rifle in the other
And a cheerful song on his lips.

Pale Comrade,
Bury my body,
Bury my body deep in the ground.
With a sword in my hand,
With a rifle in the other
And a cheerful song on my lips.

For what have we fought?
For what have we suffered?
For what have we shed our blood?
They’re out there feasting
They’re out there carousing,
And we’re giving them our sons!

…Oy Mama, my mama!

The first verse was added to the original by Utyosov, resulting in a pastiche of war ballad and “блатной” (criminal) song that is not entirely successful.  The final lines are rendered incoherent- “we’re giving them our sons!” is clearly a proletarian reference to the injustice of a war that benefits the rich, and has nothing to do with escaping from jail or being a gangster.  While the lyrical content tells a rather bleak, if not romantic tale, Utyosov’s performance of the song subverts this mood with playful stuttering and the occasional yelp, making it into a kind of jazzy lighthearted version of a criminal’s ballad.

When life gives you lemons…

Utyosov’s most popular song among contemporary Klezmer bands is certainly “Limonchiki”, a simple but catchy tune about good times and.. lemons?


Вот джаз загремел, заиграли трубачи,
Весёлой дробью загремели барабаны!
И стаи звуков завертелись, как бураны,
И захотелось сразу танцевать!
И всюду пары начали сновать.

Как много пар –
И млад и стар.
Все поднялись
И завертелись вместе разом.
Увлечены весёлой музыкой и джазом,
Всем захотелось сразу танцевать!

Ой, лимончики,
Вы мои лимончики!
Ей растёте на моём балкончике.
Ой, лимончики,
Вы мои лимончики!
Вы растёте у Сони на балкончике!

Jazz thundered, trumpets sounded,
A merry roll rattled the drums!
And the swarm of sounds whirled like a storm,
And everyone wanted to dance!
And everywhere couples began to swing.

So many couples –
Young and old.
All rose
And whirled along together.
Carried away by joyful music and jazz,
Everyone wanted to dance right away!

Oy, limonchiki,
You’re my little lemons!
Growing on my balcony.
Oy, limonchiki,
You’re my little lemons!
You grow on Sonia’s balcony!

In Odessa’s gangster slang, “limonchiki” was actually code for “milionchiki”, as in millions of Rubles.  While Utyosov’s recording of the song omits blatant references to this, many additional verses exist on other recordings, including lines such as:

Ой, лимончики,
Мои червончики,
Где вы растёте,
В каком саду?

Лёва яйца продавал,
Нажил миллионы,
А потом в кичман попал
Через те лимоны.

Oy, Limonchiki,
My chervonchiki*,
Where do you grow,
In what garden?

Lev sold eggs,
Made millions,
and ended up in jail
because of those lemons.

*A reference to the red color of Soviet Rubles.

The tune has been performed by Konsonans Retro, Dobranotch, and De Amsterdam Klezmer Band, to name a few.  Almost every ensemble at the Odessa Klezmer festival included a rendition of “Limonchiki” in its performance, and the crowd didn’t seem to mind the repetition.

The Odessa Klezmer Festival concludes with a gala concert in the swanky top floor of a shopping mall for oligarchs
The Odessa Klezmer Festival concludes with a gala concert in the swanky top floor of a shopping mall for oligarchs

Akh, Odessa!

Possibly today’s most popular song about Odessa, “Akh, Odessa, Pearl of the Sea” (Ах, Одесса, жемчужина у моря) oddly has no known author.  Legend has it that 23-year old Odessite Modest Tabachnikov (Модест Табачников) wrote the words on a restaurant napkin in 1936, but others claim the tune was actually written by popular Jewish Oddessite songwriter Arkadiy Zvezdin (a.k.a. Arkasha Severny).

