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Siberia Extreme - An Album Review

Posted by on in Outreach, Dissemination and Repatriation
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Author Profile: Patrick Egan
This Outreach member has published 17 articles.

Siberia Extreme - Chyskyyrai, Tim Hodgkinson and Ken Hyder (2019)
Produced by Misha Maltsev © iLRLP001 Indigenous Lifeforms
View on Discogs.com or at Bandcamp.com

Those who may be familiar with Asian indigenous music might recall the enormously successful Huun-Huur-Tu, throat singers from the Mongolian-Russian border who first recorded in the year of Tuva's signatory as part of the newly established Russian Federation in 1992. Throat singing is often strange to the Western-trained ear, incorporating drones and overtones in the vocals not usually accessed by Western singers. The accompanying music that Tuvans integrate includes Jew's harp and the shaman drum, but in recent years the group has expanded into Western instruments such as the guitar and electronic sounds. In some ways how such groups have worked with Western artists can allow one to begin to grasp at an understanding of this album as an East meets West collaboration.

But that would do this album an injustice. Released as an LP on the website Discogs.com and as digital download on Bandcamp.com, the style is categorised under Free Jazz or Avant-garde Jazz. Whilst that may most accurately describe some of the sounds that the accompanying musicians make, perhaps the limitations of genre descriptions betray the adventure in Siberia Extreme. As described, Indigenous Lifeforms is a newly established label, and it promises exciting and fresh material. It's approach is certainly different - the LP record sits within a beautiful sleeve and cover by French artist Sophie Lecuyer. It's rarity is all the more accentuated by the fact that this production is releasing only 500 in "limited edition milky clear vinyl". There are more projects to come - the label claims to have a whole archive of improvised "jam sessions" that were produced with Siberian artist Chyskyyrai and others at various locations around London in the past twenty years.1

I have a personal connection with the producer Misha Maltsev. I met him in 2009, just as I was developing an appreciation for musical cultures that involved ritual. During my MA in Ethnomusicology, it was the ritualistic nature of shamanic music of Siberia that became an inspiration for an introductory essay that was featured here on Outreach. My connection with Misha started out from an interest in finding out more about the role of the "dungur" or frame drum within cultures other than my own, the Irish "bodhrán" being a frame drum that has become popular in Irish traditional music. In my developing "armchair research" on the music of Yakutsk in 2007 prior to meeting Misha, I briefly read some of the historical literature from ethnographers who wrote about the role of shamans in Siberia. For example, Vasilevich claimed that the entire population of the Evenks of Siberia held a common belief of three worlds, one on top of the other.2 In my article I described how: 

this structural representation … was based on the idea that the shaman had a stream and that the mythological beings were on its islands or banks. To reach the lower world, the drum had a deep symbolic meaning and highly important functional role. The drum itself was used by the shaman as a boat, and the drum stick as a paddle in the journey towards the spirit world. (Egan 2007)

At the time, I had only briefly touched upon an understanding of this culture. It made a strong impression that musical instruments played an important role in shamanistic ritual.

Misha Maltsev is known in ethnomusicology for his work with Keith Howard with the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS), where he produced DVD "Siberia At The Centre Of The World". This 2008 production brings the viewer to the revival of shamanism in Siberia through ritualists, musicians, dancers, administrators, academics in the region with those who could remember it.3 With Misha, through these works I continued to explore Siberian culture. This led to a deeper appreciation of shamanic practice, and in particular the relationship between instruments and ritual. 

The liner notes of the current production relate that Chyskyyrai (whose real name is Valentina Romanova) comes from Yakutia in the northernmost republic of Siberia. Her vocal techniques draw on folk songs, animal imitation and ancient mythological epic Olonkho. Olonkho performance stretches back hundreds of years - it is often a solo improvisation, a type of travelling theatre. Maltsev explains that, "their performance could last for several days, and were not just entertainment but also a way of teaching people that they are not separate from nature and attune them to it." The sonic references to nature abound in this album, with particular emphasis on horses.

In what sounds like evocations that are both powerful and dynamic, Chyskyyrai switches her voice into a number of different techniques with seeming ease. Her voice has been described as, "embodying the Sakha character of a menerik woman, one possessed by the spirits", as "shamanic hysteria".4 Hysteria arises at key moments. Intensity ebbs and flows, but it never overtakes the production. Instead, you feel like you are on a journey with the lead vocalist, as she negotiates and shoves the soundscape into new extremes, in between the sounds of daring, supportive accomplices.

