Mykhailo Taphiychuk: I made trembitahs for Ukrainian singer Ruslana
Trembitah is a gutsul wind instrument in the form of a long wooden pipe without valves
Gutsuls – ethnographic group of Ukrainians who live in the Carpathian Mountains
They say a gutsul without a trembitah is not a gutsul. At least it’s this musical instrument with which all the native Carpathian inhabitants at all the times were portrayed in the pictures and movies. In spite of the time flow and fashion evolution, the tradition has survived. 70-year old Mykhailo Taphiychuk from the Carpathians is twice an artist – he is a masterly musician and an experienced maker of gutsul musical instruments…
A story of a gutsul
I’m from Bukovets, the same as my mother. It happened so that my mother lived alone. My father was a blacksmith. I was one of the four sons in the family. One of my brothers died in his childhood, another one died when he was 35, and I still have the third one who is my elder. So, only two of us are left. I began by working in my father’s smithy and those were great years. But later I got bored with that and got married. I made my first flute when I was six and I immediately taught myself to play it. I’ll never forget the day: so strong is the recollection of it that I have. My flute was gone after two days but I had already found myself by the time. I went to the mountains, found an elder, pushed out the core from the inside of a bough with a rod and made a dentsivka from that – a flute with a bottom. First I rolled the piece of bark into a pipe and then made openings in it, but the bark shrank soon afterwards. I gave myself no rest trying and my mother saw something was wrong with me.
I also used to make myself violins in a following way: I cut out the violin form from wood boards, hammered the nails into it and fitted everything so as to get more or less acceptable sound from that. A twig served as a fiddlestick. I was bending, binding the instrument together with threads as you would a bow, covered it by resin so eventually I was able to get a kind of a creak out of it. My mother scolded and beat me for that because she came from wealthy people and wanted me to take care about the household and the cows but it was no use with me.
It was only my grandfather Vasyl who told my mother: “Don’t torment the child, Anna. Music attracts him. You’d better watch that he doesn’t steal, doesn’t do any harm and help him. He will become a nice man”. And my mom replied to that: “You know, a smith or a musician will never make a master”. But by that time she’d understood that I never gave up and bought a violin. First she gave the violin to my elder brother because I was still a small child. Mom said to my brother Vasyl: “Try to play something, Vasylko.” She didn’t give the violin to me because I was 7 at the time and she thought I wouldn’t be able to play it because I was so young and silly. But as soon as I saw the violin in my brother’s hands I grabbed it and run far away to a hill and stayed there till night – I was learning to play. But then I was returning back home playing that violin. And I’ve been playing my entire life since the time I was 6. Self-educated person in everything.
As for the pipes and dudahs – Ukrainian bagpipes, I started to make them at the age of 25. There was Ivan Mykhaylyk in the village who made pipes and once I asked him to make a pipe for me. After a while I came to Ivan and saw the pipe ready. Since the moment I took the pipe I couldn’t have any rest for the following half of the year because I’ve always been very stubborn. I started to make a pipe myself, with Ivan’s one as a model. The first pipe I made I threw into the fire at once because it was a failure. The second one was nice. I learned to play it and sold it afterwards. Later I made the third one. I came back to Mykhaylyk a year later, I think. First I didn’t want to show him my own pipe and played the one he’d made. But after a while I gave in and brought him my pipe so he could take a look at it. Ivan was so surprised that he didn’t even blink when looking. I started to play the pipe and then gave it to him. Ivan was as old as 82 at the time. He examined the pipe and shook his head. I asked him: “Why do you shake your head, Ivanko? I must have failed to make it good?” “No,” replies Ivan. “It’s because I can’t make them that good any more.”
People often used to call me Pavliv (Pavlo’s) after my grandfather, because his name was Pavlo. Even now they call me so sometimes. People say Pavliv is not a man but a didko – a devil. He can do anything.
What instruments do you make and which of them do you play?
I play all the kinds of instruments I can make. Different kinds of flutes: telenkas (open flutes), dentsivkas (flutes with bottoms), “musical” flutes with 6 openings, reed-pipes, horns, trembitahs, dulcimers, lyres.
Tell us something about trembitahs.
Trembitah is a simple wind instrument. I started to make trembitahs long ago. Once a man came to me and asked me to repair an old trembitah. I told him there was nothing to repair because all the wood under the bark inside decayed. All of it was rotten. So I made a new trembitah by this old one. The opening for the lips should be 6 mm wide and then this opening gets gradually wider till the end of the trembitah.
Of what length should a trembita be?
Here, in Gutsul land they make it 3 meters long. Though I’ve heard about one that was 2.5 meters. It can be 2.8 meters as well. But usually trembitah is made of two pieces, 1.5 meters long each, for the convenience of transportation and storage. Often trembitahs are played at gutsuls’ funerals.
How many trembitahs should there be to play music at a funeral?
Mostly 2. Wealthier people used to make orders for three or four trembitahs. Though usually it’s two. One for bass and one for tenor. Carol singers use one trembitah.
How did Ruslana find you? Did you make trembitahs for her?
Well, yes. Some people came from Lviv and said the order was for Ruslana. In total, I made 8 trembitahs for her. First I was asked to make three of them. Then – three more. And two more in the end. Later she sold those trembitahs herself and earned a lot of money, but she didn’t take any of that money and gave it for charity. It’s her business. She paid me what I asked.
