Keeping in steppe with the balalaikas of America

While schoolgirl Samantha Smith of Manchester, Maine, was making friends in the Soviet Union, another resident of that small New England town was having his own Russian experience - on the University of California campus here.

Willis (Bill) Johnson was one of some 100 amateur and professional musicians at the fifth annual convention of the Balalaika and Domra Association of America.

During her sojourn in the Soviet Union, Samantha was sure to hear the mandolin-like balalaika being played. The balalaika and its ''cousin,'' the domra, are ancient Russian folk instruments.

Charles Rappaport, president of the association, says there are some 3,000 balalaika and domra players in the United States. Many are not of Russian ancestry.

What attracts Americans of Irish or German or French ancestry to this singularly Russian music? When asked why they become devotees of the balalaika and of Russian folk music and dancing, these players often answer, ''I just liked the music,'' or ''It's the unique sound of the instrument.''

Listen to virtuoso Leonard Davis pluck a solo with his rapid fingers and you appreciate the instrument's personal, romantic quality. Attend a rehearsal of the Detroit Balalaika Orchestra and you grasp the versatility of the three-stringed balalaika.

Be part of a crowd that gathers as colorfully costumed balalaika players give a rousing, impromptu concert prior to a dress rehearsal, and you can't resist clapping or even breaking into dance.

Mr. Davis, whose parents emigrated from the Soviet Union after the 1917 revolution, is acknowledged as the top professional balalaika player in the US. He explains the instrument's appeal this way: ''The balalaika has a soft, warm sound - a sweet sound.'' Balalaika literally means ''chatterbox,'' Davis explains, and people seem to respond to it as to a close friend.

Others say it's just plain ''romantic'' - a characteristic used to great effect in the movie ''Dr. Zhivago.'' Davis, who has been a professional player for 48 years, organized an balalaika ensemble for the movie score, playing the solo parts himself.

Balalaikas come in six sizes - piccolo, prima, secunda, alto, bass, and contrabass. They have triangular bodies and nonmetal strings, which are plucked with the fingers. An ensemble might have one contrabass and several other sizes of balalaikas and domras, an accordian, percussion instruments, and some woodwinds.

According to Bill Johnson, a few emigres and their descendants have maintained their folk culture in the US, and have shared the music and dance with other Americans.

What kind of people get this involved in playing Russian string instruments, singing Russian songs, dressing up in Russian costumes, and giving performances?

There's Max McCullogh of Houston, who used to play in a ''bluegrass'' band. Now this businessman of Scottish ancestry plays a contrabass balalaika with a group of amateurs who bill themselves as the ''Gypsies.''

Kathy Spiker of Atlanta, a computer programmer, was attracted by the folk dancing. Now she plays a balalaika because ''I like the sound. There's something special about it.''

Davis is the owner of a balalaika of unquestionable pedigree. It was made in 1900 by Nalimov, ''the Stradivarius of balalaikas.''

A few years ago, at the behest of a Soviet musician, Davis sent the Nalimov instrument back to the Soviet Union for repairs. Months went by, he says, and he began to think he would not get it back. But a noted Soviet concert pianist was in New York, and Davis got a call from his manager.

''He asked me if I was the Davis who owned a Nalimov balalaika. . . . (At a hotel) he handed me my balalaika. With it was a note from Pavel Necheporenko, the greatest balalaika player in Russia, admonishing me to take great care of it because 'you are only the guardian, not the owner,' of this instrument.''

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