Flights of Timeless Fancy from Yakutsk to Kaluga: "Put' k Sebe"

Yat-Kha ("Ят-Ха," from Kyzyl in Russia's Tuva Republic)

Put' k Sebe ("Путь к себе") is a Russian music festival that takes place in the Kaluga region, south of Moscow. It operates according to the following bold credo: "Our festival allows everybody to become better acquainted with various spiritual practices and means of self-awareness. Our professional consultants will also help to familiarize you with the ethnic traditions of any national culture - worldwide." In short, while endorsing a folk-specific or "world music" agenda on stage, Put' k Sebe is equally keen on promoting the spiritual foundations of those same compositions. Modern and relevant folk music is married to a deeper understanding of the ancient ideas that inform it. Hence the festival's desire to advertise itself with a short phrase in Russian that's translatable as "Path to Oneself."

Traditional knowledge is synonymous with self-awareness. An ancient heritage, lacking any discernible author, can become the soundtrack to humbling, improved forms of selfhood. The future is best approached through a deeper understanding of the past.

The mysterious energy of the boundless Tuva steppe

For that reason, Put' k Sebe this year involved a wide range of musicians already known to FFM and whose work is closely tied to pre-modern practice: Boris Grebenshchikov, BarakaYarga Sound System, Bubamara Brass Band, and others. Here we take a quick look at four other outfits, new to this site, but long tied to the worldview of the festival.

It makes sense, perhaps, to start maximally far from Moscow - in Kyzyl. Roughly 2,300 miles from the capital and close to the Mongolian border, Kyzyl is home to a substantial stone monument that declares itself the "Center of Asia," at least from a geographic point of view. The town is also home to the outfit known as Yat-Kha: "This folk-rock project embodies the mysterious energy of the boundless Tuva steppe, together with the mighty local forests and all the force of modern rock music." The same marriage of things old and new appears elsewhere in the band's PR materials: "This group doesn't just perform songs of everyday life, as so many 'ethnic' outfits tend to do. Yat-Kha also play the war songs of Chinghiz Khan and the narratives of an ancient, nomadic time. Our repertoire even includes genuinely magical songs of the shamans." 

The issue of transformation will continue to be important for the Put' k Sebe ensembles.

 Zhili-Byli and Sergei Starostin (R)

Yat-Kha has a long history, stretching back to debut recordings in 1991 - but a fundamental confusion surrounding the band's name endures. The musicians explain: "We're not entirely sure ourselves what it stands for. It does, nonetheless, sound somewhat like a [local] phrase, meaning 'Big Brother and Little Brothers.' That might suggest we're referring to Grand Russia our our Poor Tuva, but it turns out that our Little Brother was much better off than people thought..."

Here the reference is logically to Tuva's mineral wealth that promises so much economically "in the middle of nowhere." The sense of pride audible from Yat-Kha goes far beyond any audience expectations of fairground ritual or cultural cliche. It's clearest whenever the artists encounter condescending questions regarding their presumed desire to move westwards, at least to Moscow. Surely Yat-Kha would like to escape from Kyzyl? "No. We'd rather go home, to our villages. There's genuinely fresh air there. Snow. And a sense of freedom, too."

Fresh air. Snow. And a sense of freedom, too

This assumption that pre-modern performance speaks to greater liberties is widespread at the festival. One of the most famous exponents of that idea in this year's lineup would be Zhili-Byli ("Once Upon a Time"), together with their nationally admired frontman Sergei StarostinZhili-Byli are, in essence, a trio: Taisya Krasnopevtseva, Sergei Klevensky, and Marian Kaldararu. Starostin himself is an ethnographer, collector of folk instruments, and virtuoso performer. Together they like to categorize their work as either "world music" or "ethno-jazz," at least for the benefit of newcomers. 

Starostin, although a Muscovite, says his interest in folk music arose as a result of socialist culture. "When a [post-war] movement began to restore Russian cities, there was a simultaneous and massive destruction of village life. In fact the mass exodus from villages began back in the 1950s - my own parents left their rural home at that time." The unnatural transition from grassy fields to bricks and asphalt happened so fast that a vital heritage was slowly forgotten. "All you had to do [after that Soviet policy] was take part in a single ethnographic expedition and you'd be transported back to your native culture." 

Olga Podluzhnaya from Yakutsk

Various rhythms were destroyed in Soviet cities. "It's only in the countryside that you really feel the changing of the seasons. You feel the processes that are bound to the earth. For a village dweller, springtime doesn't just mean the end of cold and snow; it also marks the preparations for sowing. Something else that's different is the never-ending sense of 'festivity' in city life. In villages, however, there are set times for work - and times for rest or celebration, too. That's why villagers feel the joy of celebration more keenly. It's as if their energy gets built up [during manual, seasonal labor]."  

Village culture will become that of farmers...

Also of concern is the "increasing loss of regional craftsmen, dialects, and other phenomena. I can't say what will come next. I cannot even imagine what'll happen to the Russian language. Village culture will become that of farmers... And farmers, in essence, don't really differ from people who live in the Big City [given their commercial and scientific know-how]. The one biggest discrepancy between these two spheres is that rural people are totally self-sufficient, both domestically and culturally." 

Just as Yat-Kha see a paradoxical, yet striking freedom in the movement away from "progress," so Starostin and Zhili-Byli view the breakdown of self-sufficient communities as gradual enslavement to the vacuity of city life. The grander the urban setting, the more one's liberty is sacrificed to a range of indifferent, even soulless processes. 

