An American in Kyzyl
So, I'm apparently about to become a Tuvan TV star, so I thought I'd send out one more report, so that you all can say "I knew him when . . .' Actually, the last couple of weeks have been pretty interesting --- more stories means more to write. The one thing that remains less than noteworthy is the weather. The Thaw has hit Kyzyl and the whole city is a slushy mess. There's still snow on the ground and temperatures are still below freezing half of the time, but everyone agrees that spring has come and it gives new hope to the atmosphere of Kyzyl. Now if it would only be warm enough long enough to allow all the ice and snow to melt . . .
So, the story begins on Thursday the 14th [of March], when I wandered down to the music Uchilische [School] to visit my friends in the ensemble Changi-Xaya. They're all finishing up their studies and preparing for the last round of exams before getting their artist diplomas, so the atmosphere was a little strained, but they mentioned that they were to play a free concert at 6:00 that evening at the Ministry of Culture. I showed up at 5:30 and there was a crush of people at the front door --- more people than I thought would show for a short-notice, unpublicized concert. At six they opened the doors and there was an incredible stampede --- a bit like sheep crowding into the pen in the evening. Once I got inside I realized the reason. Xun Xurtuu is in town and were also on the ticket for the concert. Actually, the concert included almost every big name performer in Tuva these days, and a few lesser-known acts on the side. Turns out that the whole thing was a campaign event for the incumbent President, who was up for election as "head of government". (During his most recent --- second and thus constitutionally last --- presidential term, he introduced legislation to rearrange the structure of the government so that he can stay at the helm without violating the 2-term limit as "president".)
The next day, Friday, I was a guest at a correspondence course English class being held in one of the classrooms in the Ministry of Culture. As we began the lesson, I noticed another crush of bodies forming around the doors of the auditorium. . . Halfway through the lesson, I started hearing the sygyt of Möngün-ool Ondar, one of Kongar-ool's students who is, if anything, more of a sygyt anomaly than his teacher. A few minutes later, I started hearing the voice of Ay-Suu Mongush, a young Tuvan pop star, pelting through the half dozen or so walls between our classroom and the stage.
Got out of the lesson just in time to see Xun Xurtuu again. Then I went backstage to meet with The Boys (Changi Xaya). They were preparing to play and we all sat around and chewed the fat for a bit (an idiom that takes on several new layers of meaning out here). They're all pretty keen on the idea of hooking me up with a Tuvan wife, so when Ay-Suu came by we immediately became a Speculated Couple. After the concert, we all packed up and headed across the street to the main theater, where they were to put on the same campaign concert for the third time. I spent most of the time backstage, hanging out with The Boys and with the guy I picked back during Naadym (August) as my favorite Tuvan wrestler --- Aldyn-ool Kulaar (his picture appears in the upper right-hand corner of page 33 of the Deep in the Heart of Tuva Booklet). The backstage area was a regular anthill of people --- kids running around in dancing costumes, singers and instrumentalists talking to each other and to the walls, cigarette smoke and noise from the stage. I was hoping to spend some time with Xun Xurtuu --- last fall I met three of the members of the group but had yet to meet Kaygal-ool. Unfortunately, with all the hectics of the concert, we couldn't do much more than exchange nods.
On Monday I was back at my lessons, playing igil with Sergei when the door opened and a guy named Otkun walked in. He's a Tuvan TV guy and proposed the idea of putting together a short program about me. On Thursday I met him at his office in the TV center and we talked about me and about xoomei, though we didn't do any shooting, because the studio was busy. Turns out that Otkun was a member of the ensemble Tuva --- the original touring xoomei ensemble that included Kaygal-ool, Kongar-ool, Gennady Tumat, Sergei Ondar, and everyone else who was anyone at the time. While I was writing out some bio info about myself, he whipped out my igil and started playing away, much to my surprise. When I told him that I hadn't met Kaygal-ool, he simply picked up the phone, made a call, and told Kaygal-ool that we were coming over that evening. You see, Kaygal-ool and his wife had a new baby daughter last July and Otkun and his wife hadn't yet seen the newest Xovalig, so we had all the excuse we needed for a short evening visit. . .
. . . which turned into a long evening of food, cognac, and a live concert/lesson straight from the man himself. Kaygal-ool fully lives up to his name. I think a few months ago I translated it as something like "Robin Hood". Literally it means "boy who wonders at things" but is commonly used for Robin Hood type characters in folklore. We would be sitting around the living room chatting and when the TV started flashing fast images, Kaygal-ool would cock his head to one side, take on the expression of a bemused 4-year-old, and giggle at the screen. Then he pulled out his igil and started making those sounds that give the rest of us young igil players something to live for. And when he unfolded that kargyraa that makes you feel as if the heavens just bent down and gave you a big hug. . .
On Monday I met with Otkun and we filmed the program. The interview went alright, though my Tuvan was about the worst it's been for a few weeks. Once I picked up my igil, things started falling apart. Since meeting Kaygal-ool, my own playing had taken on a much richer character, though yesterday all that seemed to fall away and I was left screeching and whining on camera. After a failed attempt at xoomei, I managed to pull off some decent sygyt before calling it quits. Still have a long way to go before I'm performance ready.
So, if you happen to get Tuvan channel 2, tune in this Saturday at 5:10 (Central Siberian Time) to see me make a bit of a fool of myself and to see Otkun join in the campaign to find me a Tuvan woman.
Hey, again, all.
Forgot to mention something last time. I have recently been informed by my friend Abbas at Magnum Photography that some of his photographs of shamanism in Tuva have been posted on the Friends of Tuva website ( http://www.fotuva.org , links under travel and news). Some of these pictures are really good, most are spectacular, and all are a far sight better than anything you'll be seeing coming from my little 35mm (though I might safely challenge Abbas to a singing competition).
Last Friday was Kongar-ool Ondar's 40th birthday (the party is this summer) and he hosted a competition for young xoomei singers from all over Tuva. I walked into his school a bit early to hang out with whomever was there and before I knew it, Kongar-ool was shaking my hand and telling me that I was to sit on the jury. So, I spent the day drinking sparkling water, sitting behind a big table in the front row of the auditorium of the school, listening to little kids sing their hearts out. It was a kick.