As documentaries go, this one aged pretty well. Between pictures of unimaginable natural beauty, the film tells the stories of several foreigners from countries as far as the USA and Australia have found themselves and a new home in Tuva. Much has changed since 2012, Tuva has grown and developed, but its nature is pristine and it will always be welcoming to all newcomers!
The Tuvan Society in Moscow is a young NGO and yet it is an exemplar of the ‘civil society’ we are used to hearing so much about. Russia unites almost two hundred peoples and many of them set up societies in the various regions of Russia to which they move. The Tuvan Society in Moscow is interesting as an example because of its fast growth and far reaching plans. It is only three years old, at first starting as a university society, only then moving into registering itself as a full NGO. Its mission is to bring all things Tuvan and more generally far eastern to light. To find out more we asked its director – Lodoi Homushku.
About the Society’s foundation and current activities
Could you please give a brief history of you NGO?
The society existed as a university student-led organisation for a while until we matured enough to reach out beyond student life. Similar societies of other regions of Russia exist alongside us too. In 2015, we decided to register as a full NGO and grow out our society outside university. Everything started with the concentrated effort of a small group of individuals. Two years later we were already in good relations with the government of Tuva and the government of Russia as a whole, and hosting increasingly large-scale events. Gathering hundreds of attendees considering there are only a thousand Tuvan students is Moscow is pretty good going in my opinion.
What do your day to day activities entail?
We spend most of our time planning and organising cultural events. We raise awareness of Tuva and Tuvan issues on social media and try to raise the profile of the Russian Far East as a whole too. Beyond these ‘soft’ activities, we organise seminars and lectures aimed at educating our listeners and giving them new ideas, but these initiatives are still young. We also run a song and dance ensemble called “Tandy-Uula”, which constantly tours various cultural events.
What are your plans going forward?
We get a lot of demand for Tuvan language professors. I think that will be our next service – a ‘Tuvan corner’ if you will. Eventually we will provide Tuvan music classes, which will work well with the rest of what we do.
What is your mission as a society, any political goals?
Not really political, but our mission is something we crave to publicise – that Tuva is a land of opportunity! Let me explain. We have a problem in Tuva that many talented young people don’t see their future in their homeland and move out. They often think that there is not much to do in Tuva. That is not the case. Those who want to go back often don’t know where to start either. [The same I guess goes for foreigners – Ed.] Our society acts as a bridge. We are close to the inner workings of Tuva and essentially make the endless opportunity of our native land known. Why is Tuva the land of opportunity? Well, in Moscow and other commercial centres the competition even for menial jobs is huge and the market is oversaturated. In Tuva, a young professional who studied well will be worth more than his weight in gold. Secondly, Tuva is rapidly developing and as in all ‘Wild West’ cases, there is a serious first mover advantage to be gained. We are about to get a huge infrastructure boost, a railroad is being built, more flights to the airport being scheduled etc. Russia is slowly turning East, and with this rotation, Tuva is about to get a whole lot more attention. So I think you’re either there or you’re square! And also, all that aside, look at five photos of Tuva and they will be beautiful enough to capture you forever! Where else can you find such natural beauty?
About interest towards the Society
Who usually comes to your events?
There isn’t really an answer I can give here. Our audience really depends on the nature of the event at hand. Usually young Tuvans come to the events. But over time we notice that we get more and more diverse support and interest. People from different parts of the country increasingly come to our events. We closely cooperate with other similar Societies and often pool resources together. Thus, we share our audience with say the Buryatian Society.
Do you find that foreigners ever visit?
A BBC crew came to film our dance ensemble for their upcoming film about Russia, being prepared for the world cup. Watch out for our wonderful dancers when the documentary comes out!
Could you give me a few returnee success stories?
Many former exec of the Society have found themselves growing rapidly in the Tuvinian hierarchy. The first director of the Society – Artysh Minchei, got the post of Junior Minister for Young People in Tuva. Ayas Ondar – a graduate of a Moscow medical school was briefly in the exec and then moved back to run his own medical centre. There is a myriad of examples. I shouldn’t monopolise our interview with a list, as it goes on and on! But I should add that our society gives everyone a chance to grow their personal potential, and these efforts, as we see, do not go to waste!
The example of Lodoi and his Tuvan Society gives us a broader picture of success in an area which is still a kind of terra incognita. The Society, in turn, fulfils the important function of a bridge across various regions of our huge country. It rightfully promotes the uniqueness of Tuva. Often, we think of a region as quite empty not because it is empty but because there isn’t enough coverage of it in daily media. NGOs such as the Tuvan Society work to fill this vacuum. Their rapid growth is a testament to their activities being demanded and going down the right path. We wish every success to Lodoi and his team!
Recently, we chatted with Pavel Stabrov, director of Hartyga – a leading Tuvan rock band. Pavel is extremely experienced in Tuvan folk musical management and has been with Hartyga from their inception, leading them onto the international stage.
The band name, “Hartyga” means “Hawks”, and that they are! In a very short time the band has performed across Russia and beyond, touring European countries from Hungary to Norway. They have also released several albums, the latest of which, “Agitator” is an expert blend of the roaring 30s jazz with Tuvan tradition and elements of modern rock. Other experimental albums included blending throat singing with the Church organ and separately with jazz. Hartyga gives us a glimpse of history in a new and exciting form.
About Hartyga’s Performing Experience
How are you usually greeted by international audiences?
