One can compare 82-year-old Alexander Antonich Harkevich from a village in Mogilev district to Orville Gibson, the legendary guitar maker. But with one huge difference – the Belarusian is a self-taught craftsman. He is well-known in his neighborhood for crafting traditional instruments out of wood, each with their own unique sound. Harkevich doesn’t know the exact number he’s made, but estimates it at around three thousand.
Alexander Harkevich is one of about a dozen remaining residents of the village Volkonosovo, where in the past each home used to have a family of no less than eight people.
Antonich smoothly calls out the reality: “There’s no point in living here. Water comes from an outdoor well, and gas in cylinders. Belarusians deserve comfort, and that’s why they move to the city.”
Optimism and cheerfulness keeps the self-taught 82 year-old young.
“I just take care about myself. Every morning, I have thirty minutes of exercise. I don’t smoke. Sometimes I’ll drink 50 grams on the holidays. And I don’t overeat.”
But Harkevich’s lifeforce projects mostly through his favorite craft. He is a master of traditional instruments and everything made of wood. His cozy workshop is filled with the aroma of wood, dried grass, and apples.
Whistles, rattles, castanets, xylophones, tambourines, maracas filled with beans. Harkevich brings out a Moldavian whistle, it resembles a pan-flute. “Belarusians don’t know how to properly place their teeth on it, so I modified it. Now it’s easier.”
Each instrument is made by memory – Alexander recalls the instruments he played in his childhood or the ones he saw other people playing. The man says he has not read a single book or manual, and calls himself self-made and self-taught music maker.
Music has always been a big part of his life. Dances at a local club, the mother beautifully playing the balalalika. Later, during student years, the young man absorbed the passion for music from one of his professors, a skillful accordion player. Alexander Harkevich himself was part of a traditional ensemble and continues to play to this day.
The retiree makes his instruments with fantasy: for example, he made a modified Himalayan metal drum that sounds fully Belarusian. The pride of the entire musical collection is a ratchet made from 300-year-old pine.
“There was a school behind the grove where I worked as a gym teacher in 1959. Four generations of locals couldn’t remember how old the forest was. And then, for some reason, the area was demolished, the old trees were cut down. And we found out how old they were.”
Harkevich knows everything about trees. For example, oak sounds the best. For whistles the perfect choice is hazelwood. Those made from elder tree are deafening. But the loudest of all is “birch bark”; a piece of soft, wet bark placed between the lips.
The man works a lot with wood, making instruments, spoons, boards, frances – everything including bird houses. There’s about 40 of them hung on the trees around his house. Because the master loves the singing of the birds.
“I can’t sit with nothing to do. I always need to be crafting. There’s a lot around and I can’t stop. I like making things.”
Also, he only eats with wooden spoons. He says it’s better for the teeth. His grandson follows his example.
What makes him kind of sad is the lack of tools for delicate crafting, such as wine glasses with intricate carvings. But the man remains optimistic and says, he’ll come up with a solution.
In the end, Harkevich gifts us hair pins made from aspen, thin and smoothly polished “so they won’t hurt the hair”. And invites us to coma again.
He says he has a good life, but a lonely one. The village is located away from main roads, and his wife is seriously ill. So there aren’t many people to interact.
“Sometimes I talk to myself in the workshop. I’ll say, ‘Be healthy, Antonich’, and I’ll reply ‘Thank you, Comrade Harkevich.’ Loneliness is like that.”
The original version of this article was published by TUT.BY. Translation by Mariya Pekar for BelarusFeed.