Malanka! Not. Or maybe so.

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ January 26th, 2013. Filed under: World Music Studies.

It’s that time of year again, when Ukrainians in the homeland and the Canadian prairies celebrate their culture by mounting a party called malanka. I was reminded of this occasion when I watched a recent episode of the Rick Mercer Report where Rick attended a malanka party in Saskatoon. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a malanka, you will find yourself in a spirited and noisy evening of dance and music in a hotel ballroom or community rec room, full of all generations. Think wedding reception. Sprinkled throughout the evening are interludes of entertainment, especially Ukrainian folkloric dance in spectacular costume – women wearing peasant dresses and streaming ribbons, men in Turkish trousers, and everybody wearing shiny red boots. Or not. I’ve seen the dancers simply strut their stuff in street or party clothes. Here in Vancouver, Ukrainian malanka makes barely a ripple on the cultural landscape, but on the Canadian prairie arctic that is Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg at this time of year, it is the biggest event in the January’s social calendar, in the cities and out in the countryside. The reason is because Ukrainians in massive numbers settled in that part of Canada in the late 1800s.

Malanka celebrations (Malanckyn Vechir) occur on New Year’s Eve according to the Julian calendar, which runs a little more than a week later then the modern Gregorian calendar. That puts the date on January 13. It is part of a constellation of day-time festivities called Shchedryi Vechir (Generous Eve) where people share in carol singing (shchedrivky), dancing and feasting. The fun high day follows similar festivities about a week earlier on Christmas Day (Sviata Vecheria) when carols (koliadky) are sung at home and during Christmas house-visits, koliadnyky. Think wassailers.

Both Christmas day and New Year’s Eve festivities feature mummers plays. The plays and their associated shenanigans have a heightened spin in Western Ukraine among the rural Hutsul people of the Carpathian Mountains. Rowdy young men go house to house with ritualized greetings, group singing, dancing (hutsulka, kolomyjka, both shoulder-to-shoulder round dances) and of course, a mummers play.

The Christmas Day event is called vertep (related to the Russian petrushka – Stravinsky alert), centred on the nativity scene. Sombre re-enactments of the Jesus’ birth are contrasted with hilarious skits about the shepherds, the antics of the animals (especially the goat, koza, which also had a story of its own), and the comic characterizations of the accompanying costumed stereotypes – a local policeman, a blacksmith, the gypsy, a chimneysweep, etc.. The mummers play at New Year’s Eve is called malanka, and features many of the same stereotypical, comic characters.  In each instance, the accompanying characters make brief appearances, where they are announced by the performance of their defining songs (in the style of koliadky).

The malanka play is named after the central character. According to the song lyrics, she is beautiful, shy and on the look-out for a worthy husband. According to the lyrics. But in reality, “she” was a male dressed in shabby women’s clothing, blustering and wreaking havoc in the kitchen, pretending to clean it up, until “she” was persuaded to sit down and have a drink. Other, even shorter skits could be invoked, with specific songs performed during the mimed antics of one or more of the other comic characters who accompanied malanka. Food and drink would be consumed copiously and couple dances would spontaneously break out, much to the delight or chagrin of the females in the house. Behind the façade of merriment was an opportunity for the young people of the town to size each other up for potential romances and dalliances. The narrative of the play is concerned either with a portrayal of pre-nuptial ritual or a knock-about re-enactment of a myth about a young woman who finds herself caught in a web of intrigue similar to Persephone.

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When I became a morris dancer, I learned that many English folk arts (such as morris dance) were also timed to coincide with high days in the festive year, like malanka and vertep. I also learned that at Christmas time in England, mumming was far more prevalent than morris dance, so in order to go deep into this performance art I became the foreman of a mumming troupe drawn from morris dancers in our organisation. I quickly discovered that mumming was the equal of morris dance with its complex representations and vigorous performativity. And just as I had done in my later comparative studies of ethnic dances in relation to morris dance, I found a multitude of astounding examples of ethnic theatre resembling mumming. I hasten to add that is almost all “street” theatre and “kitchen” theatre, not the high tone productions found on stages, performed by professional actors and thoughtfully written by playwrights exploring human dilemmas, triumphs and hubris.  The examples of folk theatre I found were usually brief, physical and brimming with the kind of rough-and-ready humour Mikhail Bakhtin called Carnival Laughter.

It was during my mumming phase that I discovered traditional malanka. But, no sooner did I revel in this discovery, I became bamboozled by the malanka that I was seeing and hearing about on the prairies.  It had virtually no resemblance to the malanka I had read about.  What’s more, when I began to make inquiries in the Ukrainian communities I visited, I discovered that many of the malanka celebrants were entirely unaware of the traditional malanka.