We enjoy touring abroad very much and intend on forming new routes for tours. Recently, we went to a music festival in Finland and found that Finish folk music has something familiar to it. The most popular elements were the same as in Russia – the curious hybrid of the igil string instrument, saxophone and throat singing captured the audience. Towards the end of the concert we heard confident calls for “encore!” Other places were all interesting in their own right, not one being the same as another. Once we performed in a little church, which fit no more than 100 people, so we only used calm acoustic instruments. Our audience was of the older generation who would presumably enjoy more classical performances. We gave them this, blending Tuvan music with the organ. They loved it and drowned us in applause.
How would you describe your average fan or concert attendee?
I don’t think there is an average. I’ve seen all ages and individuals from all walks of life at our concerts. That being said, there is a trend I can describe. We seem to take a bit of the fanbase from all the other genres. Jazz fans like our saxophone fusion, rockers like the electric elements, classical fans like our use of the organ. For example, if we are at a concert with songs predominantly being improvised and deploy the saxophone, we see that a lot of our audience are there for the jazzy element. On large festival stages we usually play old fashioned honest rock. No matter the audience and the genre – our listeners are always impressed with the Tuvan igil. It looks like two strings and a stick, but the range and variety of sounds it can give out is huge. Sometimes listeners ask, who was on the cello or violin! I would also add that so far, we have sold out all our concerts!
What advice would you to those trying to grow folk culture across the world and in Russia?
It is imperative to work with young people. I always found it strange when students of musical colleges, even in nearby cities like Irkutsk or Krasnoyarsk haven’t heard of folk musical instruments like igil (a two-stringed violin-like instrument, also referred to as the morrin huur). I am certain that if you give the right information to musicians and their audiences, folk music will be much more popular than it is. That being said, it may not survive without being part of musical education. Children will form the future and they are as important to folk culture as it is for them. The growing generation will need to carry folk traditions forward, also our old songs tend to transmit good and kind values. We must work in this direction!
Hartyga often performs in kindergartens or schools for free. The band and I enjoy these concerts greatly. We give children their ancestors’ culture face to face, just like it would happen in old times. It feels like living through history itself or through a fairy tale. And you should see the reaction of the children. If they hear a song about a horse or a great hero, they instinctively start galloping around, as if connected to the music. After our performances, we let them try the instruments, to get them used to them and get them interested in folk music. One little boy enjoyed our concert so much that he now drags his mother along to all our concerts in his area and has started learning igil! These are the stories which keep us going!
About Hartyga and their album Agitator
Please describe how the group was formed.
I’ve been in the music industry for a while, and worked with many Tuvan musicians including the Tuvan University of Arts in Kyzyl. One sunny day in 2012 my phone buzzes with the name of the Tuvan State Philharmonic’s director shining brightly. He told me he had some guys who were ready to get onto bigger stages. And that’s how I was introduced to the very talented group who formed Hartyga. We started regionally, in Krasnoyarsk and other Siberian cities. We played a bunch of concerts under the brand “Music of the Great Steppe”. We shared the stage with heavyweights like Yat-Ha and Huun Huur Tu. The band thus gained character and experience, then together with the famous Albert Kuvezin we conquered stages far and wide. With some shuffling around of the musicians, I think we have Hartyga’s membership set for the long term and we have a bright future ahead!
Why did you name your new album “Agitator” and how did the music for it come about?
We thought hard about how to call it. We needed a name universally understood at home and abroad. I had my Newton-and-Apple moment when I was listening to the Tuvan state orchestra performing the song Agitator. It was in the festival Ustuu-Huree in Tuva. The crowd suddenly lit up and the energy in the air was palpable. Thus, we called it Agitator, the context of which may be missed by some of the audience, but luckily it is a word and concept we share. We mixed age old songs with newly written ones and recent classics. The modern rock pieces included in the album were written by the Tuvan legend Alexander Sarzhat-Ool in the 1990s. The majority of the songs originate in bygone eras, some even hundreds of years ago. Two songs are from the 30s of the previous century however, they are Agitator and Chavydak, if you listen to them you can hear the roar of industrialisation! The album cover resembles the straightforward social-realist forms of the contemporary propaganda posters. And another cool aspect of the album is that if you play it start to finish, it forms a coherent line, in that we adapted the all the songs from different periods into mutually compatible forms.
What plans are in store for the band going forward?
In August we are going to Hungary for a music festival, then to Serbia. Between our main fixtures we have a plethora of small concerts and shows. We will see Prague this year too, and weirdly enough play in a zoo! They have a stage there just like in Krasnoyarsk and actually we got invited after being spotted playing in Krasnoyarsk. So all in all, this year is pretty much fully booked.
What else would you like to tell our readers?
We are always happy to meet new people and are open to be contacted! We will continue flying around Russia and the world, bringing a bit of Tuva with us. Watch out for our concerts in your city, wherever you may be, dear reader!
I hope that after reading this interview you are as optimistic about folk culture in Russia and Tuva as Hartyga are! So, let us re-examine the songs in Agitator. We can take Chavydak as an example.
The song Chavydak originates in the early period of the 20th century. It is about a tractor driver called Chavydak himself. He was a hero-worker, constantly raising up his native land’s agriculture. He was so revered that his memory was forever inset into an amazingly energetic song. This all happened during a period when new genres like jazz were slowly seeping into Tuva, and contributed to making it a unique piece, mixing the marching sound of the red revolution with lighter notes of the exciting jazzy saxophone. Have a listen of it from Hartyga and then a rendition of the song in traditional Tuvan style from the National Orchestra of Tuva. Full lyrics in English can be requested from the band directly or from our website’s team.
We wish Hartyga every success and to always fly higher!
