A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Meet Andy Birko, Bandura Maker from Rochester Hills, Michigan

Andy Birko plays a bandura of his own design, November 12, 2013.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers
To meet Andy Birko is to be immersed in the world of the bandura, a fretless, plucked stringed instrument that is the national instrument of the Ukraine and an important identity symbol for Ukrainian Americans. On a blustery April day in 2013, I traveled to Sterling Heights in Metro Detroit to attend the spring concert of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus (UBC), part of fieldwork funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. There I met Andy, currently the UBC concertmaster and the third generation of his family to participate in the ensemble. 

The Ukranian Bandurist Chorus in performance at the Sterling Heights 
Performing Arts Center, April 20, 2013. Birko is sixth from the right, in the front row.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers
The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus is a unique Ukrainian American ensemble that traces its roots to a group founded in the Ukraine in 1918. It is both an all-male chorus that is accompanied by instrumentalists (bandurists) and an orchestra of bandurists (all male) that sing while playing. The UBC is distinctive in that it maintains the Kharkiv or Poltavka style of bandura playing, in which the player holds the instrument parallel to his body and uses both hands to play the full range of the instrument.

UBC bandurists in rehearsal. From left, Walter Babiky (Toronto Ontario),
Yuri Petlura (Hamilton, Ontario), and Andy Birko (Rochester Hills, Michigan).
Andy is playing a Kharkiv-style instrument by the late Detroit maker, Yurij Pryjmak.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, April 20, 2013.
The UBC moved to Detroit in 1949, drawn to the city by plentiful auto industry jobs. With assistance from the International Institute and the Federation of American Ukrainians of Michigan, the ensemble held its first North American concert on October 2, 1949 at Detroit’s Masonic Auditorium. The performance launched a grand tour of major US and Canadian cities. Although the UBC now has membership drawn from across North America, Detroit remains its official home. 

Flyer from the UBC's first North American concert after emigration.
From the UBC archives, courtesy of Wolodya Murha.
The emigration of the UBC transformed Detroit into a center for bandura makers who then trained the next generation. Andy plays a bandura built by the late Detroit maker and bandurist, Yurij Pryjmak. The Honcharenko brothers (Alex and Petro) were also important Detroit bandura makers, who, prior to 1949, had been prominent luthiers and bandura makers in the Ukraine. The Detroit instrument making tradition continues today with Andy Birko (born 1970), who was mentored briefly by Alex Honcharenko, but who draws more on his engineering background, online luthier forums, and trial and error than on tips and techniques gleaned from the older generation. 

Birko in his workshop, comparing a hand-carved scroll and one
he produced on this CNC machine, November 12, 2013.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.
Andy Birko is one of just two North American bandura makers. The other is Canadian Bill Vetzal, another Honcharenko protégée. As a player, Andy understands the distinctive characteristics of the instrument. As a maker, he uses that knowledge to design instruments with improved sound production. He builds banduras that combine traditional handwork with innovative modeling in CAD (computer assisted design) that is then produced with a CNC machine. The result is a unique combination of old and new. 

Hear Andy Birko describe the characteristic features of the bandura and what he hopes to accomplish with his own bandura designs. 

Visit Andy Birko’s workshop and hear him discuss his approach to bandura making.