Styles & Forms | Russia & Central Asia | World
The turbulent history and immense size of Russia and the Soviet Union make it a difficult place to sum up in musical terms – not because there are incalculable varieties, and generalizing would necessarily favour one style or region over another, but because what is authentic is bound up in politics.
The Tzars wanted to hear professional musicians demonstrating the national culture and real peasants could not be introduced to the court, so at least one layer of authenticity would be stripped away before the music was heard in the cities.
Under Soviet control, folk music had to be controlled and approved by the state. But the further from Moscow one travelled, the looser this control became. While the Red Army Choir could captivate sympathetic audiences with their artistry, this was not the true sound of their comrades in the rural soviets.
It was not until the 1960s that musicians felt confident enough to replicate the real music of the country without preparing them for outside consumption. Dmitri Pokrovsky and Vyacheslav Shchurov would send singers out to the country to record and transcribe amateur folk singers, thus preserving the true music of the people, under threat in the rest of the world from urbanization and homogeneity.
Strings That Are Too Spiky
However, the Soviet attitude to music that was not Russian was less encouraging. In Mongolia and Tuva, the move to create a pan-USSR music meant that local styles were subordinated to types of music made by people who lived 4,000 miles to the west. The nomadic lifestyles of the indigenous people were also controlled, their shamans stripped of their status and their Buddhist monks forced from their monasteries.
Like many other teens in the 1970s and 1980s, Albert Kuvezin had no interest in traditional music, but taught himself music via bootleg tapes of The Beatles and Iron Butterfly. He remembers being forbidden from playing concerts by panels charged with making sure his music was suitable for Soviet youth: he failed on 14 counts, including having strings that were ‘too spiky’.
It was not until the fall of communism that the traditional music of these two states made their mark outside, but the effect was spectacular. Throat (or overtone) singing involves collapsing the lungs to produce two or three vocal lines. One singer can simultaneously sing a baritone drone and add other noises on top. It is a skill shared with Native Americans, and comes in a variety of styles, notably kargyraa (wheezing), ezengileer (horse trotting), borbannadyr (rolling), sygyt (whistle) and khoomei (similar to sygyt but more nasal).
In 1992, Huun-Huur-Tu were formed by Tuvans Sacha and Sayan Bapa, Kaiga-ool Khovalyg and Albert Kuvezin, who had all been members of a state-run troupe. The same year, Shu-De were invited to Wales to take part in the eisteddfod. With their shaman performing mystical rituals, and their traditional costumes and instruments (horse-head, four-ear and spike fiddles), they quickly came to the attention of the WOMAD...
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