The World's Largest Going-Away Party
Sat, 13 Jul 2002
Hey, again all.
So, it's been a while since I last wrote. It's not that nothing has been happening so much as that I haven't been in Kyzyl and sitting down long enough to write anything for a month or so. I could probably write more than you could stomach, but I'll spare you and focus on the highlights.
I suppose I could tell you a lot about the four days I spent in the Erzin area with a group of Americans who came to Tuva to work with shamans. I happened to fall into the expedition as a translator and ambassador between the Americans and their Tuvan hosts. It was a glorious experience: camping in yurts on the bank of the upper Erzin river, far above the last village; spending the mornings singing to the river, the days visiting sites specifically chosen by shamans for their spectacular beauty and natural power, and the evenings playing impromptu concerts and games from American, Tuvan, and Russian traditions. I suppose I could also tell you about the experience of translating for a shaman fresh out of trance: kneeling on an exposed hillside under the fierce sun and scattered rain clouds trying to catch a stream of thought pouring from behind two bloodshot, squinting eyes and then trying to turn all that emotion into English. Then there was the birthday party that our Tuvan hosts threw for me: more music and games and dancing long into the night.
Or I suppose I could tell you all about the horse-riding trip I took into the taiga above Chadan with a Wyoming rancher and his son. I could tell you about the cabin we lived in perched above the upper Chadan river or how on the second night 100 horses came pouring out of the hills into the clearing in front of that cabin. I could write about riding up through the taiga with its larch forests and the smell of wild rosemary or about the country up above tree-line: bald, rocky hills rich with undergrowth and the coldest, cleanest spring water I've ever experienced. I could write about how I rode horse for 9 hours in one day and then couldn't sit down properly for 3 days. Or I could tell you about visiting all the local camps, eating dalgan and drinking araka to our hearts content.
Instead of all that, I suppose you all want to hear about how Kongar-ool's Dembildey festival went. And I suppose I could write a lot about the 20 or so foreigners who came to town for the event and the madness of trying to arrange places for them to stay and eat while simultaneously preparing myself for the festival. I could also write about the day of the xoomei competition itself and how several dozen throat singers spent the whole day backstage in the theater waiting to show their stuff. The most interesting thing I could write about, though, would be the last day of the festival: how we spent the morning at the races, chatting with Tuvans, eating pilaf and drinking xoitpak and occasionally looking up to see where the horses were going. Or about the xuresh (wrestling) competition that afternoon and how I became perhaps the first foreigner to act as a judge for such an event. I could tell you about the presentation of awards between rounds of xuresh and how I was given a beautiful new doshpuluur for my award as "audience's favorite".
OK, so the story of the doshpuluur deserves to be told. Several weeks ago I was thinking about buying a doshpuluur to take back to America and fool around on until I return to Tuva next year. I finally asked Kongar-ool who makes good doshpuluurs and he said 'you need an instrument made by Marat.' When I asked how to get in touch with Marat, he said that Marat was getting ready to go to America and wouldn't be around to make a doshpuluur for me. After the awards ceremony, I approached Kongar-ool and asked him who had made my instrument. He said that it is a Marat -- that he had ordered it specifically for me and left it up to the jury to decide how they were going to award it to me.
Then there was the first gala concert in the theater. As if an entire day of xoomei competition wasn't enough, we all got dressed up once more to give a show to the Tuvan public. I did a short set of refrain songs, including my own first Tuvan composition.
If I were to write about the festival, though, I would have to write about the second gala concert in the xuresh stadium and how, in front of the largest crowd I've seen yet I finally conquered my anxiety about performing publicly. In fact, afterwards I was told by a friend that my performance was too calm and lacked passion. The most exiting part of the festival, though, happened long after everyone else thought it was over. Sunday night, after the second gala concert, I was staying at the yurt camp where I spent my first nights in Tuva last year. At about 2:30 in the morning Kongar-ool showed up with some dozen throat singers and their wives, a few of the other festival organizers, and 20 liters of araka. Everyone was given a large glass of the stuff and we set down to drinking and talking. Soon Choduraa Tumat, the lead singer of the female xoomei ensemble Tyva Kyzy, stood up and sang a verse of poetry, to which someone responded. Soon the call-and-response turned into a competition between the men and the women to see which group could outwit the other in verse. It was the most spectacular display of oral folk culture I've ever seen: dozens of verses were brought up which would never find place in a concert for sober people.
