The origin of the word zhaleika remains unknown. Some researchers point to the similarity of the roots of zhaleika and zhal’nik, the latter denoting a grave of an ancient Slavic man, and surmise the instrument could have been used at funeral repasts. The timbre of the zhaleika is piercing and nasal, sad and compassionate.
Zhaleika (bryolka) is an old Russian folk instrument of the wind and reed type – it is a wooden, rush or reed mace pipe with a socket of horn or birchbark.
It is also known under the names zhalomeika, sopel’, pishchelka, fletnya, duda, etc. The origin of the word zhaleika remains unknown. Some researchers point to the similarity of the roots of zhaleika and zhal’nik, the latter denoting a grave of an ancient Slavic man, and surmise the instrument could have been used at funeral repasts.
For finding out the time of appearance of the zhaleika playing tradition with the Russians, helpful might be the instrument called pishchiki, widely spread in the South-Russian lands.
The word zhaleika is not mentioned in any of the Old Russian written monuments. The first record of the zhaleika is found in A. Tuchkov’s notes dated to the late 18th century. There are reasons to suppose that the zhaleika was present earlier in the form of some other instrument.
In some regions of Russia the zhaleika, just like the Vladimirsky rozhok, is called the “shepherd’s horn”. So, when a written source reads about “shepherd’s horn” we cannot say exactly which instrument is meant.
There are two types of zhaleika: the single one and double (double-piped) one. The single zhaleika is a small pipe made of willow or elder, from 10 to 20 cm long, the upper end of which has a whistle with a single reed of cane or goose feather, and the lower end bears a bell of a cow horn or birch bark. Sometimes the reed is notched on the pipe itself. The pipe has three to seven holes, which allow changing the sound pitch.
The instrument’s scale is diatonic, with the range depending on the number of playing holes. The timbre of the zhaleika is piercing and nasal, sad and compassionate. The instrument was used as a shepherds’ one, performing tunes of various genres solo, duet or in ensembles.
The double zhaleika consists of two pipes of the same length, which are put together into one common bell. The number of playing holes varies, with the tune pipe usually having more of them than the echoing one.
Both the pipes are played at the same time, producing the sound from the both at once, or from each of them in turn. Double zhaleikas are used for one-voiced and double-voiced playing. Single zhaleikas are mainly spread in the northern parts of Russia, whereas the double ones are more popular in the southern lands.
In the Tver Province shepherds made zhaleikas of willow, called bredina in the local dialect, and thus the instrument was called bryolka there. All the body of the bryolka consisted of wood, which made it sound softer.
In 1900 V.V. Andreyev introduced the perfected kind of zhaleika, also called bryolka into his orchestra. Though looking like the folk zhaleika, it has a double reed of the oboe type. Apart from usual playing holes it has additional ones, with vents that make for chromatic scale.
Once the zhaleika was widely spread in Russia, Byelorussia, Ukraine and Lithuania. Nowadays, however, it can probably be seen only in folk instrument orchestras.