What's Your Song about, Three-Stringed Balalaika?

March 2016

The day before his 77th birthday anniversary, Valentin Klyucharov, a balalaika maker, was awarded a public recognition prize in Kursk. He inherited a passion for Russian folk instruments from his family.

русские народные инструменты

Balalaika Dynasty

Valentin's father Vasiliy Klyucharov was a founder of a folk orchestra that was famous beyond Kursk in the first half of the XX century. The talented musician who became a virtuoso balalaika-player early in his life was born in a large family of 11 children.

"When we were kids, our father often used to practice in the attic not to wake younger brothers and sisters," Valentin says. The talent was obvious and the parents arranged for their son to join an orchestra conducted by well-known balalaika-player Nikolay Uspenskiy. At the same time my dad learnt the printing trade and then worked at the city typography where he started his first musical ensemble that included bayan-players, balalaika-players and domra-players. This initiative triggered organization of similar orchestras in Kursk schools, colleges, factories and recreation centres."

During the World War II, the musician served in road troops building bridges near a frontline. Between work and battles, he played the balalaika to raise spirits of soldiers. He also taught them to play simple melodies. Ivan Konev, a Marshal of the Soviet Union, loved to listen to him playing.

"We were in Kursk all that time," Valentin Klyucharov recollects. "Streets were blocked by rails here and there. When air strikes took place, the elder brother would grab me by the scruff of the neck and take me to a basement. There were Romanians quartered not far from our house. As an anti-guerrilla measure, they prohibited the local residents to lock doors, so they could enter at any moment. However, they did us no harm and even would share their meals with us when their senior officers looked away. Kursk was freed on February 8, 1943. Russian tanks drove along Dzerzhinskogo Street and women greeted them joyfully."

Klyucharov was in Konigsberg (called Kaliningrad today) when the Victory occurred and some time later he returned home. He entered the yard of his house riding a horse with a metal barrel attached to it. There were two cases with balalaikas inside. They travelled with the brave rider through the war-troubled years.

While working in Teacher's House after the war, Vasiliy Klyucharov tutored hundreds of Kursk children to play the balalaika, the domra and the guitar. Most of his students lost their fathers in the war. The kids sincerely loved their teacher and called him Uncle Vasya. In addition, Vasiliy always tried to find a possibility to feed them during hungry years. His teaching skills caused a galaxy of professional musicians to appear.

русские народные инструменты

Vasiliy Klyucharov's sons also played in the orchestra. Youngest son Vasiliy played different types of the balalaika from an age 7 years: prima, alto and contrabass. But he did not pursue a musical career. Instead, after high school he entered a technical college which he eventually graduated with excellent grades in 1960. At the same period, the orchestra he was still a member of, was invited to Moscow. Kursk musicians performed song "Timonya" in Bolshoi Theatre. The concert was attended by Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee and Yekaterina Furtseva, Minister of Culture of the Soviet Union.

Unique Balalaikas

Valentin worked in a factory for long 40 years. One day in the middle of the 90s, he came across a magazine with an article that described how to make a balalaika at home. He made up his mind to give it a try in memory of his father. To make things easier, he bought a balalaika made by an established instrument-maker and created a replica. That balalaika is kept in one of Kursk colleges now.

"However regretful it is to part with own instruments but they shouldn't lay idle," Valentin Klyucharov is convinced. "On the contrary, it is important to me to know that my balalaikas twitter like birds somewhere. For example, Sasha, a schoolboy, received one balalaika. Not only he plays himself but he wants to teach others too. He also cherishes a dream to open his own musical school in China."

The Klyucharov's balalaikas are played in famous Lyudmila Zykina Folk Ensemble Rossiya (“Russia”). Some instruments were sent abroad. French people of Russian descent liked the instruments during their visit to Moscow. The Japanese bought them for their own ensemble of balalaikas. They also appealed to Germans and other connoisseurs of exquisite workmanship.

It is all because of the balalaika-making secrets that the craftsman acquired in 20 years of his experience. "It is not only about making, polishing and lacquering a body and fitting strings," he remarks.  "The wood should be dried out in a dark place for five years at least, otherwise it will crack or warp. I make a body out of box elder because the wood has a beautiful wave pattern. Mountain spruce is excellent for soundboard, whereas ebony and mahogany are used for neck and head.

Valentin finds rare materials in the Russian capital where he is invited every year to participate in international festivals. The balalaika-maker won prizes many a time. His instruments are distinguished not only by high quality but also by the manufacturer's mark – a symbol of his wife's profile. They have been married for fifty years.

Planes of various sizes, the smallest of which is only two centimetres long, a scraper, fretsaws and jigsaws, sets of files and sandpaper are neatly stacked on the maker's workbench. Using these tools Valentin Klyucharov has already made over 30 balalaikas, one or two per year. There is always much to repair. He is even trusted to repair pre-revolutionary vintage instruments. But whenever he has free time, Valentin builds new ones. "Neither the violin or any other instrument compares to the balalaika," he says smiling. "There is a Russian soul in it... The sound is very special, the one you can hear nowhere else. The balalaika delivers it like a song."

мастер по изготовлению балалаек