The Malanka that one sees today is a party of an entirely different colour. Instead of “folk” it is “dance club” with music performed by a polka or soft rock band.  Although the event resembles a supper club, the many generations of people in attendance make the event more like a wedding reception. Granted, a typical malanka New Year’s party will have guest appearances by the local Ukrainian dance troupe, and party-goers may even have a go at a traditional dance and sing-along. Ukrainian language even makes an appearance at these events. Obviously the original kitchen “party” component has morphed into something more contemporary, in the tried and true manner of all folk customs that adapt to changes and modernity in general. I have no problem with that, but what I did find alarming was the seeming ignorance among many young Ukrainian-Canadians about the origins of their malanka.

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Of course, the picture is never black and white. One finds videos on YouTube with young people having a whale of a time, pumped up by the hot music of young Ukrainian-Canadian musicians like Zirka. And come to think about it, the fun seen in internet videos suggest that young people are still sizing each other up at malanka parties.

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The gap between the old and the new does not stop at the parties. I had heard of a video performance of a malanka play that was produced by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in 1995 for sale to educational institutions across Canada. Imagine my disappointment when I found myself watching a dance-mime performance of the story of the “pagan goddess malanka” who was portrayed by a slim young ballerina dressed in beguiling Ukrainian costume, being escorted across the dance floor, and through the narrative, by gallant young men, also in traditional folkloric costume. The choreography was a mix of ballet and modern Ukrainian “folkloric” dance. I sat back in astonishment, pondering the thousands of young people in grade schools and universities who would use the video as the basis for their papers and multicultural presentations.

Young third and fourth Ukrainian-Canadians may have been unaware of the roots, but not the generation of their grandparents. The older the informant, the more aware they were of traditional malanka. But there was also a kind of shame and reluctance that tempered their fond memories. The grandparents seemed uneasy about the transvestism of malanka, and the general  foreign-ness of the event, given their desire to become “Canadian”. That is, Anglo Canadian, a hybrid of America and Britain. The internment of Ukrainians during World War II also made those mixed feelings even more complicated.

How times have changed. A traditional Malanka would be greeted with open arms today, if she could be found. I despaired of seeing or hearing about a real Malanka until a few years ago when I visited a small town in central Saskatchewan, almost entirely populated by many generations of Ukrainian-Canadians. There I discovered that the original Malanka and her troupe were alive and thriving. I also learned that researchers and scholars in the Ukrainian Studies department of the University of Alberta in Edmonton were delving deep into the mysteries of the original malanka play, just like scholars in England (and Newfoundland!) were investigating the roots of mumming.

When I began teaching at the School of Music at UBC, I dreamt of engineering a centre for ethnic music, dance and theatre where all the seasonal traditions like old malanka would be studied and performed. Given that they touch upon domains found throughout the Arts Faculty, they would make excellent cross-faculty fodder. The explorations would start with Old World (i.e., European) examples and then perhaps branch out to similar events around the world. For example, Sestubun in Japan has remarkable points of commonality.  You can find the project in my blog under Ethnomusicology ensembles.

Now, conditions may not be right. The tide of diasporan communities from Asia seem to have no interest in these hold-over cultures from Europe, and the latest generation of born-and-bred Canadian children have long since separated from the homelands of their European grandparents.  For example, it is typical to speak to children of English parents who have never heard of morris dance or mummers plays. I suppose each of these segments of modern society is re-shaping Canada into a transcultural image more suited to their needs.


Robert Klymasz (1970), The Ukrainian Winter Folksong Cycle in Canada, with music transcriptions by Kenneth Peacock

Robert Klymasz (1985) ‘“Malanka”: Ukrainian Mummery on the Prairies,” in Canadian Folk Music Journal, volume 13 (1985), pp. 32-36

Orest Subtelny (1991) Ukrainians in North America: An Illustrated History

Tamara Livingstone (1999) “Music Revivals: Towards a General Theory,” in Ethnomusicology, volume 43, number 1 (Winter), pp. 66-85

Phil Ryan (2010) Multcultiphobia

Cheryl Avery, Mona Holmlund (2010) Better Off Forgetting? Essays on Archives, Public Policy, and Collective Memory


Tafiychuk Family

Hutsulshchyna No 1 Music of the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains (Koka)

With a family line from the Hutsul village of Bukovets, between Kosiv and Verkhovyna in the Ukrainian part of the Carpathian Mountains, this family has been cultivating local music traditions for decades. Their repertoire is recognized as a canon of Hutsul folklore. This first CD consists of ritual wedding music – kolomyikas and ritual games and spontaneous, archaic dances sung and performed on violin and instruments such as sopilka, floiara, telenka among others. This CD also includes a small booklet with a short story about the creation of the world.

Hutsulshchyna No 2 Music of the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains (Koka)

Volume two of the music by this family from the Hutsul village of Bukovets, between Kosiv and Verkhovyna in the Ukrainian part of the Carpathian Mountains, focuses on songs and improvisations of traditional melodies performed on violin and instruments such as sopilka, floiara, telenka among others.

These CDs and similar music productions are available at CD Roots.


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