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Voices of Indigenous Siberia – The Musical Culture of Yakutia

Friday, April 16th, 2010

A new finding aid from the Archive of World Music provides the opportunity to explore and listen to the music of the Yakut people. It features freely available online audio content with the download of RealPlayer.

Bruce Gordon and Eduard Alekseyev at work in the Audio Preservation Studio, 2009

Bruce Gordon and Eduard Alekseyev at work in the Audio Preservation studio, 2009

The Eduard Alekseyev Fieldwork Collection of the Musical Culture of Yakutia, 1969 – 1990 contains audio and video that documents traditional religious and ritual cultural expressions. Sakha (Yakutia) is the largest sub-national entity in the world. It is a circumpolar region, half of which lies above the Arctic Circle. From the 1960s through the 1980s, publication of materials about the rituals of indigenous cultures was suppressed, due to the Soviet policy of the times. The Yakut language is part of the northern Turkic linguistic family, and is considered a “vulnerable” language, according to the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

Eduard Yefimovich Alekseyev (b. 1937, Yakutia) resides in Boston and is a well-known ethnomusicologist and researcher of traditional Yakut music. He is the author of more than 100 publications in Russian, including such books as A Study of the Origins of Modality with Regard to Yakut Folk Songs (1976) and The Pitch Nature of Primitive Singing (1986).  Alekseyev worked very closely with Ghilyana Dorjieva (another scholar of indigenous musical culture in Russia, in particular, of the Kalmyk people) to identify and describe the materials in the collection.

Khomus by Nathan Hamm, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
Khomus by
Nathan Hamm

The collection includes original field recordings made by Alekseyev between 1969 and 1990; most were created in a fieldwork setting, but some were made during concerts, or at festival events of Ukrainian people in Kiev and Crimean Tatars in Simferopol. The main genres found in the collection are the olonkho (epic song and recitative), ohuokai (round dance), shamanic ritual and mystery performances. Frequently heard musical instruments are the khomus (jaw or jew’s harp), the diungiur (shaman’s drum), and the bayan (button accordion).

In this video, Eduard Alekseyev speaks about the olonkho genre and its transformative purpose as well as its change as a genre over time.

Audio Preservation Studio engineer Bruce Gordon has worked closely with Alekseyev to digitally preserve the polyester and acetate audio reel tapes in the collection — the end result of their work is the streaming content available in the finding aid, such as this recording of Vasiliy Osipovich Karataev performing the “Song of the Horse” from the olonkho “Erbekhtei Bergen.”

- Donna Guerra