A Balalaika Adventure


One of the things I most wanted to do in Russia was buy a balalaika. I really love Russian folk music. Every year the UW Madison Russian Folk Orchestra comes to my university and performs a concert and demonstrates the instrument. I remember being enthralled by how melodic the balalaika sounded and as a Russian and music major, I knew I had to find one for myself.

Well, turns out that finding a balalaika is harder than expected. My friend, another music major, and I went on an adventure about an hour away on public transport to this teeny little hidden basement music store my friend found on the internet where racks of electric and acoustic guitars were hanging. As a music store, it looked hardcore and I felt out-of-place as a gawking tourist come to buy a folk instrument. Given that this was early in the program, I was too shy with my Russian to ask questions and, not seeing any balalaikas and feeling slightly stupid and embarrassed, we quickly left.

The next place we went was a music store on Nevsky Prospekt (super touristy). It took me a good 15 min to work up the nerve to ask the store keeper to demonstrate one of the balalaikas for me. The store keeper played a tune for me and then somehow convinced me to buy a more expensive handmade model (I was feeling very stressed and embarrassed at this point so at this point it was a complete impulse buy).

I was a little pleased, though, when the storekeeper looked surprised when I asked him if he had any instructional books since he clearly thought I was just a tourist looking for a souvenir. After much searching, though, another storekeeper found me a very handy instructional book in Russian and English and another duet book for balalaika and piano. She also showed me how to tune the instrument (it’s E, E, A if you’re wondering).

After that I kinda kept the balalaika in my room and just messed around with it for a while sometimes when I was bored and missing piano (can’t play any real tunes yet though). But then came the problem of getting the balalaika home… (it’s not home yet, knock on wood it gets back to the USA).

After discussing with friends, I decided to buy a case for the balalaika. I found a teeny little basement music store again and went in to ask where I could buy a balalaika case. After wandering around lost in the store, I finally went to the storekeeper and asked him if he knew where I could find a balalaika—…. And I realized here I had completely forgotten to look up the word for case.

I looked at the man very lost, trying to explain and finally the man gave me a wry smile and said “чехол?” I gave a nervous laugh and said of course. The storekeeper explained he only sells guitar cases and then wrote down the phone number of another store where I could find it.

Cue a long goose chase around basement music stores in St. Petersburg where it seems that there were no balalaika cases to be found at all… (seriously, one guy even called his brother’s girlfriend asking if she knew for me). I was ready to hang my hands in defeat when finally, someone gave me the name and number of a store (we’ll call it Store A) I could go to to order this case for my balalaika prima. I about hugged the guy when he said he could call Store A to order it for me, and we called this store together. Store A replied and answered that yes, my balalaika case would be there next week and I could pick it up there.

That following few days, I was in Ukraine and didn’t think anything of it.

When I returned to Russia I went back to the store but alas there was no balalaika case and the storekeeper looked at me like I was crazy (luckily I hadn’t given any credit card info over the phone to order the case so I hadn’t lost any money). Disheartened, I returned to school where I ended up looking up where to buy a balalaika case and found an online ordering system whereby I could order a case. However, shortly after ordering I realized that this was the online version of Store A and I got a very annoyed phone call from Store A saying “do you remember? I told you I don’t have any balalaika cases.”

But then he gave me the number of a last store (Store B) that I could call but with the specific instructions that the store is telephone only with no actual location. During the break of my Soviet Music History class, I ended up calling Store B but unfortunately we did not understand each other on the phone at all. After a long explanation, I ended up simply saying “good, ok,” and finally hanging up awkwardly. I finally asked my host mom to make the call for me which she did and we ordered a case from them.

Let’s just say, whatever this phone-in company is, it is unreliable and we ended up calling over and over again nagging the company until they finally delivered the balalaika case. We thought that was the end of the adventure, but then I had a nagging feeling that the case we ordered was too big. I measured it and called Aeroflot to ask for clarification on musical instrument carriage and was told my instrument case was too big…

So my host mom and I called another music store (Store C) and ended up running over there to buy another case which fit the size requirements.

Thus, to conclude this was quite the balalaika adventure. Now, knock-on-wood it ends up in America!