Friday, June 28, 2013

Smithsonian Folklife Festival - Kalmyk and Tuvan Ensembles - 6/26/13 at the National Mall, Washington, DC

On Wednesday, I went down to the National Mall to get a glimpse of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival without a whiny kid (or a whiny adult getting bored by the talks I wanted to attend). I was lucky enough to catch a couple of groups performing Mongolian folk music, which is one of my favorite types of folk music. I snapped a few photos with my cell phone, but its camera kind of sucks, so hopefully I can replace them with better ones this weekend or next. There was so much to see at the Folklife Festival - so many talks on endangered languages that I wanted to listen to, so many performances to see, and so many booths of cool stuff from all over the world. Not to mention the intricate structures being built for the Hungarian Heritage section of the festival.

I'm not sure what that is, but it looks like some sort of horse. I hope I can find out more about it next time I go. I didn't actually go in the Hungarian area at all, just walked around it before the festival opened. I only had a few hours there that day and spent them all in the "One World, Many Voices" area which focuses on endangered languages.

I thought there was supposed to be a talk at 11, but when they finally let people into the area, there was nothing happening at the "Talk Story" stage. That was perhaps for the best, because I was drawn to some ornately dressed women who were singing and playing in a small pavilion with an airy, burlap-like ceiling that looks pretty cool in the photos, methinks.

The guy with the flute is just a picture on a backdrop
The three people at left in the front are also Kalmyk musicians, I saw them perform later.

Their translator was nervous or unprepared and didn't do a very good job introducing them, so I didn't find out until I hunted down their cd in the marketplace that they're the Orgaeva Sisters. The translator did explain a little about their background - they're Kalmyk (Khalmag), which are a Mongolian people that live in the Republic of Kalmykia in the Russian Federation. They're the only Buddhist culture in Europe. I looked up a bit about the Kalmyks and man, they have had it rough. The entire people were deported and dispersed all over Russia after World War II for having been "German sympathizers." Since then they've been allowed to return to their homes but I can imagine their culture might be a bit fragmented :( So it is especially encouraging to see this ensemble performing in their traditional language.

A guy joined them to play the lute so the sisters could sing a duet. It was a very lively song with a bit of dancing. I love listening to Mongolian and its linguistic relations, but I did wish there was some explanation of the content of the songs - that might have made the experience richer. (Someone did ask what this particular song was about, and the translator summed up the several sentences of explanation from one of the singers as, "A wedding. Marriage." >.<)

Then I did actually attend a panel on endangered languages, and found out a bit about the current situation of Welsh, Hawaiian and Passamaquoddy. Welsh seems to be doing quite well, with schools and TV programs and pretty much everybody in Wales (according to this guy) opting to speak Welsh first. Hawaiian sounds like it's doing ok - the Hawaiian representative on the panel didn't speak English very well and they didn't bother asking anyone to translate for her till close to the end of the panel, but it seemed Hawaiian is also taking off, with immersion schools for young children and classes up to the college level. Passamaquoddy's situation is more dire; its elders are dying off and I don't think anyone learns it as a first language anymore, although there are now after-school classes for children. The whole thing made me think about how stupid the Official English movement is - these people were here first, so why the fuck should the country's official language be English?

Anyway, back to things that other people actually care about. After the panel, I wandered about a bit, learned what Garifuna are (a people descended from Carib, Arawak and West African peoples, that now live mainly on the Caribbean coast of Central America), and saw kids trying to make an ax head and hollow out a piece of wood at the Hawaii exhibit. There was an actual adze for chipping away at the wood, and a guy was letting his 5 year old try it O.o He was supervising the kid pretty closely though.

Then I heard someone throat-singing and thought, "I must find the source of that sound!" I tracked it to a stage under a tent, where another Mongolian-looking ensemble was sitting and a middle aged man was demonstrating different types of throat singing. (I didn't even know there were different types of throat singing!) For those that don't know, throat singing is a vocal style where the singer can produce two or more notes at once, usually associated with Central Asian music. The one I think of first is always the style with a very low undertone and a high whistling tone floating over it - neither of which sounds like a sound that a human should be able to produce - but there are other styles as well, as I found out.

This is where the crappiness of the photos really starts to show.
I tried to get as close as I could without being obnoxious :/

This group turned out be Tuvan, which is another Mongol group, also living within Russia, but situated in the east, in southern Siberia. Their history (at least in the twentieth century) is less tumultuous than the Kalmyks, and their language and culture seems to be consolidating. Tuva is a very isolated place, and the number of Russians living there has steadily been declining, while Tuvan remains the first language for many people there. I'm not sure what this means for their economic situation, though.

I only caught the last couple of styles that the throat-singing gentleman demonstrated, but after that, the young man next to him (I think the translator said it was the guy's son?) who is sixteen, performed a throat-singing song, accompanying it on a lute-like instrument (which might have been a doshpuluur, it sounded something like that).

After that there was a performance on a fiddle by the woman who is the director of the Tuvan National Orchestra (at left in the photos below). Like the Mongolian horsehead fiddle and the Chinese erhu (which was borrowed from the Mongols anyway) the bowstrings actually go under the fiddle's strings. What was unusual was that this fiddle had a much larger soundbox than most fiddles of that type that I've seen.

After that, the man on the right performed a song with intense, mournful vocals (man, could he wail) accompanied by a different sort of fiddle.

Then the Tuvans were whisked off the stage, and the Kalmyks came on. They started with a song performed together as an ensemble, and one of the sisters from earlier sang and danced with a white scarf.

Later on, when both of the sisters were dancing during another song, I noticed that both their vocals and dancing have the faintest Bollywood vibe, and I wonder if this is due to mixing with Indian traditions at some point in the culture's journey across Asia.

After that, there was an old folks' duet.

The old guy who is singing and dancing looked rather dazed, but his voice sounded pretty good. And I really should not have turned my phone upright for this picture cause having to rotate it made it even worse :(

Lastly, there was a string duet.

I wish I could have gotten a better photo of the horsehead fiddle, which is what the guy in white is playing. I believe this piece was some sort of story, cause the guy would stop singing and narrate at times, and there were sudden shifts in mood and tempo, such as a speedy segment at the end, like a horse suddenly galloping off.

There were some other songs as well, I think, but I could not take a lot of photos as I was running out of space on my phone (like always!)

My favorite pieces were those where the stringed instruments characterize galloping over the steppe on horseback, but I also enjoyed the slower pieces where the instruments and vocals gave the impression of rolling hills, or the vastness of nature. And I love the sound of the languages, a little bit rough and earthy, but also capable of fluid beauty. Heck, I am just addicted to Mongolian-style music. I have spent the days since going to the festival listening to Huun-Huur-Tu and Tengger Cavalry XD

Things I found:
You can actually hear a recording of part of the second Kalmyk performance I saw, with intro from their translator, who is apparently an acclaimed linguist. (Maybe public speaking is just not his thing.) And also see a better picture of the old folks.
I tried to find a similar audio page for the Tuvan group, but no luck yet - though I did find this page with  some videos of Tuvan music performances.
And the Tuvan group is apparently called Alash. I am gonna have to look into them, they could join Huun-Huur-Tu as one of my favorite folk music groups.

Edit: I have added a review of a later Tuvan and Kalmyk concert with better photos.

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