Belarus, Brest province

Pruzhany and Byarozava districts, Kabaki and Soshitsy villages

August 11-22, 2011
Principle Investigator: Dr. Yelena Minyonok

Our 2011 expedition to southwest Belarus reflected the lasting impact of a bloody and turbulent 20th century. Polish rule, Soviet rule, German invasion, massive wartime destruction and loss of life —  their effects are visible today in the local singing tradition.  For example, while we could find elderly, lifelong residents of the region, we could not find even two or three informants who had grown up in the same village, or who had any history of singing together. Singers who are now neighbors each have repertoires of songs they learned in childhood, but since they grew up in different villages, the repertoires do not overlap. This makes it difficult to sing together and to keep the songs alive. Thus the older songs we recorded were performed by individual singers, not by the groups of singers one would expect in this tradition.

On the other hand, traditional textile arts (weaving, embroidery, crocheting, knitting) are still widely practiced.  It is not unusual to see hand-built floor looms in the homes of women over 60, and even among their daughters it is easy to find many enthusiastic needle workers.


Okh, Ja na Jana Kupalas’a

A dance song for the midsummer holiday Jana Kupala (John the Baptist Day). Our informant remembered this as a day for teen-aged boys and girls to meet on the meadow to dance and sing teasing songs for each other. At nightfall the teens took turns jumping over a bonfire.

Oh, I bathed on Jana Kupala
and dried myself off in the forest.
A daughter asks her father,
Begs her dear father.
“Daddy, let me keep my freedom, [ie — let me remain single]
 At least for one more year.
Let me keep my single brown braid.  [ sign of maidenhood]
Grow, braid, down to my waist,
Fair face, like an apple.

A Maiden Sat on a White Stone

The plot of this ancient song is found in many variants throughout Europe.   A maiden sat on a white stone, plaiting wreaths.  A young fellow approaches and asks for a wreath.  “I’d be happy to give you one,” she replies, “but I’m afraid of what my father would do, and even more afraid of my brother.”  ” Poison your brother,” the young man replies.  “How should I get poison?  Buy it at the store, or gather the herbs myself?”  “Gather the herbs yourself!” advises the young man.

She gathers the herbs, prepares the poison, and gives it to her brother.  He develops a bad headache and dies.  The maiden returns to the young man, and tells him what she’s done.  “You poisoned your brother?  Next thing you’ll be poisoning me!” he exclaims, and leaves her.

Our informant  (who grew up under Polish rule, and attended a Polish elementary school) identifies this as a Polish song which she learned “on the street”.  The tune — a lively Polish melody — is much more recent than the text.


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