Akh, Odessa

The song is a relatively trite, wistful homage to Odessa and its alluring beaches, parks and nightlife.  Here is a sampling of lyrics:

Ах, Одесса, жемчужина у моря
Ах, Одесса, ты знала много горя
Ах, Одесса, любимый южный край
Цвети моя Одесса,
Цвети и расцветай!

В Одессе есть такой маяк,
Он светит всем всегда
Он говорит: “Постой моряк,
Зайди ко мне сюда.
Здесь двери всем открыты,
Бокалы всем налиты.
И женщины танцуют до утра.”

Ah, Odessa, the pearl of the sea
Ah, Odessa, you’ve known a lot of grief
Ah, Odessa, beloved southern coast
Bloom, my Odessa,
Bloom and flourish!

In Odessa there’s a lighthouse,
He gives light to all
He says, “Wait sailor,
Come here to me.
Here all doors are open,
Glasses poured for all.
And women dance until morning.”

One of Odessa's many beaches
One of Odessa’s many beaches
Odessa's "lovers' bridge" covered in signed padlocks
Odessa’s “lovers’ bridge” covered in signed padlocks


While not explicitly an “Odessa song”, the immensely popular 7:40 (or “Sem Sorok/Sim Sorok“) is worthy of note for its sheer ubiquity in the former Soviet Union.  The piece is essentially a freylakhs with two sections, but is perhaps the only such Jewish dance melody to be recognized by a distinctive title everywhere it is performed.  From the taverns of Odessa to the Hutsul mountain villages of Transcarpathia, Sem Sorok is an essential component of Jewish and non-Jewish weddings alike.  At Gentile weddings, the tune usually accompanies a “handkerchief dance” in which participants dance in a circle while the man or woman in the center chooses a dancer of the opposite sex from the circle, places the handkerchief on the floor, then kneels on it to receive a kiss from their chosen dancer.  The kisser then chooses the next recipient, and process repeats as long as the band wants to keep it going.

Sem Sorok – basic melody as it is played at weddings in Ukraine

The origins of the tune are unknown–it does not appear in any of the early Yiddish field recordings of Moshe Beregovsky, nor in the American Klezmer repertoire of the early 20th century. However, several theories as to its provenance exist. One common story claims that the song originated in the late 19th Century and refers to the train that brought shtetl-dwelling Jewish merchants to and from Odessa every day, arriving at 7.40 and leaving at 19.40.  The fact that the tune has a name suggests that it may have had lyrics; however, while many contemporary lyrical versions of Sem Sorok exist, it is unknown which is the ‘original’ or why this particular freylachs melody was chosen.

The aforementioned Arkasha Severny recorded a version called “A hitz in paravoz” in 1975, (Yiddish:  אַ היץ אין פאַראָוואָז – which literally means ‘heat in the train’, and slangily means ‘a fidgety person’)

Sem Sorok – Arkasha Severniy version (1975)

In the former Soviet Union, Sem Sorok occupies the (overplayed) position that tunes like “Hava Nagila” or “Tants tants yidelakh!” enjoy among American and European Klezmer enthusiasts.  How and why the tune became so widespread and popular will likely remain a mystery.

* * *

*note: the rough translations included in this post are my own.

Odessa slang dictionary:
Severniy History:
Anarchist Song Archives:
Sem Sorok History:
“How It Was Sung in Odessa: At the Intersection of Russian and Yiddish Folk Culture”, Robert A. Rothstein, Slavic Review, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Winter, 2001).

Transcarpathian Tsymbalist an interview with Cimbalom player Volodymyr Korolenko of “Hudaki”

Transcarpathian Tsymbalist

In July of 2009, I interviewed* Volodymyr Korolenko, an Uzhgorod-based cimbalom and nai player best known for his work with Transcarpathian folk group “Hudaki,” about his experience learning to play the cimbalom.  Volodya is an exceedingly talented and humble musician, and has been a great resource for me since I began learning the cimbalom.  I highly recommend his “Hudatska Taistra” album as well as all of the “Hudaki” albums (more about Hudaki at the end of this article).