How much time does it take to make a trembitah?
First one has to prepare wood. It should be clean and without twigs. After that, the stem is divided into 4 parts, to have ready rough parts. Then one should make a round stick and take out the core with a cooper chisel called shkiblya. It takes about a week to do the work. Now you can hardly find anyone who makes trembitahs. The old people are not able to make them and the young ones don’t want to do it. I make every of the gutsul instruments. Once I even chanced to make of clarinet of a Romanian size from oak wood. I boiled it according to a special recipe and later sold it. I can do different things. I can shoe horses in the smithy; make drills or axes. I’m a blacksmith, you know. I haven’t yet found I thing I wouldn’t be able to make. My son has already learned from me to make dulcimers and have already made several fine ones. The bottom plate in the dulcimer is made of ash-tree and the upper one is from silver fir. Violins and lyres are made the same way.
Good varnish is required for violins. Where do you get it from?
It’s not varnish, it’s lacquer of an old recipe. I work in accordance with old technologies, but I’ve heard that nowadays there is a special varnish for violins that can easily be applied by a brush. This new varnish is one-colour. And though it glitters it doesn’t have the hues you can get with a special lacquer. I use mordant as well; one guy from Moscow brought me some more lacquer, because it is hard to get nowadays. With mordant I get different hues and the colour and after that polish the surface with a lacquer until it glitters.
I haven’t got any official education. I finished only three first grades of elementary school. After the Second World War I had to help my mother. There was a man in Frankivsk, Magdiy by name, who was the head of different musical companies. He came to our place twice to take me to Frankivsk to work. He invited me to work in their philharmonic society and said I would get a five room apartment in the city. But I didn’t want any of that, neither did my wife. I like this smithy very much.
Tell us something about your family. Who will you pass you knowledge and skills to?
I had 5 sons and 3 daughters. My son Mykhailo died of an illness when he was 35. He could play the violin, bagpipe and clarinet very well. I still have Yurah, Vasyl, Dmytro and Mykola. They all can play musical instruments and visit different festivals, only Vasyl doesn’t want to practise music. He keeps the household at home.
What festivals have you been to?
I played in public at many places. I started to tour during the Soviet times and played music at different places of the Soviet Union. Twice I visited Moscow. There was an all-union festival there in 1971, at which one representative from each soviet republic was present. Naturally, I represented Ukraine there. I was playing for an hour. Playing and singing. I could hardly stand on my feet after that so tired I was. I also visited Leningrad, Kiev and Lviv. After the proclamation of the Ukraine’s Independence I didn’t want to go anywhere anymore. I was invited to Belgium and Mexico but I visited only Poland. They even made a disk record from play in Poland. By now I have a disk record of my play made in Kiev as well. Sir Melnyk did that. Not long ago my sons and I went to a “Dream Country” festival. Oleg Skrypka invited me. He even visited my house and spent a night with us.
Our musical group is called «Taphiychyk’s family group». Three of my sons and me.
Did you like it at the «Dream Country»?
I sure liked it, why not? It’s just that I’ve got older and don’t want to travel much because it’s tiring. Oleg Skrypka was buying different gutsul musical instruments here and was looking for a drymba – a Ukrainian kind of a jew’s harp. I can make drymbas but I don’t want to because I don’t like them.
What instrument is the most difficult to play?
I don’t have any instruments I cannot play. It is difficult to learn to play a bagpipe because one should breathe often and this makes a person dizzy.
How is the gutsul bagpipe (dudah) made?
It can be 6 or 7 months old, or a year or two-year old.
From what wood are the wooden parts of the bagpipe made?
The frame can be made of ash-tree, pear of plum tree. The mouthpiece for blowing can be made of cow horns but it’s a hard work. So I make mouthpieces from plastic more often.
Do you make any instruments from cow horns?
Usually I don’t. But once I made an instrument for a person in Krashnykov. He found a huge ox horn somewhere, about 70 centimeters long. He asked me to make an opening and insert a mouthpiece into it. It happens that I make wooden horns but I don’t have any of them at this moment. Metal horns are not that good because they are artificial and don’t have the kind of sound the wooden ones can produce.
At what holidays are dudahs – bagpipes – played?
Older people used to respect dudah very much. If there was a wedding dudahs were obligatory. And they used to call a dudah player to any other kinds of entertainments, parties, vechornitzi (the evening gathering and revel of youth) or religious holidays. They don’t do that nowadays. Young people don’t want either a dudah or anything else. They don’t even order a violin.
They say there’s not such a thing as a drunk dudah player?
With me it was in different ways. But I did have to pour vodka into the dudah often, especially at weddings. I don’t ever want to drink or I wouldn’t be able to play. And besides, I am paid for the play not for drinking. You know, one should always have a desire for what one is doing, and should love the work. One should get pleasure from the entire working process – from its beginning to the end. If a person is forced to do something it will result in no good.
I even had people from Scotland visiting me once. Their bagpipes are simpler than Ukrainian dudahs. Scottish bagpipes have bass and only one octave, and Ukrainian dudahs have two octaves. So the Scottish instruments are easier to tune and to play.
Taras Pasimok was on a visit to the artist.