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Brian Cherwick (B. Mus. – Brandon; M.A. – Alberta; PhD. - Alberta) is a specialist in east European traditional music, diaspora cultures, ethnic identity, music industry, material culture and oral history. He was born in Winnipeg into a family that had settled in Canada a couple of generations earlier. Three of his four grandparents were born in the western Ukrainian province of Galicia, from two villages, Chornokonetska Volya and Burdiakivtsi, near the city of Ternopil. Brian’s father’s family were early settlers from the first wave, immigrating to Saskatchewan in 1903, while his mother’s family came to Manitoba during the interwar immigration in the 1920s.
Brian had music on both sides of his family. His father’s father, John Cherewyk, left the farm to become a harness maker and later a meat cutter in the town of Yorkton, Saskatchewan. But on the side, John played fiddle in a trio with his two brothers — one playing tsymbaly and the other adding a second violin. John was additionally trained as a cantor in the Ukrainian Catholic church. Brian learned the cantorial art from his grandfather (as well as other cantors) during church services each Sunday and would come back with him and hear him fiddling at home. Brian holds a position today as a cantor in his church and is active in teaching liturgical singing to fellow congregants. On his mother's side, Brian's great-grandfather was a fiddler and his grandmother even played the small bubon in the band until she was old enough to marry (it was not respectable then for mature women to play music). Brian's uncle Mike Klym played drum kit with the D-Drifters, one of the most famous Western Canadian Ukrainian bands. The D-Drifters were especially known for providing backup to Mickey and Bunny, a famous singing married couple, and for recording country western music with English and Ukrainian lyrics. Their biggest hit was a Ukrainian translation of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," and the disc sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Uncle Mike was only fifteen years older than Brian, and so Brian grew up going to practices of the D-Drifters.
Brian formed his first band with friends at age 14, and began playing violin at weddings at age 15. Instrumentation has changed with the tastes of the community, and modern bands often feature accordions, keyboards, saxes, electric guitars, basses and drum kits (such adaptation is not a new phenomena — grandfather John Cherewyk also performed on the Hawaiian-style lap steel guitar which was a rage in the 20s and 30s). At age 16, Brian acquired a tsymbaly from his brother who had gotten it from a church group. As a young musician with an entrepreneurial flair, Brian saw tsymbaly as a way to differentiate his band and their advertisements would promote the fact that they played the old tunes on traditional instruments as well as in more modern arrangements. Brian learned tsymbaly from watching the old-timers play at weddings (with over 100 first-cousins, there were plenty of family celebrations throughout the year). He also listened to regional Canadian-Ukrainian commercial recordings featuring tsymbaly-- bands such as those of the Alberta fiddlers Metro Radomsky, Bill Boychuk, and Manitoba fiddlers Jim Gregorash, Tommy Buick and Peter Lamb, as well as the Interlake Polka Kings.
Brian entered Brandon University (about 100 km west of Winnipeg) to study in its well regarded music program. Though tsymbaly was not offered, he enrolled as a pianist and percussionist. After graduating, Brian spent four years teaching music and conducting choirs at a seminary in Roblin, Manitoba, a tenure that was interrupted mid-way by an opportunity to study music for a year in Ukraine. Brian had received an invitation from the Society for Relations with Ukrainians Abroad. Based at the Kyiv Conservatory, Brian took classes in cimbalom, the piano-sized concert version of the tsymbaly that had developed in Hungary at the end of the 19th century and was taught in conservatories in Hungary, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Moldova. Adapting from tsymbaly to cimbalom requires learning a completely different tuning system, sticking technique and use of the cimbalom’s damper pedal, which is similar to that of a piano. Though his assigned teacher was Gyorgi Ahratina, who played cimbalom with the national folk orchestra, Brian learned more from Vasyl Palaniuk, an ethnic Hutsul from the Carpathians who was the senior cimbalom student at the conservatory and is today recognized as one of Ukraine's leading players. While Palaniuk played cimbalom in the conservatory ensemble, Brian would play percussion alongside of him as they accompanied highly choreographed folkloric dance presentations.
From Roblin, Brian moved to Edmonton to enroll in the University of Alberta's graduate programs in Ukrainian folklore and ethnomusicology. His doctoral dissertation focused on the influences of social conditions and popular music on the development of Ukrainian traditional music in western Canada. He is currently researching the ethnic commercial recording industry in Canada. Dr. Cherwick is Adjunct Professor of Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has taught at the University of Alberta and Athabasca University. He has worked as a researcher for the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village in Alberta and for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He is also active as a performer, composer and music educator and has appeared in performances and conducted seminars and workshops throughout North America and Europe.