Why did you begin playing the tsymbaly**? (Ukrainian hammer dulcimer)
I was raised in a musical family.  My father was a professional musician and my mother was trained as a stage-director.  I took piano lessons at the youth music school.  At that time, my father conducted youth musical ensembles, and he had a kind of youth orchestra.  For some reason, when I was seven or eight, he decided that I should play the tsymbaly in the orchestra.  I started on a smaller instrument with a Ukrainian tuning, and worked up to larger instruments.

Where did you learn to play the tsymbaly?
My father taught me to play the tsymbaly himself– they didn’t teach it at the music school.  In Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv regions it is taught in music schools, but I’m from Kirovograd region in Central Ukraine.  I moved to western Ukraine in 1998.  When I was twelve years old, my father ordered a ‘medium sized’ tsymbaly from the factory in Chernigov; it used the Hungarian cimbalom tuning, and came with instructions explaining the layout of the notes.

When I finished high school, I had to decide what my profession would be– whether I would be a pianist or a musician in general, and I had a lot of other ideas.  I didn’t want to be a musician; I was more interested in sports and attending the military academy.

After school, I still had to wait for a year and a half before I could join the army, so I either had to get a job or study.  I graduated school with a medal, and in those days [in the Soviet Union] if you graduated with a medal you were automatically accepted into academies and universities.  So we started looking at the different options, and ended up at the tsymbaly.

In western Ukraine there are music schools and academies that teach the tsymbaly as a serious instrument, so when I arrived in Kyiv at the music academy and saw the way the other students [from western ukraine] were playing, I could see that I really couldn’t play this instrument at all.  They played sonatas, partitas, scales, arpeggios, and so on, and asked me to play an arpeggio,  I knew music theory from my time as a pianist but my playing was sub-par.  The academy told my father that I would need to be better prepared if I wanted to study there, so I started taking lessons with a cimbalom player from the National Bandura Orchestra.  I had very good, very serious teachers – Vasyl Popadyuk (sopilka) and Dmytro Popichuk (tsymbaly).  Within a year, I had learned everything that I needed to get into the music academy, and had also fallen in love with folk music.

I attended the National University of Arts and Culture in the department of “Folk Music Performance”, focusing on the bandura, tsymbaly and sopilka (flute).  I was shocked when I arrived that the students were all virtuosi.  I hadn’t attended a music academy after music school, so I had to practice a lot; I would wake up, practice all day and go to bed.

What method was used for teaching the tsymbaly at Universities?
Since the instrument used was a Hungarian invention, the “Shunda” [concert cimbalom], it made sense to use a Hungarian teaching method.  There was a famous Hungarian cimbalom player named Géza Allaga (1841–1913) who created a beginner’s method based primarily on etudes that is used throughout the music school system in Ukraine today.  In Hutsul or Boyko regions like here in Transcarpathia, students are expected to play pieces from their ethnic region in addition to etudes and sonatas.

What other instruments do you play?
Aside from the tsymbaly, I mostly play traditional wind instruments: tilinca, floyara, frilka, dentsivka, ocarina, rizhok, koza, kuvytsia (nai).

Which ensembles have you played in?
At university, I helped found a new ensemble called “Budmo!”.  We listened to lots of folk virtuosos like Fluerash, Gheorghe Zamfir, and Toni Iordache from Romania and learned their pieces.  We were pretty successful, and traveled all over Europe in 1995.

After university, while still in Kyiv, I played in the folk ensembles “Synevyr”, “Dnipro”, the “Berehynia” National Theatre ensemble, “Obriy”, “Bohovytsia”, and “Kravytsia”.  Most folk musicians in Kyiv play in more than one ensemble.  They might call me up and say, ‘come play with us tomorrow’, and I would ask ‘sopilka or tsymbaly?’.

