Folk Songs Of Belarus. Their Roots, Revival And Modern Reincarnation

From birth to death, folk songs have been a part of people’s lives in Belarus. Belarusians used to sing when they worked in the field, when gathered the family round the table, when they were happy and when lamented at funerals of their loved ones. With the arrival of modern time-killers and rapid changes in lifestyle, the importance of singing started to decrease.

Songs to Belarus what pyramids are to Egypt

Belarusian folk songs survived through thousands of years to our days in almost unaltered form. They come to us from the deepest corners of the time, arise from the distant pagan past, centuries before Christianity and long before even the medieval tunes and melodies were written, and some of them date as far back as 3000 B.C.

“I want to tell the rest of the world that these songs are invaluable. They are to Belarus what the pyramids are to Egypt. That’s no exaggeration. Some Belarusian folk songs originated during the same time period as the Egyptian pyramids and Babylon culture,” says Volya Dzemka, the producer and director of The Songs of Old Europe – Ancient Belarusian Folk Songs.

Belarusian folk songs are closely tied to rituals and seasons: spring and summer cycle songs, wedding and natal songs, love songs, laments, battle songs, and ancient mythology. But change is coming fast. The folk songs are gradually dying out along with their carriers.

Save and preserve

Fortunately, the elusive heritage has been preserved thanks to such hard-working enthusiasts and scholars as Zinaida Mazheika. She wrote down, categorized and analyzed thousands of texts, which later constituted a solid part of Belarusian traditional canon. Besides, the legendary documentaries recorded by her as early as the 70s and 80s are available to everyone interested in centuries-old songs:

Mazheika’s work has been continued by her many followers.

Roots and revival

The beginning of the Belarusian revival in the 90s has inspired a wave of interest in traditional Belarusian culture, traditional folklore and singing manner. Many iconic Belarusian folk bands, which promoted Belarusian singing and traditional music far beyond the country’s borders, were founded at the end of 20th century.

Troitsa is one of the most popular ones.

Their Three angels song is an example of a folk song based on liturgical material. This song is also often performed by Orthodox choirs. It’s a sad song about a wandering soul which missed heaven’s entry.

Many years before Troitsa and other famous folk bands there had been Piesniary. If not for this folk-rock music band, Belarusian folklore would probably never play such an important role in the national revival.

Piesniary’s version of Kupalinka is a masterpiece of its own sort.

Founded by Uladzimir Muliavin, the band took some pearls of the Belarusian folklore and arranged them to modern sounding. Their albums became legendary, while the members were treated like super stars of the Soviet Union.

An example of a younger generation of musicians is a folk band Varhan. Polotsk based band revives Belarusian folk art (lyrical and ritual ones) and performs dances to the sounds of traditional musical instruments.

As they say, “the original and authentic manner of performance is the principal goal of the band”. They focus on the regional music realities of Paazerje (northern Belarus) which adds to their authenticity.

Oj, liatala šera pierapiolka is an example of a harvest song sung by women harvesting crops and entertaining themselves during physical work but also had some ritual, prayer-like meaning and function.

Jurja is another illustration of a ritual song. The song belongs to a spring cycle repertoire – like mantra, it was performed to revive soil after winter. Let’s teleport from one season to another by listening to it in Guda’s version.

Speaking of Belarusian iconic songs we have to give voice to some of the last living vocalists of local folk songs. Just listen to their loud and rich voices to have a rare look into a very different world that has been isolated for centuries and still have hope for revival.

*The music bands, singers and songs are listed at no particular order; Text by Vital Voranau.