Like a wedge of cheese, the balalaika is triangular in shape. A strum of the strings shows that this wooden instrument is not only unique in shape, but also unique in sound. It began as the main Russian folk music maker, but has since become a staple of ensembles all over the world. The actual timeframe of its origin is mysterious, but the 19th century is when jesters used the balalaika to compose tunes that taunted Russian Tsars. What is the reasoning behind its peculiar shape? There are several speculations.
One theory behind the balalaika’s triangular shape is that the three sides represent the Holy Trinity. Although, early Russian Orthodox religion refused musical instruments so that theory seems unlikely. Another more probable explanation for the shape is proposed by writer and historian Nikolai Gogol in Dead Souls, his unfinished novel. Peasants made the first balalaikas out of pumpkins, he wrote, by cutting them into quarters, which explains the shape. However, others believe that boat builders were the ones most experienced with wood so they created the balalaikas to resemble the front of boats.
Vassily Vassilievich Andreyev is said to have developed the modern balalaika, with assistance from other Russian craftsmen. Several sizes were created, ranging from small to large, including the primo, sekunda, alto, bass, and contrabass. A strong balalaika orchestra tradition began in Tsarist Russia and continued to be supported by the Soviet Union. Folk music and instruments were considered to represent the working class and the Soviet government focused on forming skilled ensemble groups such as the Osipov State Balalaika Orchestra.
Russian folk music ensembles became so popular that the trend traveled to countries everywhere. Balalaikas could be found in Europe, Australia, Japan, and North America. In addition to orchestras, popular music groups can be seen incorporating the balalaika’s unique sounds into their songs. The Russian-American rock band the Red Elvises slaps the contrabass balalaika, as well as the Australian band Vulgargrad and the all-girl Norwegian pop group Katzenjammer.
You may have heard that a violin “sings”, but did you know that the balalaika “chatters”? Its name was derived from the Old Slavonic language. Balakat means “to chat” and the unique sounds of the balalaika tell a story, as if in conversation. Whether the story is inspiring, or whether the tale is tumultuous, the balalaika can handle a large range of emotions. Russia’s history and character will continue to live on through this iconic instrument and listeners will love it for a very long time.
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