English language Web site on current affairs in the biggest russian region
18:58 | Dec 02 | 2011

Beat the drum!

In search of the forgotten rhythm.

Only few of us think about the rhythm of our lives. Meanwhile, every man and even every nation has it. And for everyone it is individual. This rhythm appears in us in mother`s womb – following the sound of her heart. Maybe that's why exactly drums more than any musical instruments arise this particular "ancient" feeling in our hearts and thoughts.

In the old times the whole life of the Yakuts was accompanied by the drums sacred beat. But this instrument has lost its significance and almost disappeared in the Yakut culture with the advent of modern times. Today merely a group of enthusiasts tries to "return it to life". One of them is our today`s companion. This is William Yakovlev, an honored figure of Culture of Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, a famous anthropologist, General Manager of the architecture and ethnography complex "Ysyakh Tuymaada," the president of the "Ytyk Sir association".

From birth to death
- William, will you tell us what is known about the history of Yakut drums, please?

- In the past there were several types of Yakut percussion instruments. The most important was, apparently, tabyk. Its use had some deep sacred meaning. The beat of tabyk accompanied the Yakuts during particular moments of their lives: on wedding, birth of a child, during the annual Yssyakh (seeing the New Year in) and its final beat was heard when someone died.
Totally there were 18 species of tabyks. The biggest tabyks were sewn from the skins of the nine horses. But the most popular were small tabyks made from one cowhide.
- For what other cases drums were used?
- Yakut percussion instruments were often used to convey information. From alas to alas the drumbeats announced of war, epidemics and the convening of meetings. The bigger was the drum, the more important information it transmitted. In Suntar ulus there was "Oydu", a large drum made of nine skins.

Commissioners did their best
- Why did the drum lose its significance?

- The researchers associate this mainly with the spread of Christianity in Yakutia. Evidently, drums, tambourines and other percussion instruments symbolized paganism for the priests. Unlike the khomus history there was a decline in drum instruments using in Yakutia in the XVIII century. In XX century the situation turned worse with the Soviet government, when political workers strongly associated various drums with shamanism stuff and actively struggled against this.
- And in the end a long-run tradition of drum music was almost forgotten...
- Yes, right. Only recently we started to revive the lost part of our culture. Almost everything was forgotten: how to make tools, how and when to play. But the saddest loss is a loss of a thing that belongs only to us - the Yakut rhythm. The rhythm of our native land, the rhythm of the forest, of the alases. What was it like? No one knows now. But we are looking for it. And I think sooner or later we will succeed. People who were taught by the ancestors how to make traditional percussion instruments and how to play them still live in the Yakutia villages.

Permafrost acoustics
- How do you get knowledge about the "drum history"?

- Mainly due to the archaeological findings. We found ancient, long forgotten kinds of percussion instruments. But only experts on "drum art" may tell us how to make them and how to play them. Besides archeology, ethnographic and cultural researches are used to help us reduce blind spots in our knowledge.
- What are you focused on in your studies?
- Now we are involved into deep study of the ritual use of percussion instruments. One of the most important issues is how they have been played. And the answer is directly related to the specifics of the Yakut drums. As we know, the volume of musical instruments, drums especially, is connected with the drumming acoustic resonance and its effect on the human body. Therefore it is crucial to choose a location for a drum. At the same time the terrain relief, season and weather conditions were seriously taken into consideration.
- Speaking of weather conditions by the way. They are mostly harsh in republic...
- Permafrost makes drums sound unusual as the sound reflected from the frozen ground is rather specific. And our ancestors also took that into consideration. And we want to know more about it.

The Yakut rhythm will be revived
- And what about the young people? Is there anyone to receive this knowledge?

- Yes, there are many of such guys, luckily. In "Coy Duaraan" which is our experimental laboratory in the Archie House (Center for Yakuts` Spiritual Culture) children learn to play national musical instruments. There are lots of those who wish, but only 5-8 are selected out of 50 applicants. Our bands already take part in the international ethnic festivals. At the same time it should be noted that earlier khomus as well as Olonkho epos represented these parts of the traditional culture of Yakutia that were almost forgotten. But nowadays we see their revival. Olonkho was declared as a world cultural masterpiece and khomus arranged harp music international congresses for the second time in Yakutia. These instruments are explored, musicians experiment with them, and the Republic itself is strongly associated with these two cultural traditions.
I hope that our traditional drum music, all the rituals associated with it, the play and production technology will be revived.