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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.

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).