What first drew my interest to the evening concerts at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival was the fact that pretty much every night there was a "social dance party," which I figured was something like line dancing where everyone dances as a group while someone tells you what to do, meaning you don't actually have to know how to dance and it's a ton of fun.
And then I realized that there was a concert of Tuvan and Kalmyk music on July 5, and I was hardly going to miss that.
The title of the concert is a little misleading, since even though Tuva and Kalmykia are both within the borders of the Russian Federation now, the Tuvan and Kalmyk people are actually part of the Mongol family of languages/cultures. Actually, my idea of what "Mongolian" folk music sounds like was formed (several years ago) by the Tuvan group Huun-Huur-Tu. So this wasn't what one would think of as Russian music - instead it featured a lot of the two-stringed string instruments, gallop-like rhythms and unique vocals one would associate with Mongolian music.
I met my friend M at the Tavern, and we headed to the Voices of the World stage around 6:15, getting there just as the 16-year-old boy from the Tuvan ensemble was leaving the stage after a solo performance. In contrast to the earlier Kalmyk and Tuvan concert
I saw, this time, the two ensembles alternated every few songs. I don't
think I would have been bored anyway, but the movement and variety
helped to hold interest during the soporifically hot and humid DC summer
evening. (The performers must have been dying in their costumes, which
seemed more suited to a colder climate.)
öömei, which has a medium-pitched, wavering sound; sygyt, which is predominantly a high whistling sound (the Tuvan word for it is actually related to the Tuvan word "to whistle); and kargyraa, which is the lowest style, is made using the false vocal folds, and which the MC compared to the mountains - they're all connected at the bottom, but their upper contour goes up and down. This style was dominated by a low undertone, with a medium-pitched, oboe- or jew's-harp-like sound undulating in the middle, and sometimes very faint high notes. I've greatly admired throat-singing for some time now, so it was great to see the different styles demonstrated and explained. (Note: For the styles of throat-singing, I've used the spellings that are used on Alash's website, but there are several alternate spellings for these words in English. That page also has a wealth of information about throat-singing and its connections to nature.)
Sean Quirk, the only foreign member of the Tuvan National Orchestra, and interpreter for Alash. He is actually capable of throat-singing himself, but didn't perform at this event.
The wedding song did indeed get people up and dancing. Near us, a woman who looked Indian got up and danced in a way that looked pretty similar to what the Kalmyk women were doing, and a man came out of the backstage area and started dancing with her, his hands at his belt and his feet doing little kicks and hops. I was so entertained watching that I didn't really want to get up and dance myself.
Overall, I found this concert a lot more enjoyable than the last Kalmyk and Tuvan performance I went to at the Folklife Festival. It flowed much more smoothly, and the introductions of the performers and songs were more informative and engrossing. Having more context made the songs more enjoyable, although there were still places, such as the spoken parts of the Jangar piece, where I thought I really was missing a lot by not understanding the language. (Not much that could be done to remedy that with this set-up on the Mall, though; they hardly have the budget or support to set up sub- or supertitles, I think.) The music itself was superb, showcasing the variety of musical styles in the Mongolian family. This time, much of the focus was on vocals, so I didn't spend a lot of time imagining riding horseback across the steppe to the tune of galloping strings - the impression was more of epic tales and human connections, of the vast power of nature and the emotions of people journeying across it.
After that highly enjoyable performance, M and I wandered a bit and got frozen yogurt, and then returned to the mall in time for that night's dance concert, which featured the Transylvanian band Heveder. At the beginning I listened to the music enough to notice the rough, scratchy sound of the strings - a lot of pressure on the bow! - but I spent most of the performance trying to master the dance steps, so I have little further impression of the music other than the rhythm - da, da, dit-dit-da. (This seems to be basic dance rhythm across that region, because the other dance tutorial I took part in with my daughter several days before used the same rhythm.) There was lots of spinning and twirling, and we only halfway got the steps by the end of the concert, but it was a fun time. I wish I had listened to the music a little more, but what can you do; I went to dance, and mostly accomplished that goal.
Overall, it was a fun night. In particular, I feel like I would really have been missing out on experiencing Hungarian culture if I hadn't gotten to go to one of the dance nights. After language, music (and the dance that goes with it) is a pretty integral part of culture, and it was really neat not just to see this part of Hungarian culture, but to actually bodily experience it.