Photo: Aidyn Sedip
This article continues our series of “Travel Notes” by the folk musician and journalist Maria Kirilova. Maria kindly suggested writing travel notes for tyva.me during a trip to Tuva this year for the celebration of Shagaa – the Tuvan New Year. Maria will share her insights about the sternly beautiful winter of Tuva, how the Tuvinians survive in the -40 degree frosts, how the Shagaa is celebrated, and what is sung in the winter folk songs.
Author: Maria Kirilova
The 17 February continued to feel celebratory. At midday we again came to the Centre of Asia monument to take part in filming the video for Shagaa, which is for everyone in the world celebrating the Lunar New Year. This time, instead of Vivaldi and Rossini, one could hear Tuvan music and people came in Tuvan national costumes. Some rented their clothes from the nearby tourist centre, but many came in their own wear. Seeing the vibrantly colourful dresses on the background of reflective white snow made me want to greet to the whole world over with this wonderful celebration. We assembled on the steps leading to the monument, and after some minor practice, having heard the official part of the greeting in two languages, we managed to shout “Kurai Kurai Kurai!” in sync. Kurai can be translated as “let all things be good, lucky, happy and anyway in just the way we want to them to!”
While my photographer Julia Kuskova was taking 3D panorama shots, some national dresses freed up and we were offered to try them on. This was a bullet point on my list, and I was delighted to cross it off. For the first time, we saw people in a hurry in Tuva, but we were here taking photos and trying on costumes for as long as we wanted to. We looked incredible in dresses elaborately embroidered with all sorts of colours and decorations. It was a shame to dress down, but we had to go forth on our mission to buy souvenirs for our friends! Having filled our bags with all that we needed, I finally met my pen pal! My friend was extremely helpful in the run up to the trip, answering all my questions and finding everything out, I felt rather indebted. We went to a really cool live music place, the very atmospheric “Tuvan Rock Club”, which did not have a sign above the door, but a very steep spiral staircase, which led to a basement room with a performance area like you’d see in a jazz bar. It is here that “Hotel Kal” from Krasnoyarsk played, accompanied by the local band “Malyshok”, whose sax player I will never forget. Apart from jazz classics, Hotel Kal performed their own songs but both sets, it seemed, were awaited by the audience. Hotel Kal is a distinguished band in Krasnoyarsk.
After the concert, we had a sit down with the musicians, which was certainly my cup of tea! The drummer from Hartyga, Naiys Dulush, joined us there. He must have lost count of how many times he had performed at this bar.
A taxi drove us away from the place I have grown to call home during my short stay. These days passed like the ones in all our lives, when it feels like we’ve arrived at the family abode and we don’t want the day to end, trying to stop time with every thought… I am completely enamoured by the hospitality of Tuva.
Always with you,
#Tyva #Tuva #News #Kyzyl #weather #music #ArthurBerkut #voron_project #travels #путевыезаметкимарии_tyvame #ovaa_travel
This article continues our series of “Travel Notes” by the folk musician and journalist Maria Kirilova. Maria kindly suggested writing travel notes for tyva.me during a trip to Tuva this year for the celebration of Shagaa – the Tuvan New Year. Maria will share her insights about the sternly beautiful winter of Tuva, how the Tuvinians survive in the -40 degree frosts, how the Shagaa is celebrated, and what is sung in the winter folk songs.
Author: Maria Kirilova
My day before Shagaa itself was meticulously planned, but the National Museum surpassed all expectations, and I forgot all about the overall plan. I did not manage to visit the exposition “Gold of the Scythians”, but thanks to the photographer Julia Kuksova, the museum will soon have a virtual 3D tour with an overview of most halls. Unlike Julia, who was forced to resign to filming during her whole visit, I could quietly go through the exhibitions. Since it was Shagaa, when it is customary to wear national dress, traditional and more modern national costumes were displayed on the ground floor. To me and the hosts of the program “Running on Tuva”, the guide said that recently the tradition of wearing national clothes began to revive not only on holidays, but also in everyday life. I saw both the wardrobe of the 19th century, and clothes designed by modern designers with the preservation of Tuvan style. And in the building of the museum I was most impressed with the giant paintings spanning three floors. The whole space looked excellently grand. I hope we didn’t annoy the staff too much – staying to the last minute of opening hours.
And after that, we absolutely had to rest a little before the night of Shagaa. We were so tired that we slept through the concert, which we planned to attend, but we were still sleepy. Meanwhile, the Shagaa was inevitably approaching, for the sake of which I planned this whole trip. We had an approximate route and a wish to visit a Buddhist prayer service. Having reached the temple, we took a forty-minute break, which lasted an hour. With the risk of being late for the conduct of the shamanic ritual, we hurried to where it was supposed to be. Here it is necessary to mention the main difficulty that has haunted me for more than a month: I could not figure out where women could and could not go. The fact is that the main rite is held on the mountain Dogee, where men must meet the sun. Women are forbidden to climb the mountain, otherwise natural disasters and other adversities are made possible. However, some wrote to me that as a journalist it is still possible, but I firmly decided not to break the tradition and not cause discontent.
I think, if it were not for the employees of the “Tuvinskaya Pravda”, who recognised me and took us to the ceremony, we would have been wondering around for a while. We arrive ten minutes late. The fire was already started, and a huge mountainous shaman, with an extending headdress was already beginning the ritual. His actions made me realise he was working the with fire spirits.
A few words about daily life: as the shaman used to tell us on the previous day, lighting was organised and supplies of tea with milk were frozen beforehand.
In the darkness there was a huge “hut” made of firewood much higher than human height (even taller than that shaman). When the drum was played, the fire lit up. Quite soon the heat near me forced me to move further back. Tuva IS a country of contrasts, where your back can be cold, and your face – hot! I felt many intricately interesting emotions over the course of the night. I certainly discovered much about myself. I am planning to explore my feelings in a big article on my return.
