Music Trekking: The Russian Guitar

Discovering The Balalaika

If you’re watching someone “rock out” in the USA, chances are they are playing a guitar. It might be a bass guitar, an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar or maybe even a 12 string guitar, but it probably is some kind of guitar. Along with the banjo and the fiddle, it’s one of our country’s “stringed instruments of choice.” Now if you were to travel almost halfway around the world to countries like Russia or the Ukraine, you’d also see some pretty amazing musicians and musical groups. But instead of the familiar guitar, they might be making their own musical magic with a triangular-shaped instrument called a balalaika.

Unlike the guitar, the balalaika is actually a family of instruments with a variety of sizes from the smaller, mandolin-sized prima balalaika to a huge contrabass balalaika which is so large that it needs wooden legs to support it as it stands on the floor. And the contra bass is so large that it is played with a pick made from a large piece of leather or even a boot heel – wow!

If you’d like to see a balalaika, check out this video in Yiddish and English called Tum Balalaika:

This folksong from Eastern Europe is actually a riddle song. In the original Yiddish, a boy is seeking a lovely girl who is as pretty as she is smart. So he stays up all night and devises a series of riddles that are questions for her. The chorus of the song: “tum bala, tum bala, tum, balalaika” imitates the strum of the balalaika. If you’d like to see some of the riddles he poses, there’s an English translation below.

Because I often sing for audiences that speak mainly English, I sing the original verse in Yiddish and then add new verses in English that tell the story. The girl is as clever (or more clever) then the boy. She answers all his questions then asks him to be her beau. It’s a perfect ending since the young lady also wanted a boyfriend as clever as he might be handsome!

If you’d like to see and hear an actual balalaika, check out this balalaika orchestra:

You’ll see a group of boys and men of various ages playing the Beatles Song “Yesterday” on their balalaikas. Notice the different sizes and shapes working together to create the beautiful melody.

Once you’ve gotten a chance to check out this instrument, I’m sure you’ll really like a balalaika!  I also have a Balalaika Coloring Page where younger kids can color their own balalaika and add their own unique flair to it!

Riddles And Answers From the Song Tum Balalaika

What can grow, grow without rain?
What can burn and never end?
What can yearn, cry without tears?

A stone can grow, grow without rain
Love can burn and never end
A heart can yearn, cry without tears

What is higher than a house?
What is swifter than a mouse?
What is deeper than a well?

A chimney is higher than a house
A cat is swifter than a mouse
The Torah is deeper than a well!


Award-winning children’s performer, DARIA (Daria Marmaluk-Hajioannou) has created 7 cd’s that have won national honors. She has the most awesome job of traveling the world to sing for kids and peace. Her “world music for kids” website,, was given a 2009 Parents Choice Award for its musical and cultural content.  She has also created a multicultural kids video site as well as My Favorite Multicultural Books.

A free copy of this month’s song can be downloaded on Daria’s Monthly Song Page.

If you’d like to check out more about instruments from this region of the world, Daria will be sharing Chinese New Year customs, the Tibetan Singing Bowl and a “Make-Your-Own” Chinese Gong craft this month at Making Multicultural.

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