BY ELIZABETH FRIEDLY / AJT //

David Cooper has been studying the art of Russian folk music for more than three decades. As part of musical ensemble Troika Balalaikas, he’ll bring his expertise to Steve’s Live Music in Sandy Springs on Jan. 23.

Gregory Carageorge (L-R), Lynn McConnell, David Cooper and Angelina Galashenkova-Reed of Troika Balalaikas. PHOTO / Lynn McConnell

Gregory Carageorge (L-R), Lynn McConnell, David Cooper and Angelina Galashenkova-Reed of Troika Balalaikas. PHOTO / Lynn McConnell

Cooper studied in Kiev at the Glier Institute of Music, helped in the creation of the Atlanta Balalaikas Society and has been playing with Troika Balalaikas for roughly 20 years. The group, founded by Lynn McConnel in San Francisco, has toured both Canada and the United States.

Audiences and critics around the country have applauded their brightly-costumed, Old World performance. But one question remains: What exactly is a balalaika?

Ranging wildly in size, from dimensions akin to those of your average banjo to proportions that would literally overshadow a grown man, the balalaika is a Russian hollow-bodied string instrument first documented in the 1700s. As suggested by their name, Troika Balalaikas features a trio of the instrument, which is accompanied by a domra (a lute-like instrument) and accordion.

Cooper was kind enough to further explain this unique instrument, as well as more on performing in Troika.

Atlanta Jewish Times: What sparked your interest in this genre of music?

David Cooper: I had been interested in college. I went to the University of Illinois and was studying ethno-musicology. The jazz professor at the university had recently returned from Russia, where he had taken the jazz band on a tour and had heard Russian folk orchestras while on the trip.

He wanted to start an orchestra, so he ordered music and instruments, put up signs and asked people to join!

In the beginning, nobody knew what they were doing. We had scores and music to look at, and we’d just start playing. Over the years, we brought in teachers, made some progress. But I started in college and never stopped.

AJT: How difficult of an instrument is it to play?

DC: The balalaika is a challenge to be an expert on because it borrows techniques from so many different instruments – guitar and violin, any kind of string instrument you can imagine. So you really have to spend time learning these various techniques.

AJT: Could you give us a little background on the balalaika?

DC: The development of the different sizes [six] was kind of a later invention, by a man by the name of Vasily Vasilievich Andreyev. He’s known as the “father of the balalaika orchestra.”

He learned to play the prima balalaika from a peasant who lived near him named Antip. He was enthralled by the sound of the instrument, and Antip gave him lessons.

He essentially modernized the instrument, working with violin makers and instrument builders of the time in Petersburg, and put it into its present form.

AJT: What’s it like as a group dynamic, working with so many talented people?

DC: Well, that’s definitely the case. It’s a lot of years of performing experience. Angelina [Galashenkova-Reed on the domra] has won awards in all over Russia. Greg Carageorge [on the contra-bass balalaika] actually belonged to a group in San Francisco before joining Troika Balalaikas called Klezmorim, and it was one of the early groups in the Klezmer music revival. He knows a bunch of Yiddish tunes, so we’ll be doing some of those at Steve’s Live Music on Jan. 23.

AJT: What type of audience have you found here in Atlanta?

DC: We have a pretty loyal following actually. There’s a large, large number of Russian immigrants in the community. I think the number is around 60,000 or 70,000 in the Atlanta area. There may be more than that, even. There’s also a lot of Americans who just love this kind of music, maybe because of the unique instruments.

But yes, we have a pretty good following. We had one of the largest crowds the last time we played Steve’s Live Music. He [Steve] said it was the largest crowd he’d had so far.

And as far as our orchestra, the Atlanta Balalaika Society, our last performance at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center was sold out.

AJT: What is a typical show like?

DC: We perform in costume, so it looks colorful. You’d think we were gonna dance with the costumes we have on, but unfortunately we don’t dance, we just play music [laughs].

We really kind of pull from a broad spectrum, not just Russian music, but gypsy music, Ukrainian music, some Serbian music. So, it’s kind of a broad array of music from that area. We also have some Yiddish music.

We had a standing room only crowd last time, so everyone should get their tickets early!

Editor’s note: Catch Troika Balalaikas at Steve’s Live Music on Wed., Jan. 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets available online (steveslivemusic.com) or at the door.