As the sun began to peek over the earth once more, we took a sigh of relief, knowing that now celebrations were to begin in earnest. It is quite easy to believe in magic when a man of sage like age, explains that such a sun rises only once a year and in five minutes it will become another, ordinary sunrise…
And then we greeted everyone for the new year of the Yellow Dog. “Shagaa bile!” – “Kurai, Kurai” – we exchanged common greetings. The air filled with happiness. A couple of coals from a sacred fire are taken by each visitor, upon the advice of the shaman.
After sleeping fifty minutes, I went to the Centre of Tuvan Culture, where I heard a beautiful legend about the origins of the igil (bow instrument) and learned how to weave whips. After some problems with Google Maps, which messed up the numbers of the houses again, I still came to the television centre, where I gave an interview for 105.5FM. I remind you that you can tune in at 6:10 Moscow time and at 10:10 am Siberian time. Having had a rest in our rented apartment, we decided to take advantage of the hospitality of the “Nomads of Asia”, the Tuvan bike club – we thus the reception of these wonderful people as our base until the end of our stay in Tuva.
And if you want to repeat my trip and participate in the meeting of the sun, do not repeat the mistakes of my friends, and wear felt boots and woollen socks!
Author: Maria Kirilova
I was inspired by the feedback that my travel notes were too optimistic and selling. Perhaps I was overly emotional about some positive things, such as the beauty of nature, and other such. Of course, we saw soot, poverty and rudeness. I like to remember the good, not devoid of reality, but devoid of vulgarity. I think that a lot depends on what expectations are set up initially, which events you visit and who you spend time with. On the streets of Kyzyl I found interesting and hospitable Tuvans. Since I did not live here, I didn’t have the opportunity to completely immerse myself in local realities, but I could communicate with people. Many locals made me really proud. We, the inhabitants of megacities or more developed regions, often complain about the conditions of life and we say that we do not like Moscow.
In spite of hardships, Tuvans love their land. Yes, many Tuvans emigrate, but those who remain speak so sincerely of their love towards their home, that they cannot be not believed. I wish for Tuva to find a path of development, which would alleviate the condition of the people and also preserve their culture and traditions.
As for today, it began with a visit to a shaman yurt in Dalniy Kaa-Khem. The driver could not find the address we needed for a long time, after driving through the whole village. When we found the place, we were invited into a yurt standing proudly in the courtyard of a home. We were told the Shaman was currently out, at a government meeting, and would be with us soon. While we were talking with the host, we were offered tea with milk, boorzak (fried dough pieces) and traditional cake. During our tea drinking, we learnt that one should never pour tea in the direction of the door, lest all the good that is in the house leaves it, but is rather stored and accumulated. Talking with a shaman is always a unique event. Our quiet conversation flowed effortlessly. Hanging on the opposite wall, the sacrifices for Shagaa were already prepared. We also brought cookies, sweets and milk, because it refers to sacred white food. I think I will dedicate a separate article about this Shaman when I can, perhaps when I get back home. For now I just want to say thank you to everyone who helped organise this meeting, who was in this yurt and personally Elena Khuler-Oolovna Otsur for her attention and detailed answers.
After lunch, we planned a visit to the National Museum. At the time when we left a shaman house, there was only an hour left before closing, and we decided to postpone it the next day, which promises to be one of the most saturated. We went for a walk that day instead of rushing to the museum. Now, since Shagaa is tomorrow, further notes will likely have to wait a little while.
Always with you,
Author: Maria Kirilova
It was still dark, when we got off a train Novosibirsk-Abakan in the freezing morning. A driver met us to take to a maral farm, and then finally to Kyzyl. It became my tradition to enter Kyzyl at dawn and leave at sunset. So it happened again. As soon as the sun lit up our path, my eyes saw what I wanted to see: snowy steppes and fluffy mountains. In the summer, the steppes looked comfortable and soft, like trampolines , and I could not imagine how they would look during winter. Their image was now stern! The northern landscape of cold whites, blues and greys was by no means unfriendly, but commanded respect for sure.
The weather was sunny when we arrived in Turan . Animals were kept in large pens of land, females separated from males. An iron grid separated them from the visitors. However, as the driver said, he is not often asked to come here, and today we were, it seems, the only guests. Most of the marals (local red deer) had small horns. When they grow up, they are cut and used as components for various medicines. Female marals showed more curiosity about the passing car, but people with cameras still preferred to move away. Some males engaged in power displays despite the modest size of the horns.
I visited the Centre of Asia in Kyzyl earlier, but I inspected it more thoroughly during my second visit. I won’t describe the monument again, instead share the memory of the huge and impressive sheets of ice across the frozen Yenesei river. Its huge width brought the message home that Kyzyl is “on the Yenisei”, and not just next to it. Vivaldi, reproduced on the embankment, brought a funny dissonance with it. To be accurate, when we just came up, it sounded “Summer” from the “Seasons” cycle. Selection of European classical music in the Centre of Asia sounded unforgettable.
After walking around the city a little more, we met an interesting person who finally explained to me why the Tuvans often say that they had once been blond and blue-eyed. As it turned out, these were still not exactly Tuvans, but other peoples who came to Tuva to avoid flooding in their lands. I hoped to learn more about it the day tomorrow at the National Museum.
Soon we had already settled in a rented apartment, and next day we had a meeting with a shaman and a visit to the museum. Further to my list of culinary impressions, I added a hodgepodge and lamb in the cafe “Choduraa”. Food is pleasantly cheap out here. I was looking forward to the next day.
