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Atlanta Balalaika Society
The balalaika is a three-stringed, triangular instrument that is strummed much like a ukulele, but the balalaika has no real counterpart outside of Russia. This uniquely Russian character has made it the national instrument in that country, and has inspired devotees in places as far-flung as Atlanta.
The Atlanta Balalaika Society began in 1981 as a way for a handful of balalaika players to share in their love of Russian Folk Music. It has since grown into a full orchestra of more than 40 members. In addition to balalaikas in all sizes and octaves, the group also includes other traditional Russian instruments such as the domra (a mandolin-like instrument that frequently plays the melody), the gusli (much like a zither), the bayan (a button accordian), and the zhaleika (a wind instrument that, according to one orchestra member, sounds like “a dying duck, but uplifting).
The orchestra’s sound is augmented with drums and percussion and, occasionally, the guitar and violin. Singers and dancers frequently join the orchestra for their concerts all over Atlanta.
Just what is it about the balalaika that inspires such enthusiasm and loyalty? After all, it only has three strings, and two of them are tuned the same. But balalaika players swear that the instrument is as expressive as any of its many-stringed siblings.
“You can play anything on it: jazz, blues, Russian folk music,” says Kirill Chernoff, who sees the balalaika as a way to reconnect with his Russian heritage. “I used to play the piano. I tried playing the guitar. Too many strings. Now, when I want to pick out a song by ear, I just pick up the balalaika.”
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