In Uzhgorod, I play with the folk orchestra “Uzhgorod”.  In 2003 I co-founded the group “Hudatska Taistra”, and since 2006 I’ve played with “Hudaki”, the most well-known Transcarpathian band in Europe.

Click here to listen to Hudatska Taistra play “Hutsul Dance Melodies”

The Uzhgorod Philharmonic, once the city's Great Synagogue dedicated in 1910. Volodymyr Korolenko worked here at the time of this interview.
The Uzhgorod Philharmonic, once the city’s Great Synagogue dedicated in 1910. Volodymyr Korolenko worked here at the time of this interview.

What musical influences did you bring to Hudaki when you joined them?
Let me start by saying that since 1990, I’ve collected a lot of recordings, listened, analyzed and transcribed them.  You have to understand the difference between Hungarian folk, Hungarian Gypsy music, Transylvanian music, Romanian, Moldavian, Bukovinian, Gagauzian music, etc.  I sought out and took lessons from master folklorists like Mykhailo Tymofiiv in Kolomyia, who is an expert on Hutsul music.

When I started playing with Hudaki, for some reason their [Transcarpathian] music was just not familiar to me.  They often had to tell me to play more modestly or simply.  The style of accompaniment that we use is Hutsul-Romanian.

I hear a lot of Romanian rhythmic accompaniment in your playing– was that part of the traditional style in the Khust region where the group is based?
I should explain that Hudaki is not a folkloric ensemble–they don’t play music as it was played traditionally in their region.  An authentic group from Khust would have a violoncello, two violins and a small tsymbaly for rhythm alone.  Hudaki is composed of village musicians–but what do village musicians play?  Their music doesn’t remain the same forever, it changes with the times, and now they’ve begun to learn tunes from outside their village and become a more interpretive ensemble.  That’s why I never say that Hudaki is an ‘authentic traditional ensemble’–they are a band.

Click here to listen to Hudaki play “Na Berezhku” (on the riverside)

In “Hudaki”, the hudak–the violinist–is at the center.  I’m not sure about the etymology but the word ‘hudak’ is used in Slovakia and Poland as well.  It’s related to the word ‘husli’ (violin) and the verb ‘huslyati’.  In traditional bands, the violinist is the leader, and we have a very good traditional violinist.  We have a few Romanian melodies because in some regions of Transcarpathia like Tyachiv and Rakhiv, you can’t have a wedding without them.

In Transcarpathia there are two million people and thirty different ethnic groups, so the influence that these cultures have on one another is huge.  For example, our “Primash” (violinist) in “Hudatska Taistra” plays more like a Pole or Slovak, but in Mizhhirya region they play purely Hutsul style, and in Rakhiv and Tyachiv a more Romanian style.  Here in Uzhgorod there is more Slovakian and Hungarian influence.

The Romanian-style rhythmic accompaniment that I use is just something that came to me; the band doesn’t try to limit me, first of all because we aren’t trying to play a ‘pure’ traditional style.  There really were Gypsy cimbalom players that played like this in Uzhgorod, Berehovo, and Vynohradiv in the past, but the ethnic Ruthenians (Ukrainians) would have played a small Hutsul tsymbaly.  The tsymbaly accompaniment in Hutsul regions is very simple, with the tonic and fifth alternating or in unison.  When I play fast dances like “Krutcheniy” with Hudaki, I use this kind of Hutsul accompaniment because it’s just not possible to play something more complex at that tempo.

Click here to listen to Hudaki playing “Krutcheniy” (Twisted dance)


Hudaki (or Гудаки / Hudaky as it is written in Ukrainian) is an interpretive folk group founded in 2001 and consisting of musicians from the village of Nizhne Selishche in the Khust region of Transcarpathia, Ukraine, as well as Volodymyr Korolenko (originally from Kirovograd, central Ukraine) and Jürgen Kräftner, their manager and clarinetist from Austria.  Their newest album, “Гудаки не Люди” (2008) (Hudaky aren’t people) is available as a free download on their website and probably derives its strange title from a Ruthenian Kolomiyka like this one:
Ий, гудаки не люди, гудаки не люди,
Старий гудак молодому забив нуж у груди.

