Siberia, Russian Federation: Six Discs of Music

[The first of what we hope becomes a long-term relationship with this scholarly writer. Ed.]

Robert Reigle

[November 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:2.]

Volume 1, Shamanic and Narrative Songs of the Siberian Arctic. Nganasan people. Volume 2, Yakutia: Epics and Improvisations. Sakha people. Volume 3, Kolyma: Songs of Nature and Animals. Cukc, Even, and Jukaghir people. Volume 4, Kamtchatka: Dance Drums from the Siberian Far East. Korjak people. Volume 5, Shamanic and Daily Songs from the Amur Basin. Nanaj, Oroc, Udege, and Ulc. Volume 6, Sakhalin: Vocal and Instrumental Music. Nivkh and Ujl’Ta people.

Recorded by Henri Lecomte. Buda Records 92564, 92565, 92566, 92598, 92671, 92721. No publication dates given; probably 1994-1999.

“Everything the shaman says during kamlanye (shamanic bear session) comes to him from his nape. In the nape I have a hole through which I hear everything I then transmit to others.” Thus says Delsjumjaku Kosterkin about his 17-minute performance of a shamanic bear session on Volume 1. The Nganasan number only 1300, and live in three villages north of the Arctic Circle. These extraordinary recordings not only sound beautiful in themselves, but constitute a link in the continuum of sounds that stretches across Siberia to the west, passes through North and Central America, and ends at Tierra del Fuego. Henri Lecomte provides wonderful information that makes it easy to enjoy this repertoire available here for the first time outside of Russia. In addition to excellent photographs, the 26-page booklet contains a map, ethnographic commentary, stories or texts of the songs, and descriptions of the performers.

The next volume covers the largest native group in Siberia, the Yakut or Sakha, who live below the Arctic Circle. Although based in Turkish culture, the music combines influences from Mongolia, Siberia, and Russia. Timbre plays an important rôle in this music, as evidenced in the guttural sounds, yodel techniques, and vocal multiphonics of the singing, as well as in the Jew’s harp playing. The shamanistic carved posts illustrated in the booklet share features with similar posts I’ve seen in Korea (whose earlier religion was also shamanism).

Moving back above the Arctic Circle, Volume 3 covers three linguistic groups living around the Kolyma River. In addition to everyday songs, round dances, drum music, and epics, the CD includes outstanding recordings of animal imitations and whispery throat techniques. Parallels with Inuit throat games need no pointing out, but there is also an unusual similarity between a Cukc pic eynen (throat rasping on both in and out breaths; track 11) and the Polynesian maha’u pig chant from the northern Marquesas Islands.

The Koryak people, who numbered less than 8,000 in 1970, suffered persecution and violence when the government began closing down villages in the early fifties. Judging by these recordings, important facets of Koryak culture have survived the attempted cultural destruction. In the 30-page booklet accompanying the disc, the Russian names of the 21 singers are given first, followed by their Koryak names in parentheses. Lecomte’s recordings present personal songs, often containing or consisting of vocables and accompanied by frame drum. Especially moving are the songs recorded in 1994 of Petr Kotginin, born in 1910. Also included are three vocal duets sung by two women using hocket and guttural singing techniques.

Recorded in 1996, Volume 5 contains music by four peoples living in the southeastern corner of mainland Siberia. The round frame drums accompanying some of the songs are very well recorded. Other instruments include a jingles belt, a rattle, a one-stringed fiddle, a buzz-disk similar to a bull-roarer, birch bark horns, and Jew’s harp. Eighty-two year old Eiki sings (track 28) with a tremolo that Lecomte says is also used by Ainu singers, who once lived on the continent (and now live in Hokkaido).

The final volume covers Sakhalin Island, which had sporadically been under Japanese administration. All remaining Ainu moved to Hokkaido in 1945. I first heard this wonderful music in 1990, when a group of Sakhalin Islanders performed a rare concert at the Asia Society, and wished that some recording was available. This important disc fills that void, with recordings made on Sakhalin in 1996 plus a song by a Nivkh living in the Amur Basin recorded on wax cylinders in 1910. Some of the most interesting sounds on the disc are those of women singing through kal’ni voice modifiers (solo on track 17 and duo on track 19). The instruments are made from a three-meter stem of an Apiaceae (Umbelliferae) plant. Although voice modifiers exist in many cultures around the world, the only other place I have have come across this particular form of it is in the Momase region of Papua New Guinea.

This series is a model of how to make unfamiliar music accessible to people interested in new sounds. Every track was carefully recorded, with obvious empathy for the performers. The detail of the information in the booklets is outstanding. The well-chosen photographs add a great deal, answering questions about who, what and where, but also giving a feeling, a sense of these distant cultures that differ so radically from our own. I highly recommend these recordings to people interested in heartfelt song, to those who enjoy the musical use of unusual timbres, and to those seeking to understand similarities and differences between Siberian and Native American cultures.

Additional listening:

RUSSIA. Voyage en U.R.S.S., Vol. 6: Caucase du Nord; Volga/Oural; Siberie; Extreme Orient/Extreme Nord. Le Chant du Monde LDX-274925. 1990.

SIBERIA. Tundra and Taiga. Inedit 260019.

SIBERIA/CENTRAL ASIA. Epics and Overtone Singing,Vol. 1. Inedit 260067.

URALS/SIBERIA/CENTRAL ASIA. Khomus: Jew’s Harp Music of Turkic Peoples. Pan 2032.

CHINA/MONGOLIA/SIBERIA. Music on the Silk Road. Auvidis/Ethnic 6776.

ASIA. Voice of Asia, Vol. 1. (2 CD’s) Blue Flame 40502.