On tour and in bomb shelters, he sings to rouse the spirit of Ukraine (video)

U.S.-born Jurij Fedynskyj moved to Kyiv to rediscover his roots. Now he works to preserve Ukraine’s culture of courage and resilience, reviving the kobzar tradition of sharing folklore through song.

Jurij Fedynskyj understands what it means to be displaced. Generations of his family were driven from Ukraine amid Russian oppression that threatened to erase his homeland’s culture.

Born in the United States, Mr. Fedynskyj moved to Ukraine two decades ago and took up a mission: to help revive a Ukrainian tradition of minstrels called kobzars. His predecessors roamed eastern Ukraine between 1700 and the 1930s, using lutelike instruments to share folklore and help preserve it.

Regarded as cultural elites, the kobzars were mostly wiped out during Josef Stalin’s purges. Mr. Fedynskyj’s mission is one of cultural revival. 

“I am a resource of Ukraine,” he says. He sings songs about Ukrainian history and national identity, as well as religious hymns, evoking national tradition and pride. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, he and some of his students spent three months performing around the country – in bomb shelters, refugee centers, even near the front line – with gunshots snapping in the near distance.

This summer, he toured parts of the U.S., performing for members of the Ukrainian diaspora and anyone else who would listen. 

After two months in America, he says he felt it was time to go back and prepare to tour on Ukraine’s eastern front. “So I need to do what I have to do,” Mr. Fedynskyj says. “Music isn’t just notes,” he says. “Music is spirit. This is how we defend our country, through spirit.”

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