Instead of writing about all that, though, I want to tell you about a second festival that happened this past weekend in Chadan. It didn't get the international coverage of the Dembildey festival, but it was I believe a far more Tuvan experience. The festival itself is called 'Ustuu Xuree,' which means High Temple, dedicated to the great Chadan Buddhist temple that was destroyed in the 30's and which now is beginning to be rebuilt. This is the fourth year of the festival and each year it gets bigger. Before you know it, Chadan might just turn into the next Burning Man. I was travelling with the shamans again -- they had an extra seat in their car -- and we arrived long before the rest of the participants, who were travelling from Kyzyl in a fleet of large Soviet buses. Since we arrived first, and since we arrived with shamans, we were put up in the largest of three yurts set up in a large clearing across the river from town. As more people arrived, they filled up the other two yurts and soon there was a small village of tents set up around the edge of the clearing. This was our home for three long, rainy days, during which time the river kept rising and fewer and fewer of the vehicles were able to make the drive between town and camp.
As with most such events, perhaps the best part of the festival was the time we spent away from the festival in camp. As the shamans had brought their own cook, there was always plenty of food for us. Between meals I played a fair bit of chess, rode some horse, and improved my own lifetime xuresh record to 3-2. One evening, as we were all standing around the largest bonfire I've ever seen, an accordian came out and the village music teacher launched into some rousing polka/circus music, which kicked off another of these impromptu concerts that only the Tuvans can really do right. I faded out at around 2:30 that night, but when I woke up four hours later, the village music teacher was still wandering around with a gleam in his eye.
The festival itself was simply a lot of fun. Billed not as a xoomei festival but as a music festival, it was open to all sorts of acts, including avant-garde vocal and electric cello improvisation and a bit of jazz drumming. I played three times in three days: for the opening concert, the competition itself, and the gala/awards concert, where I was decorated as the best foreign xoomeizhi (for my own honor's sake, I'll leave it to you to ponder how many other foreign xoomeizhis performed). Having spent the last couple of months gearing up for Kongar-ool's festival, it was a real treat to be able to give these low-pressure performances to a room full of the kindest, most supportive audience one can imagine.
On the last day of the festival, before the gala concert, we visited the ruins of the High Temple and I witnessed my first ever Buddhist ceremony. Much as I respect the core values and beliefs of Buddhism, and much as I recognize how listening to a group of men chant in a strange language for many hours can help foster a sort of quietude, I still find a lot of the cosmology and ceremony of Buddhism to be an absolute distraction. I'd much rather spend my time with the shamans, who maintain a very real connection with those things that actually happen to and around them.
After the gala concert that night, most of the participants stayed in town to disco and to drink and to drive back to Kyzyl in the 'morning' (they arrived in Kyzyl, 240 kilometers away, at 9 the next evening). The shamans and I took off right away and drove home under the most spectacular lightning display I've seen since I drove along that same stretch of road a couple of weeks earlier returning from the horse-riding trip.
Apparently I've been appearing on TV fairly frequently of late. People keep telling me that they saw another broadcast of the concert with Andrey Mongush or of a spontaneous performance I gave for a camera crew out at the yurt camp. One person even told me that he saw me in Novosibirsk. I'm becoming pretty well known around town and what's especially good is that many people only know me by my Tuvan name. Hard to believe that I leave Tuva tomorrow. I'm at the point where I miss my friends and family enough and yet I'm having enough fun here that, whether I return to the States or not, I'm sure to have plenty to keep me happy.
It's been a heck of a year here in Tuva. For those of you who are thinking of coming out for next year's symposium, start planning early -- Tuva's too great to miss because of visa problems or money shortages. I'm currently trying to figure out when the earliest is that I can possible return and the longest I can possibly stay. All my friends assure me that next year I will find my Tuvan wife and then there will be no leaving. I'm fairly sure that, as long as there are student loans to be repaid, there will be an important place in my life for American-level wages. Then again, any Tuvan will tell you that the only real wealth is that wealth that multiplies itself -- the wealth that walks around eating grass all summer and rutting in the fall.
And on that note, I'll leave you all. It's been fun sharing stories this year and hearing your feedback. All the best.