Ey, fiddlers (Hudaky) aren’t people, fiddlers aren’t people,
The old fiddler drove a knife into the young one’s chest.

*This interview was conducted in Ukrainian and translated into English.  I tried to keep the language as true to its original meaning while preserving readability in English.

**tsymbaly is the name of the Ukrainian hammer dulcimer, but is also the name for the cimbalom in Ukrainian.

Маньо Takes Manhattan The “Manyo” Family Band from Tiachiv, Ukraine visits New York City

Маньо Takes Manhattan

In September 2010, I had the privilege of accompanying my favorite Ukrainian band to the United States as their interpreter/cross-cultural chaperon. It was the first time the band had played outside Europe, and the first time that most of them had flown in an airplane.

Known in their home town of Tyachiv, Ukraine (Тячів) as “Родина Маньо” (Manyo Family Band) and in Hungary as the “Técsői Banda” (Tyachiv Band), the quartet consists of Bayan (button accordion), Violin, Bubyn (Drum) and Tsymbaly (Hammer Dulcimer). While the band’s playing style is quite common in their region of Transcarpathia, their real strength (and the reason that they are so interesting to ethnomusicologists) lies in the diversity of their repertoire. They not only play the traditional Rusyn/Ruthenian wedding tunes common to the Tyachiv region, but also Hutsul, Hungarian, Romanian, Jewish, Roma, and Russian tunes. Thus, the band is a unique musical time capsule– a connection to Transcarpathia’s more ethnically-diverse past.


The band’s name (and much of their repertoire) stems from its founder and patriarch, Yuriy Yuriyovych Cherniavets, a violinist born in 1920 on the Romanian side of the Tisza (Тиса) River in the village of Little Tyachiv (Малий Тячів). Yuriy was known locally as “Manyo” (Маньо)– “Beckoner”, because when he played, the townspeople would drop what they were doing in order to revel in his music. Cherniavets played weddings for all of Tyachiv’s ethnic groups, which in those days included a much higher proportion of Jews, Hungarians and Romanians than are present there today. Cherniavets had two musical sons, Yosyp (a bayanist) and Misha (a drummer/tsymbalist), and by the early 1960s, they were accompanying him on gigs, along with his cousin’s son, Yura (a drummer).

Yuriy "Manyo" Cherniavets (left of bride), his son, Yosyp (bayanist) and cousin's son, Yura (drummer) at a wedding in Tyachiv, circa 1975.
Yuriy “Manyo” Cherniavets (left of bride), his son, Yosyp (bayanist) and cousin’s son, Yura (drummer) at a wedding in Tyachiv, circa 1975.

After Manyo’s death in 1982, Yosyp, Misha and their second-cousin Yura continued to play for weddings with local virtuoso Ivan Mykolaiovych Popovych as their violinist. Since Misha’s death in 2007, the band has played with various local tsymbalists, including the classically trained Vasyl Antonovych Hudak, who accompanied them on their recent trip to the U.S.

The band has recorded five albums: “Ruszin Népzene” (Rusyn Folk), “Vertek engem, vertek” (I Was Beaten), “Мелодії Закарпаття” (Melodies of Transcarpathia), “Русинські коломийки 1” (Ruthenian Kolomiyky 1), and “Русинські коломийки 2” (Ruthenian Kolomiyky 2). The first two were produced in 2002 and 2004 by Hungarian folk label Etnofon Records after the band’s ‘discovery’ by producer Ferenc Kiss. The latter three were self-produced and recorded in one session in 2007 at a studio in Vinnytsia, Ukraine (Vasyl Hudak plays tsymbaly on these records).

Click here to hear the tune “Весела легінська” (jolly men’s tune) from their album “Русинські коломийки 1”.