The essay sums up the author’s reflections in the field of musical anthropology, with the focus on how ethnic music is understood by listeners with a different cultural background.
The author was born and grew up in the USA. He graduated from Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN with a bachelor’s degree in music and classical languages. On a Fulbright grant, in 2003 he first came to Tuva to study Tuvan throat singing, culture and language. He took classes from many famous xöömeiji of Tuva. During his subsequent visits, the author improved his command of the xöömei (as well as the Tuvan language, which he speaks fluently) and worked in the National Orchestra of Tuva. In 2008 he was awarded the title of People’s Artist of Tuva. Since 2015, he has worked at the Center for the Tuvan Traditional Arts and Crafts, while continuing to perform with the National Orchestra of Tuva. Since 2006, he has also worked with Alash, a Tuvan folklore music band. As their manager, producer, sound engineer and translator, the author organized a number of tours around the world, visiting many countries. He also produced their three studio albums. A number of concerts took place at US educational institutions (schools and colleges). In this article, the author focuses on the reactions from people who for the first time in their lives had heard Tuvan music with the astounding effect it usually has on its audience. His observations in anthropology are of significant interest for such fields as musical studies, cultural anthropology, psychology, cultural studies, etc.
This last winter, after a lecture and presentation on Tuvan music with the members of Alash, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan Shirizhik, and Ayan-ool Sam, at Macalester College, one of the undergraduate students approached us, thanking us for the great music and information. However, this wasn’t his first experience of Tuvan music. He informed us that he had seen us years ago, in the fourth grade, at his elementary school, in Vermont. The fact that this conversation was taking place at the Janet Wallace Fine Arts center of my alma mater, in St. Paul, MN, less than a mile from the apartment on Saratoga street where I had first heard Tuvan music nearly twenty years ago from the Huun-Huur-Tu album 60 Horses in my Herd, added extra weight to the feeling that hit me when this young man told us he had seen us before, at his elementary school, half of his lifetime ago. The feeling was of course an acute sense of the passage of time and it caused within me a deep reflection on the unique nature of our job as musician-ambassadors for the Republic of Tuva. I reflected not only the personal journey I had taken as an American adopted by Tuva, seeking to find the best way to connect the people of my two home-places through music, but also on the journeys that Alash has inspired in some if not many of the thousands of students of all ages who have witnessed Alash’s performance of Tuvan music.
The first time I had the task of presenting Tuvan music in schools in America, I had to do it by myself, without the help of Alash. It was fall of 2004 and I had just come back from my first year in Tuva, which I had spent learning from and playing with the Tuvan National Orchestra in Kyzyl. Among the many other transformative events that happened during my first year here, I had occasionally worked with and taught members of the wind instrument department at the local music school, specifically the saxophone players. During my year and Tuva I had watch them undertake a phenomenal progression from playing Glenn Miller tunes when I arrived in the fall to taking the stage with the Sun Ra Arkestra. That band’s first visit sparked a fire for learning in the jazz musicians of Tuva the results of which can be seen today in the successful career of the Tuvan Wind Orchestra. Their biggest problem at the time was a dearth of decent musical instruments and all of their attendant accessories. When I left Tuva in October of 2004, I promised to bring them musical supplies upon my return to Tuva. That bargain began to bear fruit immediately upon my return, and those fruit are still being plucked today by myself, the members of Alash, and thousands of young people in my homeland, the United States.
I had grown up learning music at the local music store, Brass Bell, taking saxophone lessons there with Dave Melstrand for all of my high school years. When I came back from Tuva that first year, the children of the owners, who were my age, had taken over management of the store from their parents. When I approached them on making a deal about acquiring quality music supplies at wholesale prices, they suggested that I present Tuvan music in the local middle schools as part of their musical outreach program in the area, and they would give me a few boxes of music supplies to send to Tuva — reeds, mouthpieces, rosin, strings, and other sundries. I wholeheartedly agreed to this effort, as it gave me a chance to do two things that I really enjoyed, performing Tuvan music, and teaching about it.
The whole thing ended up being a lot harder than I had imagined, for even though I had made great strides in my performance skills during my Fulbright year as a student and then member of the Tuvan National Orchestra, there was no way it was on a par with any Tuvan musician. Nonetheless, I did my best to share with them what I had learned about Tuva’s incredibly deep and fascinating music. While my xöömei was a far cry from any decent Tuvan’s, I managed to hack around well enough that it was only a few kids in each class who would involuntarily burst out laughing. I found out a few years later that having Alash ensemble with me presenting the music resulted in a lot less laughter and a much deeper connection for everyone.
When Alash was first invited to the United States in 2006, I had been back in Tuva for a couple years, living with my wife and working in the Tuvan National Orchestra as a bass doshpuluur player/ somewhat wacky Tuvan-speaking mascot. We came over with our teacher, Kongar-ool Ondar, as part of an exchange program that brought cultural leaders for small tours in the United States. Since a Tuvan-English speaking interpreter was required for the program, I was hired thanks not only to my proficiency in Tuvan but also a somewhat significant lack of competition in that field.
A part of that program included presenting Tuvan music to young people in some fairly disparate settings — a college campus, a couple of elementary schools, a home for youth who had been troubled with the law. Kongar-ool Ondar led the presentations and it was my task to convey his deeply-rooted and well-developed explanations of Tuvan music to the young people. This was when I realized that knowing two languages well is a completely different thing than being a good interpreter. As I conveyed our teacher’s words to the students, I found myself learning strategies for bringing the essence of this beautiful music, so eloquently presented in Tuvan by Kongar-ool, to complete foreigners, over a period of 45-minutes.
