Ukrainian highland ‘trembita’ serenades Black Friday hikers on White Rocks

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Rich, trumpet-like sounds carried far over the White Rocks cliffs at Buffalo Mountain Friday morning, but they weren’t emanating from any ordinary brass.

“It’s called a trembita,” Pavlo Rybaluk explained as he grasped a nearly 10-foot-long, thin wooden horn. Rybaluk, a first-semester master’s student in Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, arrived in Johnson City in late summer on a Fulbright scholarship.

Pavlo Rybaluk.

Rybaluk is studying under Lee Bidgood, who himself traveled to the Czech Republic on a Fulbright in the 2018-19 school year. He’s heading to Washington, D.C. this week for a conference related to ETSU’s Appalachian Teaching Project, which aims to answer the question, “How can we build a sustainable future for Appalachian communities?”

“I’m from western Ukraine and highlanders all around the world are now experiencing similar issues,” Rybaluk said of his reason for coming to ETSU. “Sort of balancing the economic development with preservation of the authenticity and globalism coming. I don’t see my peers continuing the authentic traditions that are where I’m from and here I sort of came to look for the methods, the scientific bases that you might have developed or just any kind of modals to be used back where I’m from to help people help themselves.”

At sunrise Friday, Rybaluk was filling the valley below White Rocks with the deep sound of the trembita. Thoughout the morning he continued, when he wasn’t playing several other traditional wooden flutes and a jaw harp. His trembita is made of a hollowed spruce branch — struck by lightning no less — with an outer wrapping of birch bark.

Other variants of the alpine horn are used around Europe. In a section of the Carpathian Mountain’s in Rybaluk’s native western Ukraine, it’s both functional and artistic.

“This is a signaling instrument, but it would be used in all kinds of ways,” he said.

The Western Ukrainian section of the Carpathian Mountains, where Rybaluk is from.

“People would live so far apart where I’m from, (they) would use this to say like, somebody dies, or marriage is happening and you can know that. Shepherds would use it for calling, and … in the morning, guys would come up the mountain and they would play it to the rising sun as a prayer.”

Rybaluk said he’s learned a good deal in just a few months studying another highland culture. He said in some respects Appalachia is a bit ahead of his home area in some aspects of preserving folkways, albeit in a “settler culture” and not a native one.

“There is a lot of great soul here … especially like down to Flag Pond and these more remote areas.”

Many Wednesday nights, curious music lovers can find him playing traditional instruments and reciting poetry at the Willowtree Coffee House & Music Room in downtown Johnson City.

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