A sense takes root that accompanying musicians Tim Hodgkinson and Ken Hyder are also on a journey, and seem to move in close proximity to Chyskyyrai's developing possession. They add steel guitar, saxophone, dungur drum and a number of other percussive instruments. One is neither in Siberia or London, but transported, unhinged into a new place through immersion in the musical moment. Ken Hyder's contributions carry a strong energy, strong like his personality and the feeling you get at his London basement which is a place for deep thought, openness and enquiry. It is no small wonder that Chyskyyrai tells us in the liner notes that "their sound fits with our singing styles" and reminds her of the "spirit helper". Their support shows a deep appreciation and connection with the ritualistic process. The accompaniment doesn't merely "add" or “fuse with” the production, rather it often moves alongside and converses with the voice.  

An example is the second track of Side B is named Mokkuor, or "The Argument". 

In this track, which is 12 minutes 25 seconds long, we first hear movement over the skin of the dungur, before the voice makes a statement in the soundscape. Bell-like sounds add to the track - it is clear at this point in the recording that there is a deeper connection developing in the soundscape. Shrieks are now giving way to a more definite, confident call in the lower range of the vocals. Bass sounds seem to push the meditation into a lament, pain filled vocals move back and forth in time as percussion and guitar give way to bells and jumps of octaves in the voice towards almost like smashing thuds. The wail of guitar calls in bird sounds. Vocals begin to announce an almost toughened expression of what has just been communicated.

After 5 minutes, drumming of the dungur returns, starting a gallop and bringing the vocalist along, if only for a while before the voice again trips and rolls, the drumming answering in each twist and turn. Bells ring through (6m30s) as the voice hits through, horses call out (7m10s), the voice twists up into a horse and moves between the human and the animal. Saxophone clashes and rolls along in an effect that's spine tingling. The voice sounds full of emotion, as the saxophone takes centre place with thwarted sounds more resembling a call to another world than a conscious musical endeavour (8m). You begin to feel comfortable in the meditation when all three performers are moving in unison (8m30s).

At various points in this recording there is a presence of something calling you to another realm. The buzz at the end reminds you of electricity, but even that is inverted, part of a shattering, reforming, meditative abyss. In a mixture of what may sound like free jazz, one can hear the conversation building with a shaman. The skills and experience of the performers involved, the building of intensity and transportation of musical expression are exquisite. 

With a minimal sound recording setup (Minidisc recorder and microphone), Maltsev has created a truly unique recording. But, don't be deceived by this review. The origins of the Sakha culture's storytelling oral epic "Olonkho" are still being debated by us “outsiders”, and the true meaning of shamanism in Sakha culture has yet to be grasped or truly understood by those who analyse too closely! Get this record, and go your journey.

View on Discogs.com or at Bandcamp.com

Siberia-Extreme-small

 

Warning: In the interests of decolonisation of the academy, it is recognised that the author's research is not extensive. The views expressed in this review do not represent the thoughts of shamans themselves. Find out more from the Sakha people on Misha's movie: https://www.cultureunplugged.com/play/2805/Siberia-At-The-Centre-Of-The-World---Part-1--Music--Dance-and-Ritual-in-Sakha-Yakutia/Vm10YVYxSnJPVmRSYkVwUlZrUkJPUT09KzE=

 

1. Siberia Extreme. Produced by Misha Maltsev, performances by Chyskyyrai, Tim Hodgkinson, Ken Hyder. Indigenous Lifeforms, 2019.

2. Vasilevich, G. M. "Preshamanistic and Shamanistic Beliefs of the Evenki." Soviet Anthropology and Archeology, vol. 11, no. 1, 1972, pp. 29-44.

3. SOASIS DVD6 and SOASIS DVD7 - Siberia At The Centre Of The World: Music, Dance, And Ritual In Sakha-Yakutia And Buryatia. Directed by Misha Maltsev, and Keith Howard, 2008.

4. School of Oriental and African Studies. "SOAS Music CD: Chyskyyrai." SOAS University of London, www.soas.ac.uk/music/cds/siberia2/. Accessed 8 July 2020.

 

  • Guest
    Misha Maltsev Saturday, 11 July 2020

    Olonkho

    Thank you for writing such a detailed review Paddy, really appreciated. Yes Olonkho is an absolute essence of Sakha poetic, artistic and vocal expression. Of course, times have changed, and a supernatural epic Olonkho is not performed by a special caste of storytellers for days. Today's Olonkho performances don't last that long. There is the whole Olonkho Theatre established in Yakutsk, devoted to create modern theatre plays inspired by Olonkho, and one of the directors of it is Stepanida Borisova, another incredible ecstatic singer of Tojuk-poems, one of the sub-genres of Olonkho.

    So, Olonkho lives, taking new forms and directions.

    In 2005 UNESCO proclaimed Olonkho heroic epic an "intangible heritage" of humanity - Read here, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/olonkho-yakut-heroic-epos-00145

    Further reading - https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1wf4d5p

  • Guest
    Patrick Egan Sunday, 12 July 2020

    Thanks Misha, looking forward to checking out those links you just posted and finding out more about Olonkho.

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