Saturday, July 6, 2013

Concert Review - "Kalmyk and Tuvan Music from Russia" and Heveder Band - 7/5/13 at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, National Mall, Washington, DC

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.)

We saw:

Kalmyk singer and musician
The elderly members of the Kalmyk ensemble. The MC didn't specify how old they are, but implied that they are very old, and that they can still be so energetic and make music is quite impressive.

Alash, a Tuvan folk music ensemble, playing the song Bai Taiga
The Tuvan ensemble (which is known as Alash) played a song in praise of the Bai Mountain, or Bai Taiga, or something like that. It was a rather slow, mournful-sounding song.

Kalmyk music and singing
The Kalmyk gents played/sang several songs, including a piece of an epic known as Jangar, which was much more low key than I would have expected for an epic story; a song about mother, or mother and father, I don't remember which, which was, by contrast, quite energetic and got the crowd clapping; and another whose theme I don't remember. There was some throat singing involved, done by the guy in white, I think.

Tuvan singer demonstratin throat-singing
Throat-singing demonstration by a member of the Tuvan group. He demonstrated three different styles: xöömei, 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.)

One of the Orgaeva Sisters
Performance by one of the Orgaeva Sisters, part of the Kalmyk group. The MC explained the themes of the songs as "a boy who likes a certain girl" and "a girl singing about all the nice things her man does for her." I kind of snickered at that, but perhaps it's unfair to judge a traditional culture by modern standards. These were energetic songs that got the crowd clapping. Overall the crowd was very involved and appreciative.

Kalmyk ensemble performing traditional songs

Orgaeva Sisters singing and dancing

Kalmyk musicians
Then other members of the Kalmyk ensemble joined her, and they performed a song about "a prince and a princess falling in love in the moonlight," and about a Kalmyk national hero of the early twentieth century. During the second song, the Orgaeva sisters danced a bit while singing - taking small quick steps with their feet and making flowing motions with their arms - and the older woman musician came out and a couple other women from the audience, who looked like they might be Kalmykian, started to dance as well.

Alash ensemble performing
The Tuvan ensemble came out one last time. They played a song of the Tuvan camel caravan herders, which the MC compared to songs of the American cowboys - a song that could go on for weeks and weeks but never repeat a verse, mostly about how much the camel herder/cowboy misses home and "just wants to leave the camels on a mountain and go back to his wife." After that, they encouraged the audience to sing along as they played "Aa-Shuu Dekei-Oo." This song is on one of the Huun-Huur-Tu cd's I have and is probably my favorite Tuvan song, so I was stoked to hear it live. Alash's version was a little thinner and more hollow-sounding than Huun-Huur-Tu's recording, which may have to do with the instruments used. The vocals, being done by a woman in this case, were also a little cleaner and less throaty than Huun-Huur-Tu's male vocals. It was still great to hear and sing along though. And I found out that in Tuvan, "Aa-shuu dekei-oo" means... "Aa-shuu dekei-oo" XD It doesn't mean anything, actually, it's just scat singing. As for the rest of the song, the MC said it was about "pretty women and fast horses." :P

Kalmyk ensemble performing
To finish the concert, the Kalmyk group came out and invited the audience to dance while they played a song that "no Kalmyk person can hear without getting up and dancing." The song was about the wedding of a famous woman - the MC noted that in Kalmyk culture, every event gets recorded in song. I think this song was also sung by the Orgaeva sisters the first time I saw them, and is the one where I complained of the poor explanation by the translator (different guy than this one). Actually, I thought I ought to snap a picture of "Mr. Explaining Guy" as well, so there he is in the shot as the Kalmyk group prepares for their last song. Research reveals that he is 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.

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