Medieval Belarusian band, Stary Olsa got their start in 1999 when singer Zmicier Sasnoūski decided to put together a traditional music group that showcased medieval Belarusian culture. Fast forward to 2016: with an additional five members, 11 albums under their belt, and a potential US tour in August and September, the band shows no signs of slowing down.
Stary Olsa specializes in reconstructing 13th – 18th century music from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and medieval Belarus. They recently added modern rock covers to their repertoire. In October 2014, they uploaded a cover of Metallica’s “One” on YouTube. The song went viral, with well over one million views, thrusting the band into the spotlight.
So what prompted the Belarusian band to venture outside their comfort zone and give rock music a medieval twist? According to Flutist Maryja Šaryj, it was a complete accident. The band enjoyed joking around and playing medieval versions of their favourite rock bands. ‘One of our friends once said: ‘Why don’t you play in my new show on TV!’ So we tried. “One” became our first experiment; we wanted to draw people’s attention to the actual content of this song by refreshing it with a different sound. Then we decided to keep going with the great classic – Deep Purple “Child in Time”.”
Asked if they found it challenging to play modern music on medieval instruments, vocalist Alieś Čumakou replied, “It isn’t that hard, if you like medieval instruments and respect rock classics as well as us. The ensemble of old instruments has the same, if not more opportunities for versions, than a modern rock band”, Lutist Illia Kulicki added, “Modern instruments are undoubtedly superior to the ancient instrument in volume, range and technical capabilities. That’s why in some covers we had to improvise instead of exactly repeating the melody or harmony. But this is the sense of a cover – to show your own vision, your interpretation of the song…Working on the covers we got convinced once again that the old instruments are much richer than any other contemporary instrument in pitch.” The instruments used are fascinating: Shawms, a 12th century woodwind instrument, tromba marinas, a bowed instrument popular between the 15th-18th centuries, the Russian gusli, and the cister, a 16th century guitar. The music carries a depth and unique melodic quality you can’t capture with modern instruments.
After seeing the overwhelmingly positive response to the song, the band started a Kickstarter campaign to create a cover album of classic rock tunes played on medieval instruments. Šaryj shared her excitement about the surprising turn of events after the release of “One”,”Yes, it was unexpected! Because it was just an experiment. Lots of feedbacks, comments, emails. Our website just burst from the visitors. We were very glad that having seen this video people got interested in the major work of the band, the instruments, the history and learnt a bit more about Belarus! And for ourselves it became the turning point in the further evolution of the band. Thanks to Metallica!)”
It’s unsurprising then, that Stary Olsa have blown past their Kickstarter goal. They are planning to use the extra donations to put towards a “stretch goal”, asking fans to chime in and say what they’d like to see the band embark upon next. The multi-talented band members have also written books, and collaborated with historical clubs, societies, museums and research centres. They are extremely active on social media and enjoy interacting with fans from across the globe.
Zmicier Sasnoŭski – bagpipes, gusli, tromba marina, vocal, hurdy-gurdy
Maryja Šaryj – flutes, shawms
Alieś Čumakoŭ – vocal, gusli, cister, rebec, shawms
Illia Kublicki – lute, cisters
Siarhiej Tapčeŭski – drums, percussion, tromba marina
Aliaksiej Vojciech – drums, percussion