One of things I noticed that first tour was that of all the places we visited, the home for troubled youth was not only the most attentive and respectful, but also asked the most interesting questions. It was certainly the only place out of all the educational institutions we visited (all of them on the East Coast) where a member of the audience had had any experience with livestock animals. This was just one of a series of preconceived notions I had had about young people and their reaction to Tuvan music. As the years went by, many more of these notions were disproved. For instance, just as the very troubled kids in 2006 had been the most attentive and incisive, we found the very rich kids in Manhattan in 2007 were a fair bit more blasé about the occurrence of Tuvan Throat Singers at their schools — after all, we were there only a week after the Gamelan people.
That week on the Upper West Side was a grueling week that had followed that tour’s first grueling week, in and around Wylie, TX. Our first two school gigs in 2007 — our first tour without our teacher — served as an severe introduction to our physical limits as touring performers and a crucible for the development of a presentation of Tuvan culture that was efficient, informative, and conserved the strength of not only my own very talkative throat, but the vocal apparatus of my friends and colleagues, the singers of Alash. At the schools in Wylie, and Manhattan, we were presenting Tuvan music to classes 5-7 times a day for 5 days, with a couple evening concerts in mixed in to boot. Even though Bady, Ayan, Ayan-ool, and Mai-ool were in their early 20s at the time, the physical strain on them as performers became quickly evident, as we all felt wiped out at the end of those weeks, with 10 more weeks of tour to go.
This physical strain introduced me to the first reality of the professional performing Tuvan musician. Even though the question “Does it hurt?” that is so frequently asked in schools is always answered with an emphatic “no” by Alash, the veracity of which reply I can vouch for as a performer of xöömei myself, there is a limit to which even this surprisingly gently vocal art can be pushed. We learned that school administrators often do not take this into account when bringing Alash to their schools, and we have learned how to communicate to them that quantity does not equal quality when it comes to a presentation, for the reasonable limit seems to about 4 45-minute performances per day.
One of the ways to preserve the performer’s voice in a school presentation, of course, is for the presenter to talk more. While of course this is not ideal, a 60/40 ration of talking to music really helps the band’s health while still providing the students with ample opportunity to listen to Tuvan music live, oftentimes without sound amplification. The power of this music can be seen within the first seconds of Alash’s music. After a quick introduction to Tuva’s location on the map and the integrity and uniqueness of its culture, there is a moment which repeats itself at every performance, which I have had the honor to behold many times over 11 years.
Many school hosts, especially when we are working with younger kids, or a school known as “rowdy,” express concern about the foreign nature of Tuvan music and how their students will react. I calm their fears by telling them what will happen, because it has happened with such regularity over 11 years. When the band begins to sing, Ayan-ool starts out in a powerful, xöömei, chest voice for a single line, and then Bady and Ayan join in with him, in harmony, for the second line. It’s at this point that if there’s going to be someone who is going to laugh or chuckle, it happens here. Whatever reactions are happening at this point quickly stop, because after the second line, the band breaks into what you could call the ‘instrumental’ portion of the song — wordless xöömei, with Ayan-ool performing the piercing yet clean and soft whistle tone of sygyt over the top. This single sound adds to the power of the music in such a way that the reaction of the listener changes rapidly from one of awkward surprise at the unexpected volume and harsh-seeming timbre of xöömei to one of absolute wonderment as the song unravels into a wordless multiphonic harmony.
I have observed this reaction at every performance of Alash. In my unique position as observer of the observers, it is a never-ceasing pleasure for me to watch the faces of my countrymen from the land of my birth transform with joy, brought to them by my countrymen from the land of most of my adult life. This phenomenon happens to audiences everywhere, whether it is a fancy concert hall in New York, a brewpub in Ohio, or an elementary school gym in Alabama. Stacey Moriarty, the head of the Creative Arts and Sciences committee at Newton Public Schools in Newton, MA, describes this universal reaction well:
“Across the board students responded virtually the same-initially unsure, then intrigued, then appreciative, then wanting to share the experience. It sets the theme for the rest of the presentation as something that bears worth listening to, for though the students do not understand the language of the singers, the unexpected power of the music inspires a desire to learn more about the music.”
Over the rest of the presentation, following the template set for us by years of listening to our teacher’s eloquent explanations of Tuvan music for Tuvan and nonTuvan audiences, we strive to give the students as complete a picture of Tuva and its music as is possible in the time we have, using words and music. Through the music we attempt to create a picture of Tuva and its culture as a whole, reminding the students that while the music of Tuva has ancient roots and a deep connection with nature, the music is a living part of a culture that grows and changes as a full participant in the 21st century world. We teach the students about Tuva’s nomadic traditions and the role that those lifeways played in the development of the music.
I have learned over the course of these last eleven years how easy and tempting it can be as a foreigner presenting the music of Tuva to exoticize the art and the place it comes from. The ancient history of the music and place, its somewhat ‘mysterious’ status as a little-known minority group in a remote territory of Russia, the traditional lifeways of Tuva, and the unique vocal music are all important and fascinating features of Tuva as a culture, but as a cultural presenter and ambassador I have learned that it is crucial that audiences, especially in America, understand the musicians who sit in front of them represent not only an ancient and foreign art form but also a culture that is alive and actual and functioning, right now, today, in the 21st century.
