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Russian Folk Music: The Balalaika

13. April 2010 by Michelle 0 Comments

Balalaika, a Russian folk musical instrument

The actual era of the balalaika’s origin is largely unknown, but it became popular in the 19th century as a village instrument for jesters, whose tunes often ridiculed the Russian Tsars. The mystery over who created the first balalaika, as well as why it has that curious triangular shape, has given rise to several theories. 


A popular explanation for the balalaika’s three sides, as well as its three strings, is that they represent the Holy Trinity. However, this reasoning seems contradictory since musical instruments were banned during early Russian Orthodox rituals. A more believable reason for the shape is suggested by the writer and historian Nikolai Gogol in his unfinished novel Dead Souls. He writes that a balalaika was first made by peasants out of a pumpkin, explaining that when you cut a pumpkin in quarters, you are left with the balalaika shape. Yet another theory suggests that once Tsar Peter I ended the ban on musical instruments, boat builders were the only Russians who knew who to work with wood, so they created the balalaika to resemble the front of a boat.


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.


Orchestras of Russian folk instruments began appearing in many countries of Western Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia, Japan, and the United States. Popular international musical groups that use the contrabass balalaika are the Russian-American rock band the Red Elvises (seen below), the Australian band Vulgargrad, and the all-girl Norwegian pop group Katzenjammer.

The contrabass balalaika played by Oleg Bernov of the Red Elvises 


Listen to the unique sounds of the balalaika in the video below, playing the popular Russian folk song The Moon is Shining Brightly.