In this recording of a men’s wedding song, Yura sings and plays the plyonka (плёнка/плівка = “film”), a circular piece of rigid, thin plastic packaging that is placed between the lower lip and front teeth, and pressed against the top lip to create a buzzing sound when blown. In Hutsul settlements, the practice is known as “playing on a leaf”, which as it turns out, Yura can also do.

Manyo in New York

I first heard about plans to bring Manyo to New York when my friend and Klezmer tsimbl mentor Pete Rushefsky asked me to help the band with their visa applications.  Pete is the Executive Director of New York’s Center for Traditional Music and Dance; he and Artistic Director Ethel Raim wanted to include Manyo in their upcoming “Black Sea Roma Festival” program, but the U.S. consulate required most visa application materials to be submitted in person in Kyiv. Luckily, I was able to help in that regard, and after a couple of 14 hour train rides to Kyiv and a few weeks of waiting, the band got their visas–just a week before they were scheduled to fly to New York.

I traveled with the band as their interpreter, but ended up posing as their “manager” during a few sticky airport situations. Our troubles started in Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport, where I learned that despite my specific instructions not to bring food or drinks, the band had packed as if they were taking a 32 hour train ride to Crimea: bottles of water, juice, vodka, loaves of bread, sausages and cold kotlety. Almost all of it had to go. I showed the boys the sign forbidding drinks and explained that the sausage would lead to a $300 fine once we got to New York, and they immediately set up shop on a bench outside the metal detectors and began to chow down.

food_airportOnce we were through feasting, it was time for our first security check. The instruments aroused some suspicion (especially the tsymbaly) and even though we were still in their home country, somehow I ended up being the one to explain everything to the security officers. This was especially difficult when they found a big screwdriver and club in Yura’s carry-on bag. It seems that Yura had never thought that his drumstick and the dulled screwdriver he uses to play the cymbal could be considered weapons. Luckily, Borispil’s security is not up to American standards and we were able to simply put the potential weapons in one of the instrument bags to be checked at the gate.

When we finally arrived in New York, we were greeted by Pete Rushefsky and fellow organizer, Budapest-based Klezmer fiddler Bob Cohen. Bob had arranged for us to stay at his sister’s house in New Jersey for the first two nights of our five day stay. Due to a UN summit in town, crosstown traffic was confined to one route that day, and the band’s first impression of America was a three hour traffic jam.

Manyo playing outside the Ukrainian National Home in the East Village.
Manyo playing outside the Ukrainian National Home in the East Village.


The band played two shows: on September 25th at the Ukrainian National Home in the old Ukrainian part of the East Village, and on September 26th at Central Park’s “Summer Stage”. The latter was a large open-air concert produced in conjunction with the New York Gypsy Festival and featured Mahala Rai Banda, Selim Sesler, Yuri Yunakov and the New York Gypsy All-Stars.

The concert at Summer Stage in Central Park.
the concert at Summer Stage in Central Park.

I was surprised by the extent to which the band chose not to enjoy America–  with the exception of New York pizza, every meal they ate consisted of bread, pickles and boiled hot dogs prepared in their hotel room.  Of course, this was largely a financial issue; it wasn’t that they didn’t want to try new exotic foods, but for the eight dollars it would cost them for a delicious Pad Thai dish in NY, they could easily provide a meal for their entire extended family back home.  It is also a generational issue; these musicians are in their 50s and 60s.  They are much less knowledgeable about foreign countries and cultures than younger generations of Ukrainians, and therefore less likely to try something new and exotic when they have the chance.  Still, despite having barely scraped the surface of American culture during their short stay, the band was impressed with what they saw.

Upon returning from New York, the band received an award from the Transcarpathia Ministry of Culture for their participation in the concerts in New York, and were definitely enjoying the attention that it brought them.