One example that I often use in the presentation comes from an experience I had several years ago, when smartphones were still fairly not just here in Tuva but across the world, wherein I traveled to a friend’s herding camp not far from Kyzyl to pick up a goat. Driving my 1976 Moskvich-412 up to the camp, I was told that the goat I needed was further up the valley, where the men were haying. As I drove the dirt road up the grassy valley, the haymakers and their yurt presented an idyllic picture of times past, as several bare-chested men of various ages bore down on the long grass with their well-handled scythes. Upon entering the yurt, however, I was startled to discover the fellow I was looking for, from whom I was to receive the goat, intensely scrolling through his Facebook feed as he sipped from a steaming bowl of süttüg shai, the ancient and traditional Tuvan milky tea.
Reminding the students that Tuva is a place that exists in the 21st century while maintaining many ancient ways not only helps to combat the tendency to exoticize the music and musicians but also serves as a context for understanding that the music that Alash plays, and indeed the music of Tuva, is a living art form that while deeply rooted in its past, is not an art form that is immutable, but rather, by its very nature as a living tradition, is an art form that continues to grow and change and spread out from its roots, much like a great ancient tree, anchored in thick subterranean roots but bursting forth each season with a new array of leaves and colors, that changes and grows over long years, gaining and shedding branches and leaves, and yet remains the same tree.
There are of course many concrete examples of Alash’s effect on the schools we have visited, and here I would like to share just a few of them.
Stacey Moriarty of Newton Public Schools provides us with one such example, writing after a recent performance,
“Students talked about the concert with their teachers and parents. As director of the program I heard from both groups, so anecdotally I know this to be true. This quote from a teacher pretty much sums up the response, ‘I loved it! I think some of the students were having a hard time at first because they were out of their comfort zone. I saw many making funny faces at each other and others trying not to laugh. By the end of the performance, I think it more than accomplished what I think were some of the goals of exposing them to new kinds of music, thinking, cultures, etc.’ The success of an enrichment program is measured by whether students leave the auditorium feeling engaged and inspired. By this measure, Newton’s experience with Alash Ensemble was extremely successful!”
Dr. John Jinright of Troy, Alabama, writes of our visits to the schools, retirement centers, and university in Troy and the surrounding community, “The costumes and instruments were especially engaging, but we all shared a special connection when we heard their stories and heard their music. It was magical and unlike anything we’ve ever presented. It helped us connect to a truly beautiful land and people.” Damon Postle of the University of Georgia elaborates on this, saying
“When Alash performed at U of Georgia, the audience was a mix of undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and a few community members. As I surveyed the room, all I saw were smiles and mesmerized eyes. In the days after the performance my colleagues and faculty advisers came to me, talking about the performance and finally understood what I am studying here. Before a performance, Tuva was a far flung place and throat singing was implied by making a crooked face, a few weird vowel tones and growling. After the performance, Tuva was real and people began to understand the music. In some ways, I think the university visits are potentially more important, especially if the targeted audience is music education majors, as they will be in the public schools more than the musicology/performance/theory majors and tasked with teaching not only Western music, but music of the world through all grades.”
An even more striking example of the effects of Tuvan music on students comes from a visit to the school district in Springfield, VT, a community that was once a center of manufacturing but had long since fallen on hard times with the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas, like many places in America. Also like many places in America this working-class community was struggling with the problems of methamphetamine and opioids, and the teachers warned us that the kids could be ‘kind of rowdy’ and ‘not to take it personally’ if they reacted poorly to our performance. We came and did our performance and lecture in the old but beautiful school auditorium, for hundreds of these ‘rowdy’ kids. The 45 minutes went by quickly and at the end of the performance, these underprivileged children and overworked teachers rose to their feet and gave us a standing ovation. A couple of kids came up to us after the concert and told us they wanted to learn to throat sing. When they asked us what they could do, we gave them a CD and we told them to listen and practice.
Two years later, we were invited back to the school district thanks to the impression that Alash had made on the children. Once again we did our performance, and once again we were received warmly. At the end of the performance, the school librarian, Cynthia Hughes, asked us to stay where we were, as they had a ‘surprise’ for us. Wheeling out an old overhead projector, she placed a transparency upon it and summoned a tall bearded man with a guitar, simultaneously picking up her own guitar. We could not see what was being projected on the screen, as it was behind us, but their first chords were awfully familiar. And then, reading off of the projected words on the screen, the entire school began singing in Tuvan. They were singing a song called by many different names, including “Ene-Sai” and “Ancestors,” a song that had been included on Alash’s first album. While we were busy being bowled over by this massive and unexpected serenade, we did not see the three young students approaching the microphones on stage. We did notice them however when, in between verses, the three of them began performing very credible versions of Tuvan throat singing styles — specifically, xöömei, sygyt, and kargyraa, which while by no means refined were quite good for some 12-year old kids from southeastern Vermont. They were the same kids that had come up to us after our first performance, and when we asked them how they learned, they said, “we listened, and we practiced.”
