Into the Fire
Hello, again, all.
If March went out like a lamb (dirty white, damp, and shivering with cold), April has gone out something like the submarine Kursk: an unexplained collision of large bodies or some kind of explosion of internally unstable elements. It has been an epic week.
Last Monday I found myself back at the city media center, this time to record a radio interview. We arrived right as everyone was going on lunch break, so we weren't able to use the studio. Instead, we went to the table tennis/ billiards room, where Andrey Mongush, a popular young (28 snows) singer and songwriter was rehearsing with his students, an ensemble called Salgal (Legacy) composed of five 10th and 11th graders from my neighborhood. They were preparing for a big concert on Saturday. Before I really knew what was going on, Andrey was asking me to come to rehearsal the next day and to play in the concert. Best way to learn, I suppose.
The rest of the week was spent in rehearsal. We are in the midst of the Russian May holidays (May Day, Orthodox Easter on the 5th, Victory Day on the 9th , making two consecutive two-day work weeks followed by 6- and 5-day weekends) and my teacher is currently in Florida, so there was little to do other than rehearse. Most of the early rehearsals were spent arranging a couple of numbers to play in a big group with members of all the main ensembles in town: Chirgilchin, Changi-Xaya, Salgal, Tuva, Tiva Kizi, and me. Most of the folks I had met before. Changi-Xaya and Salgal I had spent a fair amount of time with. Four days of intensive rehearsals really helped me get more than just a foot in the door with the rest of them.
Listening to the various ensembles rehearse and watching how members of different groups perform together really made me realize how homogenous Tuvan xoomei has become in Kyzyl over the last ten years. Songs which have for a long time been elements of an organic, shifting oral tradition are falling into canonical arrangements, so that a doshpuluur player from Chirgilchin can sit down with an igilist from Salgal to play "Eki Attar" and, without prior discussion, know exactly what introduction to play and what verses to sing when and how. It's somewhat discouraging. All the listening I do on my own is to recordings of performers from the past two or three generations but when I sit down to play with contemporary singers I am always told that "that's not how this song is played," or "that's not the right melody for this set of verses." There are some incredibly talented young performers in Kyzyl these days, but I am afraid that they may never learn the flexibility and improvisation of traditional xoomei, due largely to the lack of widely-available recordings of great performers from the past. My greatest fear is that this will calcify and kill the living art of xoomei, the way that Petrarch, for all his learning, killed off the Latin language by encouraging everyone to speak like Cicero or not speak at all.
Back to the story, on Thursday we moved our rehearsals to the big theater and started the first of several run-throughs. That evening --- that is, two days before the big show --- I was told that, in addition to playing with the group, I was to play a duet with Andrey and that we would work out details at the end of the rehearsal. After the rehearsal, we didn't work out any details, so I figured the idea had been dropped. The next morning --- that is, the day before the big show --- I was told that, instead of playing a duet with Andrey, I was to play a solo number. That evening, when the performers were getting dressed up and people started filling the hall, I realized that we were about to give an open final dress rehearsal. Eight hours after I was told to prepare a solo number, I was on stage performing that solo number. It was the ultimate trial by fire. If singing in front of my friends was still giving me troubles, trying to sing xoomei into a microphone in front of a hall full of people, wearing traditional Tuvan clothes for the first time was almost crippling. My xoomei simply didn't happen, though the whole white-man-speaks-Tuvan phenomenon was worth some major points with the audience.
The next day we gave two performances and I felt more comfortable. My singing was still not at its best and certainly nowhere near the caliber of the other performers, but I was able to have fun on stage and make jokes with the audience. The final result of it all was a much greater confidence in my own performance and a couple bunches of flowers that, as a true ex-pat bachelor, I promptly stuck into a Russian pickling jar the size of my head that two weeks ago was full of last fall's tomatoes, dill, and garlic. I also met a pile of great kids, many of whom kept asking me to translate the English slogans on their adidas and reebok tee-shirts and other miscellaneous articles. I'm still trying to figure out how to translate this "Tuva or Bust" bumper sticker that shows up on cars and guitar cases. In a land where the majority of forest land is yet unowned and timber harvesting is still a question of how much wood you need and what kind of saw you have, I'm also still having difficulty explaining that my father is a timber cruiser and consulting forester. Over the past nine months he has been portrayed alternately as a logger, ranger, manager, and mid-level bureaucrat.
Tuva and Kyzyl continue to surprise and delight. Recently the traffic cops acquired a couple of speed guns and the whole city is discovering the phenomenon of the speed trap. The younger generation is busying itself with rollerblades and bicycles that fold in half. Drab soviet concrete apartment blocks have been somewhat lightened by the presence of vegetable starters in the windowsills. Soon everyone in the city will go out to their dachas to plant a new batch of tomatoes, dill, garlic, and the cucumbers that make the largest pickles I've ever seen.
Excitement continues to mount for this summer's xoomei festival. Helping Kongar-ool a bit has gotten me in contact with a number of xoomei enthusiasts world-wild: from a researcher at Cambridge and a Polish photographer to the French girlfriend of the bassist in an underground Chinese rock band. Among Tuvans, a little bit of conversation usually reveals some sort of familial relationship. (During the last concert, I had a conversation with a young woman who was hanging out backstage. She said she was from Iyme and I commented that it was Kongar-ools hometown. "Oh, yeah," she said, "he's my older brother.") Internationally, it only takes a little bit of searching to find xoomei enthusiasts in places you'd never expect. It may be a large world, but these sounds carry far. I also recently found out from one of the American missionaries currently in town that a guy I went to high school with has been living in Ulan Ude, just to the east of us, for a couple of years now.
I've started a bit of a mission of my own, though it is only questionably religious. After my first ex-pat pizza night, my landlady asked me to teach her how to make Italian food. The whole process has been a lot of fun and I've learned where in Kyzyl one can find things like olive oil and a cheese suitable for pizza. The results have been some of the best pizza and pasta I've ever made. That may, of course, be a simple matter of perspective.
All the best to those of you who are finishing up another year at college this month, at Oberlin or elsewhere. A special pat on the back goes out to those of you who are graduating this time around --- don't take the whole thing too seriously.
More stories as they come.