In September 2010, I had the privilege of accompanying my favorite Ukrainian band to the United States as their interpreter/cross-cultural chaperon. It was the first time the band had played outside Europe, and the first time that most of them had flown in an airplane.

Known in their home town of Tyachiv, Ukraine (Тячів) as “Родина Маньо” (Manyo Family Band) and in Hungary as the “Técsői Banda” (Tyachiv Band), the quartet consists of Bayan (button accordion), Violin, Bubyn (Drum) and Tsymbaly (Hammer Dulcimer). While the band’s playing style is quite common in their region of Transcarpathia, their real strength (and the reason that they are so interesting to ethnomusicologists) lies in the diversity of their repertoire. They not only play the traditional Rusyn/Ruthenian wedding tunes common to the Tyachiv region, but also Hutsul, Hungarian, Romanian, Jewish, Roma, and Russian tunes. Thus, the band is a unique musical time capsule– a connection to Transcarpathia’s more ethnically-diverse past.

Map showing location of Tyachiv

The band’s name (and much of their repertoire) stems from its founder and patriarch, Yuriy Yuriyovych Cherniavets, a violinist born in 1920 on the Romanian side of the Tisza (Тиса) River in the village of Little Tyachiv (Малий Тячів). Yuriy was known locally as “Manyo” (Маньо)– “Beckoner”, because when he played, the townspeople would drop what they were doing in order to revel in his music. Cherniavets played weddings for all of Tyachiv’s ethnic groups, which in those days included a much higher proportion of Jews, Hungarians and Romanians than are present there today. Cherniavets had two musical sons, Yosyp (a bayanist) and Misha (a drummer/tsymbalist), and by the early 1960s, they were accompanying him on gigs, along with his cousin’s son, Yura (a drummer).

Yuriy “Manyo” Cherniavets (left of bride), his sons Misha (tsymbalist) and Yosyp (bayanist), and cousin’s son, Yuriy (drummer) at a wedding in Tyachiv, ca. 1975.

After Manyo’s death in 1982, Yosyp, Misha and their second-cousin Yura continued to play for weddings with local virtuoso Ivan Mykolaiovych Popovych as their violinist. Since Misha’s death in 2007, the band has played with various local tsymbalists, including the classically trained Vasyl Antonovych Hudak, who accompanied them on their recent trip to the U.S.

The band has recorded five albums: “Ruszin Népzene” (Rusyn Folk) [purchase or listen], “Vertek engem, vertek” (I Was Beaten), “Мелодії Закарпаття” (Melodies of Transcarpathia), “Русинські коломийки 1” (Ruthenian Kolomiyky 1), and “Русинські коломийки 2” (Ruthenian Kolomiyky 2). The first two were produced in 2002 and 2004 by Hungarian folk label Etnofon Records after the band’s ‘discovery’ by producer Ferenc Kiss. The latter three were self-produced and recorded in one session in 2007 at a studio in Vinnytsia, Ukraine (Vasyl Hudak plays tsymbaly on these records).

“Весела легінська” (jolly men’s tune) from the Manyo Family Band album “Русинські коломийки 1”.

In this recording of a men’s wedding song, Yura sings and plays the plyonka (плёнка/плівка = “film”), a circular piece of rigid, thin plastic packaging that is placed between the lower lip and front teeth, and pressed against the top lip to create a buzzing sound when blown. In Hutsul settlements, the practice is known as “playing on a leaf”, which as it turns out, Yura can also do.

Manyo in New York

I first heard about plans to bring Manyo to New York when my friend and Klezmer tsimbl mentor Pete Rushefsky asked me to help the band with their visa applications.  Pete is the Executive Director of New York’s Center for Traditional Music and Dance; he and Artistic Director Ethel Raim wanted to include Manyo in their upcoming “Black Sea Roma Festival” program, but the U.S. consulate required most visa application materials to be submitted in person in Kyiv. Luckily, I was able to help in that regard, and after a couple of 14 hour train rides to Kyiv and a few weeks of waiting, the band got their visas–just a week before they were scheduled to fly to New York.

I traveled with the band as their interpreter, but ended up posing as their “manager” during a few sticky airport situations. Our troubles started in Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport, where I learned that despite my specific instructions not to bring food or drinks, the band had packed as if they were taking a 32 hour train ride to Crimea: bottles of water, juice, vodka, loaves of bread, sausages and cold kotlety. Almost all of it had to go. I showed the boys the sign forbidding drinks and explained that the sausage would lead to a $300 fine once we got to New York, and they immediately set up shop on a bench outside the metal detectors and began to chow down.

Once we were through feasting, it was time for our first security check. The instruments aroused some suspicion (especially the tsymbaly) and even though we were still in their home country, somehow I ended up being the one to explain everything to the security officers. This was especially difficult when they found a big screwdriver and club in Yura’s carry-on bag. It seems that Yura had never thought that his drumstick and the dulled screwdriver he uses to play the cymbal could be considered weapons. Luckily, Borispil’s security is not up to American standards and we were able to simply put the potential weapons in one of the instrument bags to be checked at the gate.

When we finally arrived in New York, we were greeted by Pete Rushefsky and fellow organizer, Budapest-based Klezmer fiddler Bob Cohen. Bob had arranged for us to stay at his sister’s house in New Jersey for the first two nights of our five day stay. Due to a UN summit in town, crosstown traffic was confined to one route that day, and the band’s first impression of America was a three hour traffic jam.

Manyo playing outside the Ukrainian National Home in the East Village.

The band played two shows: on September 25th at the Ukrainian National Home in the old Ukrainian part of the East Village, and on September 26th at Central Park’s “Summer Stage”. The latter was a large open-air concert produced in conjunction with the New York Gypsy Festival and featured Mahala Rai Banda, Selim Sesler, Yuri Yunakov and the New York Gypsy All-Stars.

The concert at Summer Stage in Central Park.

I was surprised by the extent to which the band chose not to enjoy America–  with the exception of New York pizza, every meal they ate consisted of bread, pickles and boiled hot dogs prepared in their hotel room.  Of course, this was largely a financial issue; it wasn’t that they didn’t want to try new exotic foods, but for the eight dollars it would cost them for a delicious Pad Thai dish in NY, they could easily provide a meal for their entire extended family back home.  It is also a generational issue; these musicians are in their 50s and 60s.  They are much less knowledgeable about foreign countries and cultures than younger generations of Ukrainians, and therefore less likely to try something new and exotic when they have the chance.  Still, despite having barely scraped the surface of American culture during their short stay, the band was impressed with what they saw.

Upon returning from New York, the band received an award from the Transcarpathia Ministry of Culture for their participation in the concerts in New York, and were definitely enjoying the attention that it brought them.

The award reads:

Transcarpathian Oblast Council
Ensemble “Manyo Family Traditional Quartet”
(Conductor Yosyp Cherniavets)
For your dutiful creative work and considerable personal contribution to the socioeconomic and cultural development of the city.  Presented on the 681st anniversary of the first written mention of the city of Tyachiv.

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