“Russian folk music has rich melodies and harmonies,” explains Russian immigrant Sergei Teleshev who first came to the US to share his culture in 1996 when his group, Trio Veronezh, was invited to perform at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Oregon. The trio relocated permanently to the US in 2000 and spends most of the year touring and teaching audiences about Russian folk music traditions.
“We usually talk about our instruments because they are unique here in the US,” he says. The group begins a new 25-show US tour in early March.
Russian folk music began in the 11th century as a vocal music. There were no instruments in the early days, and the use of musical instruments was even outlawed at one point. “The Russian Orthodox church prohibited the use of instruments in the 16th century,” says Teleshev, who has studied Russian folk music most of his life. “It was a hard time for Russian musicians.” Instrument use began again in the 19th century, but the ban was only officially lifted when the Russian Orthodox Church was outlawed by the USSR.
The first folk instruments were simple: gudok, a three-stringed, pear-shaped fiddle; gusli, an auto-harp-like wing-shaped instrument; doudka, a simple wind instrument; and rozhok, a kind of flute made of one or two wooden pipes.
As the genre developed, more sophisticated instruments were introduced, like those used today by Trio Veronezh—Valerie Petrukhin performs on a double bass balalaika (center in photo), Vladimir Volokhin plays domra (left), and Teleshev’s specialty is the Russian accordion.
“There are seven different types of balalaika, from the little one (piccola) to the double bass balalaika,” explains Teleshev. “Most common is the medium-sized balalaika prima.” Petrukhin’s double bass is played with a pick, standing up. One corner of the triangular-shaped instrument has a leg that it stands on.
“The domra is common in modern-day Russian folk orchestras,” says Teleshev. Developed in the 1400s, it is the forerunner to the balalaika. Played with a pick, it has three or four strings and a rounded soundboard, and sounds something like a mandolin.
“The proper name for the Russian accordion is bayan,” he says. “It is a chromatic, button accordion. There are eight different keyboard layout systems. Mine, the B system, or Russian bayan, is the most popular in Russia and Eastern Europe.”
Teleshev explains that folk music is very popular today in Russia and these instruments are still widely played, partially due to government support. “When we were studying music 25 years ago or so there were huge discounts if you decided to play one of the traditional Russian instruments—up to 90% of your tuition. That way many people were encouraged to play authentic Russian instruments. I think Russian bands are still getting some support from the government.”
“There are lots of festivals of Russian music all the time, and many groups are starting to use more traditional Russian instruments and arrangements with elements of Russian folk music. It’s getting pretty popular in Russia. On special occasions like weddings it is performed after several drinks. Russian music is pretty simple to follow,” he says, explaining how people often join in and sing and dance to it at celebrations.