A final example comes from Theodore Levin, ethnomusicologist on the faculty of Dartmouth College. I wrote him asking for his thoughts about the unique relationship Dartmouth shares with Tuvan music and musicians, and the following paragraphs comprise a summation of his response. Dartmouth’s relationship stems from Levin’s own work as the first American ethnomusicologist to travel to Tuva and study its music, starting in 1987. Thanks to Levin’s work, Tuvan music has been an integral part of the world music program at Dartmouth and Dartmouth students have had the opportunity to engage with Tuvan musicians 25 years. Regarding this unique relationship, Dr. Levin writes “the advantages of presenting live music to supplement reading, listening, and viewing assignments cannot be underestimated,” citing the case of Dartmouth, where he uses his own extensive experience in the scholarly study of Tuva and draws on his own audio and video recordings, book, and articles as resources for class assignments, presentations, and discussions. Nonetheless, he writes,
“These resources nonetheless pale in comparison to the power of live music performed by expert musicians in an intimate setting to touch and inspire student listeners.” As an example, Levin mentions Alash’s most recent visit to Dartmouth in winter of 2017, where Alash made a brief visit to the college, performing two 45minute sets in the evening and participated in two world music classes the next day, each with around 30 students. In preparation for the class, the students were assigned reading from a draft version Levin and Dr. Valentina Suzukei’s upcoming book chapter regarding “timbre-centered listening” in the soundscape of Tuva. Dr. Levin also asked his students to write a short critique after the evening performance, in response to this prompt: “Like other musicians we’ve encountered this term, the three members of Alash (Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, Ayan Shirizhik) work in a zone of artistic hybridity in which elements of tradition and innovation blend to create a unique musical style. Based on your understanding of music from Tuva and neighboring regions of historically nomadic Inner Asia, describe Alash’s music, and in particular, the way in which the group both preserves and transcends the conventions of indigenous musical styles and traditions. As a music critic, how would you assess their artistic success?”
Dr. Levin also informed us about this critique assignment prior to the class visits the following day, and we spent both of the class periods discussing and listening to Alash’s presentation of Tuvan music in the context of this question. We left Dartmouth that afternoon for a quick dash to Portland, Maine for an evening concert that night and continued on the rest of the tour, the demands of the road leaving no time for contemplation on the effect we’d had on these young minds, making for a pleasant surprise when Ted later wrote me about the final projects for his course, a requirement that can take the form of either a research paper or a creative project such as a composition, improvisation, video, etc.
“Quite a few students, most of them working in small groups, chose to do projects inspired by their brief encounter with Alash. Among the most interesting was a video that showed a group of three students “nomadizing” in the environs of Dartmouth and reciting poetry they’d written themselves about their favorite places on campus. At the end, they all sang a version of the song “Ödügen Taiga” with their own lyrics and natural sound effects. Another project featured one student improvising a version of “Tooruktug Dolgay Tangdym” on the piano while her classmate, a talented artist, quickly created a pen and ink drawing of a galloping horse that was overflowing with kinetic energy. Several student cobbled together their own Tuvan “fusion” pieces using Garage Band to loop and layer cuts from different musical sources.The most impressive of the Tuvan-inspired projects was that of a young woman who made her own Jew’s harp from scratch and learned to play it. Year after year, student evaluations of Dartmouth’s “Global Sounds” course overwhelmingly mention the visit of Tuvan musicians as one of the course’s highlights. It is clear that exposure to live music performed by musicians of the highest quality offers an unparalleled resource for university-level music education.”
In this way, over 11 years, Alash has performed for several thousands of young people in the United States. In the context of Tuva as a unique culture that is a cultural minority within the greater Russian Federation, this is important work in the sense of Tuva’s representation in the greater world. Tuva’s music has gained a level of cultural cache in the global consciousness that could be considered rare for an ethnic group comprising approximately 300,000 people. Not only has this music served as a cultural calling card for a one little-known culture, it has affected the lives of very many people who have been inspired in one way or another by their encounter with Tuva, leaving an impression that will last for a long time in the memories of the young listeners as they embark on their life journeys, grow, change, create, and eventually tell their own children about the real, yet magical place called Tuva and it’s beautiful music.
Quirk S. P. Tuvan music in schools in the United States. The New Research of Tuva, 2017, no. 2 [on-line] Available at: https://nit.tuva.asia/nit/article/view/715 (accessed: …). DOI: 10.25178/nit.2017.2.10
With this article we continue our series of “Travel Notes” by the folk musician and journalist Maria Kirilova. Maria kindly suggested writing travel notes for tyva.me during a trip to Tuva this year for the celebration of Shagaa, which is the festival of Tuvan New Year. Maria will share her insights about the sternly beautiful winter of Tuva, how the Tuvinians survive in the -40 degree frosts, how the Shagaa is celebrated, and what is sung in the winter folk songs.
Author: Maria Kirilova
Hello to everyone who loves Tuva! Thus I continue my “Travel Notes”. Today we cover a few notable episodes on my way to Shagaa. I had finished packing all the warm clothes and embarked on my trip.
Acquiring and mastering a Tuvan flute of some sort was one of my dreams for a while. I fell for the shoor because of its unusual iridescent sound, and the peculiar way with which you play the instrument. A good while on google and requests to music shops didn’t give me anything useful so I turned to the Centre of Tuvan Culture. The experts there told me that this instrument is… disposable! I read on the internet that it was made from a plant called baltyrgan, which was harvested in Autumn, when its stalks were on the right side of withered. And hence it was missing in mid-January!
But let me go astray and tell you about Tuvan hospitality. Shagaa itself, as far as I can judge from the small amount of information on the internet, is a very hospitable holiday, when everyone calls each other to visit, the rich treat the poor, etc. It goes as far as having competitions to see who the best host is! My “Travel Notes” received a lot of attention. Responses have been varied, from invitations to calling me derogatory terms for immigrants. Well, finally I had the opportunity to feel as an immigrant! Tuvan hospitality was not surprising but amazed me nonetheless. Complete strangers expressed such support and interest in my journey that I felt obliged to somehow give back, at least with eager answers. Special thanks go out to everyone who helped me with transport. Without them the trip would have been impossible, I hope we stay in touch! I also want to thank the Centre for their advise with the flute, and everyone else who reads my notes.
By the way, just the other day I was given a wonderful gift. It was a small collection of Tuvan myths in three languages: Tuvan, Russian and English. Stay tuned for more, not long left to wait!
With love, Maria