On a recent Thursday night at the Illini Union, some eighty people were clapping their hands to a drinking song as the six musicians onstage took swigs from a silver mug in between performing. This is perhaps not an unusual occurrence on a college campus, except the drinking song dated back to the Middle Ages, the performers were a medieval music band from Belarus playing bagpipes and lutes, and the mug, alas, was probably just water.
Stary Olsa (the band’s name is taken from a brook in eastern Belarus) was formed in 1999 by Zmicier Sasnoŭski. Working with museums, researchers, and experts in early musical instruments, the band performs with historically-accurate reproductions of instruments used in medieval Belarus, such as bagpipes, shawms, drums, rebecs, lutes, and the tromba marina. Their repertoire includes Belarusian and European ballads from the Middle Ages and Renaissnace, 16th- and 17th-century Belarusian canticles, and the occasional Red Hot Chili Peppers cover – all of which were part of the program that night.
The band is currently on tour throughout the U.S., as part of a year-long tour that includes festivals and concerts in Belarus and Poland. Their performance at the Illini Union, which was free to the public, was supported by the U.S. Department of Education VI grant and sponsored by the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center; the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures; the European Union Center; the Center for Global Studies; and the Robert E. Brown Center for World Music.
Stary Olsa kicked off the evening with an early Baroque song and then a raucous 14th-century tune that practically invited listeners to dance. And indeed, fifteen minutes into the program, audience members were bobbing their heads and clapping. By then, I had completely lost track of all the instruments that the band was using.
But fortunately, vocalist Alieś Čumakoŭ took the time in between songs to present a few instruments and explain their sounds and use. Among the more unconventional instruments was a pair of wooden shoes that were played by knocking the soles together, making a sound like tap shoes but louder.
And also fortunately for those among us not well acquainted with medieval folk music, Čumakoŭ gave an introduction to each song, explaining its theme. There was a wistful melody about a knight returning from war and thinking of his lady back home, an energetic dance tune, a song about a German in his castle, caught unawares by a battle, and a song about death (“Medieval people liked songs about heaven and hell, life and death,” Čumakoŭ said).
At the end of the program, the band made a 500-year leap in time to a more modern musical era. “This song will be rather native for you all,” Čumakoŭ said, and the band launched into a rendition of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication.” Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” closed out the night.
Sydney Lazarus is an M.A. student at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center. Her current research interests include educational and language policy in Macedonia.