For these sad reasons, the organizers at Put' k Sebe like to look as far from Moscow as possible for participants - both geographically or historically. The further, the better. One such example of distant inspiration would be Olga Podluzhnaya from Yakutsk. The Sakha (Yakutia) Republic is enormous: only slightly smaller than India, it is home to a mere million people. India houses over a billion. Given that disparity, it should come as no surprise that the region's history is one of nomadic peoples. The first, tenuous settlements probably appeared in the thirteenth century; Russian forces would not arrive for another four hundred years - and not until the nineteenth century would these wide open, often frozen lands be managed by Moscow in any real way.

Turbodzen, exponents of a "trance-like" vargan heritage 

Although nature offers much - in terms of minerals and forestry, for example - in the public's mind Yakutia is still associated with political exiles and various geographic cliches, all of which concern unmanageable distance. The republic's capital - Yakutsk - does little to lessen those assumptions of epic solitude. Founded as a seventeenth-century fort, it would not grow discernibly until the late nineteenth century, when gold was discovered. Almost nobody, in other words, wanted to live here. Stalin's plans for regional labor camps occurred along similarly heartless lines, increasing both material gain and human woe.

Even in today's infinitely gentler society, Mother Nature continues to apply the screws: Yakutsk in wintertime enjoys the lowest temperatures of any city on Earth. The emergence of rather warm summers - every so often - means the city also witnesses the greatest differences between heat and cold worldwide. Given that much of Yakutsk is built upon permafrost, there's no guarantee the sun won't transform terra firma into something boggy.

For that reason, most urban buildings stand on a complex system of concrete pillars - just in case.

An ability to summon ancient imagery, accompanied by the voices of nature

Here lives Olga Podluzhnaya, an expert performer on the xomus (or "khomus"), a traditional jaw harp. Having passed through a classical musical education while young, Podluzhnaya started to attend xomus lessons. Over time her skill would grow to the point where Put' k Sebe can, with justification, describe her on-stage flair as "something absolutely fantastic. The sounds from this tiny instrument will summon ancient imagery in your mind. Those same images will be accompanied by the voices of nature." The soundtrack to a departure from modernity comes in suitably mobile forms. 

The same "voices" also have much appeal in Moscow itself, specifically within the capital's trio known as Turbodzen. The project was founded six years ago by friends Nikolai Sobolev and Maksim Bulygin. Playing on the very similar Russian jaw harp known as a vargan, these artists like to define their own material as "ethno-trance." A different form of escapism transpires - to the simple accompaniment of vargans from various parts of the world, all the way from Yakutia to Hungary and India. "The music allows you to dance, meditate, practice yoga, and even - considering the vargan's healing powers - rid yourself of various bad spirits." 

Voronovo Krylo ("Raven's Wing") from Perm

Given those flights of fancy, it perhaps makes sense to return home, specifically to the work of Voronovo Krylo ("Raven's Wing") from Perm. Drawing basically upon the more ritualistic songs of Russian folklore, the group - whatever their proximity to modern Moscow - also like to speak of "trance-like" elements within their reconstructive craft. "It's as if you're returning to the imagery of some ancient, half-forgotten faiths or shamans." It's not uncommon, therefore, to see songs by Voronovo Krylo tagged as "ethno-ambient" and "ethno-ritual," even.   

A bardic tradition, with no distinction between musical and magical knowledge

The band's name comes from a common element within shamanistic dress: a Perm outfit takes inspiration from the furthest possible source. In the same wandering spirit, these musicians happily admit to the lasting influence of "skomorokh" or minstrel culture from medieval Slavic territories. "The skomorokhs were something like Irish bards, people who saw no distinction between musical and magical knowledge." That sense of transformation becomes - for Voronovo Krylo - the simple ability to feel as if one is elsewhere. "We perform all kinds of songs; they might be frightening, 'immersive,' or simply jolly..." Those occasionally extreme or cathartic states are apparently lacking at present.

This theme of emotional release arises in several interviews with Voronovo Krylo. "Some songs, of course, preserve a [mere] concern with domestic issues. Others, however, still have a profound resonance. They've reached our times with minimal changes and are still employed - in the ritual sense. We really feel [the impact of] those works! There may be nothing more than an apparently superficial level of phrasing: themes of somebody coming or going, stories about a man or woman, somebody being born or dying, the harvest being sown or reaped - those things are always related in fixed images and symbols. Nonetheless, they lead us deeper... We want to make that [deeper significance] clearer in our arrangements. We want to grant people an opportunity to feel these songs." 

For all the talk of self-discovery, trance-like states, and neo-psychedelia, it would seem that a fundamental aspect of Put' k Sebe is much simpler. Just as Sergei Starostin demarcates the sad differences between city and field, commerce and collaboration, so the organizers and artists of Put' k Sebe hope to reinstate a "magical" and spontaneous sense of engagement with the world. It may be couched in terms of shamans and skormorokhs, but the basic goal is unfettered, even inexplicable joy - something that's apparently fading fast.

Robust sounds from an ailing structure: Voronovo Krylo 


Yat-Kha – Amdy Baryp
Zhili-Byli – Easter Song
Voronovo Krylo – Mermaid's Dance Song
Turbodzen – Mountain River (Pagrupog)
Zhili-Byli – Venok (Garland)

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