“Kalykhanka”, “Pahonia”, “Kupalinka” and other songs that are sung in the streets of Belarus: Together with the creators of the cultural project Wir.by, we uncover the stories behind these songs
15 March 2021 | Maryia Badzei, Lizaveta Lysenka, Arzamas
1. “Pahonia” (Pursuit)
Lyrics by Maksim Bahdanovich, music by Mikalai Shchahlou-Kulikovich
Maksim Bahdanovich is one of the most outstanding Belarusian poets. If at the beginning of the 20th century Belarusian literators wrote exclusively about social problems, Bahdanovich became the first Belarusian poet-esthete. He was interested in “pure beauty” and introduced classical forms of European poetry (sonnet, triolet, and rondeau) into Belarusian literature.
Bahdanovich was born in Belarus. But when he was five years old, his family moved to Russia. At first they lived in Nizhny Novgorod, then in Yaroslavl. He learned the Belarusian language on his own and returned to Belarus as an accomplished poet. He wrote the poem “Pahonia” in 1916 in the front-line Minsk having already known that he was terminally ill with tuberculosis.
Pahonia is the name of a military custom, which, according to the legend, was widespread on the territory of Belarus in the Middle Ages. The border settlements often suffered from attacks of the crusaders from the Teutonic and Livonian Orders or Tatars. In this case all the men would set out on horseback in pursuit of the raiders to take back the loot and set the captives free. The image of a sword-wielding rider on a white horse has become an important national symbol in Belarus and Lithuania.
“Pahonia” depicts a pursuit not in space, but rather in time (“At the far distance, you dash, / There are years behind you as well as before you”) of Belarusians who do not remember anything about themselves and their country (“Belarus, perhaps they were rushing / In pursuit of your children, / All those who forgot and renounced you, / Sold you and brought you into captivity?”). The purpose of this pursuit is to win back everything and everyone who belong to us, stop Belarusians from being strangers, make them feel pain for their land as Bahdanovich feels it (“Strike their hearts, strike them with swords, / Don’t let them be strangers! / Let them hear how the heart / Hurts at night thinking about the homeland”). The refrain of the song tells a listener that this pursuit of Belarusians “could neither be destroyed nor stopped nor constrained”.
Lyrics by Mikhas Charot, music by Uladzimir Terauski
The composer of this song, which is based on folk motives, is Uladzimir Terauski, a musical director of the First Belarusian State Theater. In 1921 poet Mikhas Charot wrote a musical play titled “On Kupalle”, which “Kupalinka” was a part of. Charot poetically reframed the lyrics of the folk song, and Terauski wrote the music. The play was a great success and was performed about 400 times. In the late 1930s Terauski and Charot were executed by shooting, and their names were forgotten. It became a habit to call the lyrics and music “folk”, even after the authors were posthumously rehabilitated in 1956–1957.
“Kupalinka” is a so-called musical business card of Belarus. It was performed by the Belarusian musical band Pesniary as well as Deep Purple. Every Belarusian knows this song. In the 19th century its lyrical heroine, who is “weeding a rose, piercing her white hands” and “plucking flowers, weaving wreaths, and shedding tears”, became the national personification of Belarus as a country with a beautiful and sad woman’s face.
3. “Mahutny Bozha” (Mighty God)
Lyrics by Natallia Arsiennieva, music by Mikola Ravienski
Poetess Natallia Arsiennieva wrote a poem titled “Prayer” in 1943, while living in German-occupied Minsk. In 1947 composer Mikola Ravienski put the poem to music. During the war Ravienski worked in a church choir in the town of Cherven (Minsk region) and was composing church music. This affected the melody of the song “Mahutny Bozha”, even though the music to Arsiennieva’s poem was written later, after his immigration to the United States. Apparently, the other song title based on the first line of the poem was introduced around the same time.
Initially the anthem of the post-war Belarusian emigration1 that returned to its homeland only in the 1990s, it eventually became the religious anthem of Belarus. It is performed not only by secular musicians, but also by choirs in Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches before or after a service.
In the song Belarus is depicted as a quiet and welcoming land: “Over Belarus, quiet and hospitable / Scatter the ray of praise”. The poem lists the values that became especially important to Arsiennieva during her life in occupied Minsk. In her memoirs about that time she constantly returns to the fact that, despite many difficulties, it was necessary to engage in the development of Belarusian culture by making poetic translations and writing librettos for operas and plays for the Minsk theater. These values include everyday routine work, faith in justice and the future: “Help us succeed in our toil daily and gray”, “Give us respect, strength and greatness of faith / In our truth, in our future.” Initially, the poem contained the words “make powerful, make happy”, but later on the author replaced the word “powerful” with “free”.
