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Music and dance among the Aginsk Siberian Buryats.

The sound of traditional Buryat song or instrumental music is a rich and haunting melody, with low, rhythmic tones pierced by melancholy Eastern soprano. Leonid Babalaev is a locally renowned throat singer, who lives in Aginsk. By changing the shape of his air cavities, he can create more than one pitch at the same time. When asked what he thinks about when he is singing, he said if it's a big concert, he thinks about getting the words right. If it's not, he thinks about the land and the ancestors. His thoughts match the images that come to listeners' minds, images of Genghis Khan's troops, of ancient Buryats racing horses across the steppes, of lovely women gazing from hilltops at vast, open landscapes.

The Buryats are an indigenous Mongoloid nationality, numbering about 400,000 in Russia. They mostly live in the southeastern part of Siberia, in the three Buryats areas near Lake Baikal, near the intersections of Russia, Mongolia and China. Having melded with Mongolians after the Treaty of Kiakhta stopped movement between Siberia and Mongolia in 1727, the Buryats still a strong tie with Mongolia. They speak with pride of Genghis Khan and they are descended not only from Mongol warriors, but from hardy, nomadic cattle breeders. Cattle and life on vast, open plains is still an important part of daily life for many Buryats. Both resonate in local music and culture.

From their earliest years, young Buryats, especially the girls, are encouraged to dance. Children's dance troupes perform at a wide variety of public events throughout the year. Most give up dancing once they finish high school, though a few continue on with adult or professional groups.

Dance is revived among all ages during the yohor, which was traditionally performed once a year, when all the farm work is done. The upbeat, rhythmic, fast-paced dance involves all of the dancers holding hands as they dance clockwise in a circle, in the direction of the sun. On that day, men and women could have relations with anybody. If a child resulted, asked if it was a son or daughter, the mother would reply, "It's a child of yohor."

The yohor dance is also performed during shamanist rituals, as a means of raising spiritual energy to help carry the shaman to the heavens. Ancient Mongols used the yohor to celebrate the election of a new khan.

Song and music

The importance of song can best be seen at Buryat weddings. As each family or group of friends or co-workers presents a gift to the bride and groom, they will approach the microphone together. One person among the gift-bearers will give a toast and another will sing a song. The song is a gift in itself, a gift to all the guests at the celebration. A fine, well-tuned voice will get an enthusiastic applause.

At celebrations, lamas chant in trance-like, rhythmic patterns. Shamans do the same, to the accompaniment of a banging drum. Frequent concerts take place at the local culture hall, where singers range from young children to old men and women.

The songs often take on a narrative form, telling either epic tales or the last song of famous leaders. One of the most famous songs is the last song of Rinchin Darzhin. A historical piece about the 19th century Khori Buryat prince, the lyrics connect listeners to both his fate and the fate of Buryats under the conquerors. In this way, music ties Buryats to their history.

While song is embraced by all and dance is common among the young, instrumental music is primarily played by specialists. Some of the common, traditional instruments include the morin khur, a two-stringed horse-head fiddle, a favorite instrument of the Buryats. The khun khur, a swan-headed lute, the limbe, a cross flute, the khumus, a jaw harp, and the bish khuur, a single reed trumpet are frequently used instruments.

Buryat music commonly demonstrates pentatonic scales and the use of fourths. The five elements of the physical environment, the softness of wood, the earth's expanse, iron's strength, fire's heat and water's purity, are said to meld in the instrument's pentatonic tune. The instruments and voice keep the same melody, with minor differences in timing and embellishment.

Buryat music and dance through history

Traditional Buryat musical expression suffered a heavy blow under Communism. Stalin was in favor of national cultural expressions, but it had to be socialist. Musical groups praised the Soviet Union with indigenous language in traditional garb. In 1948 Stalin banned references to the Buryat mythical hero, Geser, thinking that celebrating Geser actually celebrated Genghis Khan. The Buryat youth were told that traditional Buryat symbolism would inhibit their creativity and that they should study Russian masters instead.

Meanwhile, the traditional folk music and the musical rituals surrounding Buddhist and shamanist practices were quietly maintained by the older generation. As Buryats shifted from a nomadic lifestyle to forced settlement, poems, epics and songs became less relevant to daily life and the youth became less willing to carry them on. The younger generation turned instead toward Western and Russian pop music.

Since the fall of Communism, Buryats have used music and dance as a way to reclaim their cultural and spiritual traditions. The youth dance and music groups have helped to rekindle interest in traditional song and dance among the youth.

The professional song, dance and instrumental group, Amar Saan, enjoys a high reputation among the locals and visitors. But throughout Russia, salaries for cultural workers are low, making it hard to recruit talent. In 2004, the local government in the Aga-Buryat region offered a 100 percent salary bonus to cultural workers. According to troupe director Bazar Damdinov, this has helped him to recruit and retain talent.

Since 2007, the Aginsk Buryats, who formerly had an autonomous region where Buryats formed a majority, have been merged with the surrounding majority-Russian territory. Now, as the Aginsk Buryats become a minority in their own region, their traditional songs and dances will probably play an even more important role in expressing and maintaining the Buryat culture.

Local theaters and folk groups attempt to bring people back to their heritage, revive rituals and myths, language and tradition. Those who listen will be rewarded with a feeling of closeness to nature, as though the rhythm carries them softly across the vast expanse of steppe.

To experience Buryat music, try listening to the music of the group Namgar.

J. Lee Jacobson lived as a member of the community in Aginsk, Siberia for over a year in 2002-2003. She was the first Westerner to do so. This article was developed for The World and I Online following a return visit in February and March of 2009. Jacobson is an expert on the region and has written a forthcoming travelogue/memoir about her experiences. Her writings on Siberia have appeared in a Traveler's Tales anthology, Notre Dame Magazine, The Moscow Times, Skirt! Magazine and Russian Life Magazine, as well as other publications. Jacobson hold an MPA in international development from Princeton University.
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Title Annotation:CULTURE
Author:Jacobson, J. Lee
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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