The award reads (my translation):

Transcarpathian Oblast Council
Ensemble “Manyo Family Traditional Quartet”
(Conductor Yosyp Cherniavets)
For your dutiful creative work and considerable personal contribution to the socioeconomic and cultural development of the city.  Presented on the 681st anniversary of the first written mention of the city of Tyachiv.

Cimbalom tuning, Soviet style Thoughts on tuning from the experts of yesteryear

Cimbalom tuning, Soviet style

Cimbalom players spend half their lives tuning and the other half playing out of tune. Adapted from popular banjo lore

While the small Ukrainian tsymbaly is the dulcimer of choice in the Hutsul villages of the Carpathians, music educators throughout the former Soviet Union prefer the Hungarian system (aka the Shunda).  There were even factories producing Hungarian-system concert cimbaloms in Chernihiv and Kamyanets-Podilskiy, Ukraine and Kishinev, Moldova from the 1960s until the late 1980s.

Every cimbalom player seems to have his or her own preferred method of tuning the instrument.  Some tune by octave starting from c1, some tune the bass first, etc.  I recently asked my teacher Dmytro Matkovskiy, what his tuning method is.  As it turns out, it’s in a textbook by the Soviet publisher “Музична Україна” (Musical Ukraine) printed in 1984.  The book includes a string diagram that indicates the order in which strings should be tuned.

The middle numbers nearest to the note names indicate tuning order.  Thus, a1 should be tuned first, then d1, then a, then e1, then b1, then e1, etc. My teacher tunes the bass strings by octave along with the treble strings (after a1, d1 and a, he tunes the bass d and A strings.)  I added numbers to the chart showing this option as well.

You can download my modified tuning diagram here.

Tuning practices were quite similar in the Moldavian SSR.  In their 1982 cimbalom method “Metodă de Tambal” Moldovan authors Vasile Crăciun and Vladimir Sîrbu provide a string diagram and tuning instructions:

We should start by concentrating on one course. Tune a string at the top of the course (one that is located closer to the smaller end of the cimbalom), then, one by one, the other strings in the course, bringing them to the same level. We will tune the whole instrument in this manner.  As a rule, tuning begins with LA1 (course 18, see diagram). The same course gives us note RE1 across bridge 3.  LA1 should be tuned to concert pitch or to an instrument in the orchestra, then proceed down by an interval of a fifth and tune note RE1. The whole procedure described makes the upper part of the chord. Verifying the fifth, one by one, we continue to tune other strings in the chord.

We are then instructed to tune the upper octave completely, then the bass strings.  For me, this tuning method seems more time consuming than the one I’ve observed in Ukraine because it leaves the bass strings for last, requiring subsequent retuning of the upper registers due to the lowered tension.

Still, if you want to try the Moldavian system, here’s the description and tuning diagram (with my translation).

Alushta, Crimea – Ukraine’s Coney Island

Alushta, Crimea – Ukraine’s Coney Island

With the fall semester rapidly approaching, my girlfriend and I had one last opportunity to visit Crimea before the summer weather subsided and our work began.  Unfortunately, due to the long train ride (about 30 hours) from western Ukraine to Crimea via Kyiv, it worked out so that we only had two full days there, so we focused on relaxing on the beach rather than visiting museums and famous sites.  Still, there proved to be plenty of weird and exotic attractions to see in our small resort town of Alushta.

A view of the main Yalta-Simferopol highway with Lenin mosaic and overhead trolleybus cables.
A view of the main Yalta-Simferopol highway with Lenin mosaic and overhead trolleybus cables.

Alushta is located on Crimea’s more expensive and touristy ‘South Shore’ but is still less popular than Crimea’s main resort town, Yalta.  Upon arrival in Simferopol, we had the option of traveling to Alushta on the Crimean Trolleybus, the longest trolleybus line in the world, spanning 85 kilometers of mountain road.  In the interest of time however, we opted for a marshrutka (mini bus).

