Songs of ancestors

Belarusian folk songs preserve many characteristics of our ancient culture, passed from generation to generation via live singing rather than being recorded

By Olga Shavela

Participants of the GUDA Belarusian folk band have studied the techniques of such national traditions, collecting songs during folklore expeditions to Belarusian villages. Before one of the band’s rehearsals, I talked to its members about the past and the future of traditional folk songs in Belarus.

Ceremonial songs account for a considerable part of your repertoire. Why are they so attractive?
Natalia Kravtsova: They’ve inherited huge positive power.
Anna Yemeleva: These songs boast meditative elements in the structure of their melodies and verses, alongside repetition. They aim to bring human beings into harmony with themselves and with nature.
Victoria Mikhno: Belarusian ceremonial folklore is the most ancient layer of our nation’s culture.
Olga Yemelyanchik: Archaic ceremonial folklore is of primary importance in researching the roots of the Belarusian ethnos.

Why are Belarusian folk songs unique?
Anna Yemeleva: The songs are unique in their archaic verses and melodies, which have been preserved until today. Such material in Western Europe is found only in museums and archives. Today, musical works are primarily performed on stage and for the audience. Our ancestors sang songs together not only during rituals but as they fulfilled household duties: baking a ‘caravai’ loaf, going to the field or gathering crops. There were neither performers nor spectators: all were participants.
Natalia Kravtsova: These songs are unique in their sound, since deep breathing is required; it’s an acquired skill. Obviously, no microphones were used, yet songs were heard even in neighbouring villages. On one of our expeditions, we were told that future wives were selected depending on the strength of their voices; a strong voice meant that a young girl was hard-working and physically strong.

Do you add anything to the verses or melodies?
Natalia Kravtsova: No, we try to preserve the traditions, learning songs by listening to the voices of old women. We have several songs with arrangements, but we only sing on stage without musical accompaniment, following ancient folk tradition. Belarusian ceremonial singing is primarily female and has no musical accompaniment.

What are the prospects for the development of folk music in Belarus?
Lyubov Sivurova: Today, many bands combine folk rhythms with rock or jazz. We’re using traditional singing methods. We enjoy this and we aren’t going to move away from this path. Moreover, we receive positive feedback from our listeners; it’s as if their genetic memory awakens. Today, many young people are keen to learn more about traditional music and dancing.
Natalia Kravtsova: We show people how their ancestors lived while involving them in traditional dancing and games. Our fellow countrymen’s interest in the past is stirring, as is their awareness of their place within ancient culture.

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