1 In 1944–1945, immediately after the liberation of Belarus from the occupation and the end of World War II, a wave of emigration of Belarusians began – first to the countries of Western Europe, and from there to the USA and Canada. The main groups of emigrants were former ostarbeiters, who decided not to return to the USSR, and intellectuals with anti-communist views. In the USA and Canada, the Belarusian diaspora was actively involved in the preservation and development of Belarusian culture and political activism.
4. “Kalykhanka” (Lullaby)
Lyrics by Hienadz Buraukin, music by Vasily Rainchik
A classic performance.
In the 1970s the native language was heard less and less in the streets of Belarusian cities. Schoolkids and college students were taught in Russian. Russian was also prevalent on television. In 1978 the Belarusian TV and Radio Company was headed by poet Hienadz Buraukin who decided to make TV Belarusian-speaking. One of his projects was an evening program for kids “Kalykhanka” (“Lullaby”), in which fairy tales were told and cartoons were aired. The lyrics of the lullaby played as a theme song in each episode were written by Buraukin himself. The music was created by composer Vasily Rainchik.
“Kalykhanka” is a song that several generations of Belarusians have been listening to before going to bed for the last 40 years. For many children born into Russian-speaking families, “Kalykhanka” is the first thing they have heard in Belarusian. The song with its language that reminds of the cozy world of childhood (“zorki-spliushki” – “ sleepyhead stars”, “vachaniaty” – “little eyes”, “tsikha-tsikhenka” – “quietly-quietly”), has become the personification of the world where good and justice triumph.
5. “Try Charapakhi” (Three Turtles)
Lyrics by Lavon Volski, music by the band N.R.M.
N.R.M. is the first successful Belarusian rock band that was established in 1994 and has repeatedly criticized the authorities. N.R.M. concerts in Belarus were banned for this very reason.
“Try Charapakhi” was released in 2000 as a part of an album of the same name and immediately became “folk”. Aspiring Belarusian guitar players learn to play this song along with “A Star Called the Sun” by Viktor Tsoi. You can hear this song in courtyards, at hockey matches, and protest marches. N.R.M. guitarist Pit Paulau said that the lyrics of the song came from a joke: “Russian statehood is based on three whales,” says former Russian president Yeltsin. “What are they?” they ask him. “The first… the second… and the third whale,” he replies.
The lines “In order to love Belarus, our dear mother, / You should visit different places” are a slightly modified quote from the song “Cranes are flying to Palesse” by the Soviet musical band Pesniary whose manner of singing is imitated by N.R.M. vocalist Lavon Volski. The lines “There was no Galilei, no Bob Marley, / There was no Salvador Dali, / No Lenin, no Lennon, no Carl Linnaeus, / But the whales-turtles have always been” are the reminders that archaic concepts continue to prevail in Belarus. However, the major key of the song and its provoking chorus “Hey la-la-la-lai, / Don’t be waiting, there will be no surprises” create an elevated emotional state. In 2006 Lavon Volski made a slight modification in the chorus – instead of “there will be no surprises”, the musicians started singing “fed up with waiting”.
6. “Prostyia slovy” (Simple Words)
Lyrics by Mikhail Anempadystau, music by Lavon Volski
In 1997 famous Belarusian rock musicians, including Lavon Volski, recorded an album-play called “Folk Album”. 27 songs from the album depict everyday life of a Belarusian town in a period between the two world wars. The action takes place on the Polish-Soviet border that passed through the center of Belarus. Smugglers and sophisticated ladies, merchants and teachers, barmen and Polish spies are among the characters of the album-play. In addition to the Belarusian language, the lyrics contain trasianka (a mixture of Belarusian and Russian), Russian, Polish, and Yiddish. The authors’ idea was that the songs were supposed to sound as if they were composed in the 1930s (while the lyrics contain many references to the culture of the entire 20th century – from the cartoon about Bolek and Lolek to AC/DC).
The most famous song of the “Folk Album” is “Prostyia Slovy” (Simple Words). In Belarus it is played at graduation celebrations, used in the commercials of one of the mobile network operators, played at night clubs and private gatherings, around a campfire, and in courtyards. This song tells about a parental home “… Everything is so familiar in my parental home. / There is something to keep you warm, there is a place to hide / In my parental home, in my mother’s house”. It ends like a lullaby: “Good night, fine folk”. The main idea is that it makes no sense to follow ideologies with their “complicated” words. All sorts of isms remain in the 20th century. But all things personal, cozy and timeless – “bread on the table, flame in the oven”, blue twilight, family, and “simple words, simple things” – are much more important.