design: b.kazachkov
development: aii

A Tale of Three Festivals

Joe Boyd

… In early July, I set off for Russia and the Wild East. Moscow has become the world’s most expensive city and the changes since my first visit in 1990 are astounding. Muscovites have made the transition from comrades to consumers with ease; they stride in and out of expensive shops with the same strut that the Russian army showed invading Georgia! (OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but it is hard not to notice today’s Putin-esque confidence in contrast to the ashamed insecurity of the Yeltsin era.)

 Moscow is home to my friend Sasha Cheparukhin, who started as an environmentalist and evolved via benefit concerts into one of Russia’s leading music promoters. During our pre-Siberia stopover, he filled a Moscow park – in the rain, mind you – for the first visit by Buena Vista Social Club and some very high-class Russian salsa dancing was evident beneath the umbrellas. Other highlights prior to setting out for Shoshenskoye (Lenin’s Place of Exile) included beautiful harmonies at an evening service in the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow and a preview of Central Asian throat singing at a performance by Hun Huur Tu in an 18th century Italianate hall adjoining the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Sasha was charged with inviting foreign ‘experts’ like myself as well as non-Siberian musicians, mostly Russian. A motley crew of liggers and musos assembled at Vnokovo Airport for the flight east – four and a half hours across four time zones – which only took us half way from Moscow to the Pacific! A morning glance from the window of our Vladivostock Airlines jet found a carpet of intensely green hilly pastureland traversed with rivers. The bus from Abakan airport to Shoshenskoye passed through beautiful rolling country quite unlike any image one might have of Siberia. Our destination was hundreds of miles Southwest of Irkutsk in the autonomous region of Khakhasia, close to Tuva and not far from the Mongolian border – and a long way from the endless forests of the Trans-Siberian Express.

Sayan Ring is free; the crowd is mostly local with visitors from adjacent Siberian regions camping in fields around the ‘Stadion’ (which turns out to be a running track with a few small bleachers in a clearing in the woods). But any notion that this is an amateurish event is soon dispelled. All performers undergo exhaustive sound checks, the PA mix is generally excellent and groups come on and off stage with brisk precision. There is complementary food and drink for performers and ‘VIPs’, balloons for kids and food and beer stalls in clusters nearby.

The music is a rich mix of Asian throat-singing, Russian choirs and smaller groups, solo performers, Russian folk-rock bands and even a Soviet-style regional ‘folk ensemble’ from Krasnoyarsk. My favourite discoveries were the Irkutsk Authentic Music Society, a trio who sang songs collected from a valley doomed by a dam, once home to the oldest Russian community in Siberia; the remarkable Albina and her trio of Yakut singers and jew’s harp virtuosi; Alash, a Tuvan quintet who throat-sang in weird and wonderful harmonies; Natalya Neliobova, a half-gypsy singer from Tomsk; and Khool Zhingel, a Tatar/Russian quartet from Kazan. Special guests included Sergei Starostin and Inna Zhalana, two of Russian folk music’s pioneering artists.

The long set by the Krasnoyarsk Ensemble was particularly fascinating. Very theatrical, it nonetheless signalled a radical shift away from past styles. Igor Moiseyev, who invented the ‘State Ensemble’ aesthetic, detested ‘authentic’ folk music and felt the ‘folk’ needed uplifting with ‘professional’ music that was bright and happy instead of gloomy and old-fashioned. All Soviet and Eastern European ensembles (except the Bulgarians) slavishly followed his kitsch lead. But this outfit, though still sporting ‘happy villager’ outfits and ‘jolly’ attitudes, was trying to sound authentic! They even had a go at Tuvan throat-singing and did a good impression of the ‘head voice’ typical of village women across Russia. Authenticity is the new Black!  - (but it’s in Russian. There should be more info on-line in coming months.)

Sasha had arranged a trip to Tuva for interested musicians and guests. My hand was up! Nights in a yurt beside the Yenesei River; dinner with the remarkable Albert Kuvezin, rocking throat-singer of the group Yat-Kha (whom I first met 18 years earlier when I was a juror at the Asia Dausy festival in Kazakhstan); a visit to the great museum and ‘centre of Asia’ monument in Khyzyl; great vistas of the Tuvan mountains – all unforgettable.

On a somber note, I would like to report meeting the heroic Davlat Khudonazar, a Tadjik film-maker and political activist. Now based in Moscow, he works with Tadjik and other Asian communities to ameliorate their suffering at the hands of Russian skinheads, policemen and construction bosses. He arranges the return to Tadjikistan of an average of a coffin every three weeks as a result of mostly un-investigated and un-mourned deaths of Central Asians in Moscow. Some Russians I discussed this with shocked me by suggesting a nostalgia for the old Soviet Union. I bristled, thinking they were proposing that Russia dominate the ‘near abroad’ once more. Not at all, they said; they remembered a time when Tadjiks, for example, weren’t ‘foreigners’ in Moscow, but fellow-Soviets. Like liberal Yugoslavs who detest the racist nationalism that followed the break-up of their country, they remembered a time when the government was made up of Georgians, Ukrainians and Uzbeks as well as Russians. There is certainly a bit of rose-coloured spectacles in this vision, but there is an important point to ponder. Giving every ‘national’ group their own state creates as many problems as it solves, as Ossetia, Georgia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Cyprus, the Basque region, Ulster, Israel and Palestine can bear witness.

My favourite memory of the trip was watching a crowd of ordinary Russian Siberians knowledgeably cheering on Tuvan throat singers at Sayan Ring. They seemed to know the good from the bad and to be proud of their local Asiatic culture. As I watched, I chewed on a skewer of the best shashlik Shushenskoye had to offer from a stall run by a Palestinian educated in Moscow on a PLO scholarship in the ‘60s who had married a Siberian girl and loved Khakhasia almost as much as he loved his Palestinian homeland.

I am making an effort to curtail my wanderlust for a while until I get the book finished. Hasta la proxima.



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