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by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
The Ukrainian Bell Carol
Concert Bandura - Ukraine, ca. 1970
You may know this classic Christmas song as "Carol of the Bells", though it's traditionally known as the "Ukrainian Bell Carol". A lot of the fun in doing this project was picking a tune and then scanning the collection, asking myself, what instrument could I possibly use for this? As it turned out, this song was the easiest to arrange, as I just happened to have a couple of Ukrainian banduras lying around the house. So, how did this occur?
One evening in the early 1970s I found myself at a coffee house in Evanston, Illinois, listening to multi-instrumentalist Ken Bloom - who, after playing his guitars and zithers for a bit, pulled out something I had never seen before and began to play (the aforementioned Ukrainian bandura). At that moment, the steel strings struck by Ken's fingernails and the incredible natural reverberation of the instrument amplified over the sound system was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard in my life and I knew I had to get one. Gaining an audience with Mr. Bloom after the show, I immediately began my professional musicology research:
Gregg: "That was the most beautiful thing I've ever heard in my life and I have to get one!"
Ken: "There's no place to buy one - you'll have to make one."
Gregg (crushed): "The only thing I've ever made was a "D" in shop class."
Ken (optimistic): "It's very easy - I have all the plans and instructions and, in fact, am giving a bandura-building class which ends next week."
Gregg (in a heartbeat): "Where do I sign?"
Ken managed to give me the entire six-week course in one evening. Since his drawings left plenty of room for interpretation and I was starting from scratch, I threw caution to the wind and designed the Gregg Miner "Bear & Fish" model bandura (pat.pend.). My dad provided his complete woodworking shop and a fair amount of elbow grease (but neglected to pass down through his genes any semblance of his woodworker's skills).
Not that I regret the effort, but many years later I found a better, Ukrainian factory-made bandura which I would have bought to begin with, had I only known! Whereas my "folk" bandura is a diatonic instrument, tuned like a harp (and played roughly like one, albeit backwards in an awkward position on the lap), the "concert" bandura is fully chromatic - with two separate rows of strings (one row corresponding to the white keys of the piano and one row corresponding to the black keys). One bank of strings slopes slightly down towards the soundboard from the top bridge, the other downwards from the bottom bridge - the two interwoven scales crossing mid-string (like splaying your fingers and interlocking your hands). This provides the same tuning of the simple diatonic bandura, but with easy access to the now-available accidentals (sharps and flats).
The Russian balalaika seemed a natural choice for complimenting the banduras. Think of a balalaika as a triangular mandolin and you've pretty much got it. The Russians "tremolo" this instrument just like the mandolin and even have balalaika orchestras with four or five sizes! While a mandolin has four courses (two strings each), the balalaika has just three (and two of these of tuned the same). The typical balalaika has three single strings (eea), but three pairs as this soprano has is also common. Strings can be steel, gut, silk, or various combinations.
The larger instrument is a small "standard" bass balalaika, tuned EAd (matching the low strings of a guitar). There is also a contrabass, but it is so incredibly large and pointy that Los Angeles County would not issue me a permit to own one.
Why these instruments are triangular rather than round remains a mystery - anyone with this vital information, please call the Miner Museum Hotline.