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This story originally aired in the July 23, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
In a story from Inside Appalachia that aired last year, Folkways Reporter Clara Haizlett explored the connection between the Appalachian hammer dulcimer and a Ukrainian folk instrument called the tsymbaly. Over the course of her research, she met Ukrainian tsymbalist Vsevolod Sadovyj over Zoom.
When Haizlett spoke with Sadovyj in May of last year, it was just a few months after the war in Ukraine started. At the time, Sadovyj was living in his hometown of Lviv. Now, Sadovyj is in Ireland.
Sadovyj and his family are among the millions of Ukrainians who have left their homes since the start of the war. It’s caused Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, displacing people within Ukraine, across Europe and around the world.
Just days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sadovyj’s wife and children crossed the border into Poland, eventually making their way to Ireland. Sadovyj helped them with the move, but then returned to Lviv, alone.
“Then I had to go back to Ukraine, because we had still some concerts and touring and recordings to do,” he said.
Sadovyj was separated from his family for almost a year.
“So all the year, we were speaking in the messengers and video calls, and mostly I’ve been living alone,” he said.
During that time, his work as a professional musician and music teacher was actually thriving. With the onset of the war, COVID-19 took a backseat. People began gathering again, organizing benefit concerts to support troops on the front lines — some of whom were musicians prior to joining the armed forces.
“So we gathered a lot of funds to support them in the special needs, which are not covered by the government,” he said.
Things like night vision scopes and drones.
“The concerts were even more soulful,” he said. “Because it’s not about only the entertainment, but the point was to support our friends and our relatives.”
Sadovyj says it was a critical moment to be a part of his community — but at the same time, he was separated from his family.
“I was at a crossroads of some sort…should I stay or should I go?” he said. “I missed all the year of my little son growing up, which is like something which will never turn back.”
He decided to go, leaving behind students and bandmates and a thriving career. He joined his family in Galway, Ireland. It’s a colorful coastal city known for folk music.
“Galway is a really good place to play on the streets and I saw a lot of musicians,” he said. “A lot of guys with guitars are singing songs. A lot of guys are playing traditional [music].”
Sadovyj says he’s always felt a strong connection to Irish folk music. It was actually one of the reasons he and his wife decided on Ireland instead of another European country.
“In Ukraine, we were really fond of Western European folklore, and especially northern folklore,” he said. “Irish was this special one from the favorite lists.”
Since moving there, Sadovyj has started playing the mandolin.
“My wife’s mandolin, which I never touched before, it’s so well fit to Irish music,” he said.
He brought his own instruments from Ukraine, too. He’s been busking on the streets, playing tsymbaly and sharing Ukrainian folk music with passersby.
“I’ve decided also to share something because I have this instrument, which would be interesting for people to see,” he said.
There is an Irish version of the hammer dulcimer, but it’s not common in traditional Irish music.
“It was something really unusual [for a street instrument], and a lot of people were just staying for a while just to see, just to hear,” he said.
It’s not the first time Sadovyj has introduced Ukrainian folk music to people outside of Ukraine. He’s traveled extensively, sharing his music and culture on tour in the U.S. and other parts of Europe.
“It’s something natural for me but the difference probably is that I change the point of where the home is,” he said.
Now home is Ireland. He’s met several people while playing tsymbaly on the streets in Galway, including a couple from Appalachia and a woman from Iran.
“I met the woman from Iran and she said it reminds her of her motherland,” he said. “Because they have a very similar instrument in Iran which is traditional for them, the santur…that means ‘the sound of sea waves.’”
Well before the hammer dulcimer arrived in Appalachia or the tsymbaly found its way to Ukraine, it was called the santur. It’s thought to have originated in what is now Iran, where it then made its way around the world.
Sadovyj is now part of this process: of people coming and going, leaving behind and starting anew — with instruments in tow and music stored within.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.