Tales and ancient legends of epic heroes, wondrous beauties, and the grassy landscapes of southern Siberia... Traditional Mongolian and Buryat music with art-rock, pop, jazz, folk and ambient soundscapes, for a sound quite unlike anything else. Presenting a rich tapestry of traditional music from the Buryats, an ethnic Russian minority that practices shamanism and lives a nomadic lifestyle similar to their cousins in Mongolia. This music is what Namgar (‘White Cloud’ in Tibetan), a Moscow-based music group, has been working hard to preserve.
Namgar Lkhasaranova, whose petite and girlish frame homes a surprisingly powerful voice, is a daughter of the steppe, born to a cattle herder. She grew up in a Buryat family in the tiny village of Kunkur, near the border crossing of Russia, Mongolia and China. Namgar first learnt to sing on the steppe while herding animals, and was introduced to native folk songs through her grandparents and father, who sang them to her. These traditional songs were steeped in stories as old as the indigenous Buryats themselves, with tales and myths of ancient Mongol fighters, epic heroes, legendary beauties, horses and the grassy landscapes of southern Siberia.
Today, inspired by the culture that shaped her childhood, and concerned for its diminishing future, Namgar leads her self-named band, NAMGAR. The band formed in Moscow in 2001, with the goal to find, restore and promote traditional Buryat music, bringing it to the modern-day world before it is lost forever. They have since successfully toured throughout the world, performing at many significant venues and festivals from Canada to Japan. Through these tours and local village performances, they promote the unique language and culture of the Buryats in their original homeland, as well as taking it to new audiences far and wide.
They play their own versions of traditional Buryat and Mongolian songs using instruments such as the yataga (a 13-stringed zither), chanza (a three-stringed lute) and the khomus (Jew’s harp), along with electric bass and drums to craft their unique sound. This ancient music, seasoned with modern elements of rock and electronics, brings together images of the great wide-open steppes and energy of the modern world.
A yokhor is a dance, a song and also a holiday. There are various yokhor dances and songs, and all are inextricably linked to the different ethnic Buryat groups (Trans-Baikal and Baikal Buryats), and their local traditions. There are ritual ones that are associated with hunting, weddings, patrimonial prayers, and shaman initiations; and non-ritual ones that are connected with secular feasts, family and youth gatherings, and round dances around the fire. A yokhor song has its own vocal characteristics depending on which region it comes from.
The yokhor dance style is associated with an old Buryat hunting style known as zegete aba. Traditionally in zegete aba hunting, people were divided into three classes – upper, middle and lower – with the highest-class hunters being the ones to determine the location for the hunt. The lower-class ‘foot’ hunters were those who did not have their own horses. Gatherings could be anything from 300 hunters up to 1,000. The hunting technique of zegete aba took place in three stages. Firstly, the hunters would gather at the appointed place in a large circle, then they would narrow the circle by closing in together; finally, they would run towards the centre, pinning the animal down. The yokhor dance is associated with this hunting technique as the same gathering, circling and inward run also takes place. However, instead of pinning the animal down, the dancers jump and sing loudly in their newly formed close-knit circle.
The semantic meaning of the yokhor dance is connected with the Buryat’s worship of the sun. The circular movement of the dancers goes from left to right, coinciding with the direction of the sun. It was forbidden to dance in the opposite direction, since it was believed that evil spirits moved against the sun. Previously, it was a tradition to perform yokhor around a serge (hitching post) of a mountain, tree, or fire.
BURYAT TRADITIONAL INSTRUMENTS
The yataga is a long, 13-stringed Mongolian/Buryat plucked zither. Its shape resembles an elongated harp laid on its side. The body of the yataga is a rectangular hollow box with a convex top and flat back, up to 115 cm long. It is usually made from different types of wood: the top is made of spruce, the bottom of pine, the frame of the instrument is made of birch. The back has three sound holes to ensure a long and powerful tone. Thirteen strings are stretched along the entire top, each resting on a separate, movable wooden bridge. The instrument is held on the knees of the player or rested on a table. The strings are plucked with the pads of the fingers. The right hand is the leading hand, playing melodies and arpeggios, while the left mainly serves to bend the notes and create vibratos.
The most ancient type of yataga was a box hollowed out of wood in one piece. The strings were made of long veins and the movable bridges were carved from sheep’s bones. Traditionally, the yataga is played while sitting cross-legged, with the ‘playing end’ on the knees and the other end on the floor. The instrument can also be placed on a stand. Similar instruments are known in China (guzheng), Japan (koto) and South Korea (gayageum).
The chanza (shanza) is a three-stringed, fretted, plucked lute, with a peculiar rattling timbre, that came to Buryatia from Mongolia. The chanza has been modified over time to include a fourth string. There are several varieties of the instrument, but the original chanza has a long neck connected to a flat oval body, covered with snakeskin. It has one melody string (nylon), and two/three steel resonating strings, tuned in 4th and 5th. In an orchestra, the chanza is mostly an accompanying instrument. The chanza played on this album has 4 steel strings, tuned in fourths: D, A, E, B.
The khomus is metal Jew’s harp. The instrument is placed against the mouth. The oral cavity and pharynx, the nasal cavity and lower respiratory tract, serve as resonators that amplify the volume. By controlling the breathing, the timbre of the khomus can be changed and certain overtones in its sound spectrum enhanced, while the main tone is a constant drone.
Namgar Lkhasaranova/Republic of Buryatia: lead vocals, yataga, khomus Evgeny Zolotarev/Republic of Buryatia: chanza, vocals, bass Timur Zolotarev/Russia: guitar, vocals Alexey Baev/Russia: drums, electronics Gennady Lavrentiev/Russia: violin, guitar Fredrik Møller Ellingsen/Norway: guitar , drums, samples, percussion Merlin Ettore/Canada: drums, electronics Radik Tyulyush/Tuva Republic: throat singing Andrey Pristavka/Russia: drums Alexei Saryglar/Tuva Republic: sample Eivind Kløverød/Norway: drums Ayusha Lkhasaranov/Republic of Buryatia: vocals
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Namgar, (3) Yatga, (4) Chanzy, (5) Gennady Lavrentiev, (6) Radik Tyulyush (unknown/website).