Alushta’s streets and sidewalks were awash with vendors, but rather than the potatoes, carrots and plastic kitchen gadgets peddled in central and western Ukraine, these folks were selling exotic fruits, canned delicacies and local home remedies.

"Very sweet!" peaches and large figs for sale (approx. $1.50-3.00 per kilo).
“Very sweet!” peaches and large figs for sale (approx. $1.50-3.00 per kilo).
Canned honeyed nuts and apricots.
Canned honeyed nuts and apricots.
Medicinal herbs and home remedies.
Medicinal herbs and home remedies.

The green fruits in the photo above are called “Маклюра” aka “Adam’s Apple” in Russian or “Osage-Orange” in English. The sign advises the following usage:

Cures: polyarthritis, hand, arm, knee, neck and back pain.
Place one large “Adam’s Apple” into 1/2 liter of vodka or samogon (home brewed vodka). Leave in a dark place for 10 days. Rub onto affected area. Be healthy.

Alushta’s swimming areas consist of converted boat docks with relatively clean pebble or grit beaches crowded with Russians drinking beer, eating beachside snacks, playing Durak or doing what we called the “stand and tan”.


Beachside vendors wander around yelling “Baklava, pastries, salt fish, blintzes, sweet corn, hot coffee, hot tea, who wants em?”  For some reason, hot coffee and tea just don’t seem appetizing at the beach.


A Crimean "Honey Baklava" - basically some Lavash flatbread sliced, knotted and fried then dipped in honey water.
A Crimean “Honey Baklava” – basically some Lavash flatbread sliced, knotted and fried then dipped in honey water.

By far the strangest Crimean treat is the ubiquitous Georgian Чурчхела (Churchkhela), an obscene-looking string of “walnuts, hazel nuts, almonds or raisins … dipped in thickened white grape juice and dried in the shape of a sausage” usually served with a healthy side of angry bees.

At night, Alushta’s concrete “boardwalk” comes alive with vendors, swindlers and unwinnable games.  There are shooting galleries, “Elizabethan dress” photo shoots, unridable “backward bicycles” karaoke stations, bootleg CDR vendors, and monkeys, falcons, owls and lizards that will sit on your shoulder for a price.  One of the strangest is the “pay to have your picture taken with some African guys” booth.

img_1837 Dining near the beach is comparable in quality and price to downtown Kyiv ($30 dinner for two with wine) and emphasizes Shashlyk (skewered, grilled meat).

img_1897 At the end of our trip, we stopped in Simferopol for an excellent meal at the “Vogue” cafe, where our friend enjoyed Лагман (Lagman), the Crimean version of the Kyrgyz national dish laghman – a spicy stew of lamb, carrot and potatoes served over rice noodles.


“New RTF File Here” Toolbar Script for OSX

“New RTF File Here” Toolbar Script for OSX

I use a lot of RTF (Rich Text Format) files in Apple’s “TextEdit” application because they allow bold, italic and underlined text, as well as cyrillic text encodings, and they load a lot quicker than MS Word documents.  I recently found an AppleScript for OSX that creates a new text file in the current window, and modified it to create an RTF file instead.

To install it, just download the compiled script and place it in /Applications or wherever you like, then drag the application icon to a Finder window’s toolbar. Click on the icon and you’ll be prompted for a filename.  Enjoy!

How-to: Correct Ukrainian Cyrillic ID3 tags in iTunes

How-to: Correct Ukrainian Cyrillic ID3 tags in iTunes

Mac users: have you ever added Ukrainian MP3s to your iTunes playlist and found the Cyrillic ID3 tags (Artist, Title, etc.) jumbled?

Picture 1

I have been dealing with this problem for years, and the best solution out there seems to be an add-on script for iTunes by Andrei Popov called Convert Cyrillics.  Unfortunately, this script doesn’t convert the Ukrainian letters “і”, “є”, “ї”, or “ґ”.  I finally got around to modifying this script myself, and here is the result:


Keep reading for detailed instructions…

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