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«    December 2008    »
электронный журнал "Новые исследования Тувы"

Tuva trip a dream come true

About 10 years ago, Ed Michaud was driving home to Ellsworth when music came on his car radio unlike any he had heard. The singer seemed to be doing the impossible, vocalizing several different notes simultaneously. “It blew my mind as to how a person could create those sounds with their voice,” Mr. Michaud said.

He learned the music was by Kongar-ool Ondar, one of the masters of Tuvan throat singing. He had to know more, not just about the music, but about the people and culture that produced it.

Mr. Michaud began to listen to, read and collect everything available about throat singing and the Republic of Tuva, which is located in Russia at the southern edge of Siberia.

The sounds a throat singer produces can be considered unearthly, yet it is the traditional music of shepherds and other nomads whose lives are closely tied to the land. Imagine a low, sustained, drone accompanied by the twang of a jaw harp and an eerie whistling melody. If an alien spaceship were to land on the Tuvan steppes, some might say — not unkindly — that the occupants would find the local music not much different than their own.

Mr. Michaud, a musician himself, and the music teacher at the Pemetic Elementary School in Southwest Harbor as well as director of the Ellsworth Concert Band, knew he had to someday visit Tuva and experience this music firsthand. This summer, he got his opportunity.

“I’m calling it a dream come true,” Mr. Michaud said. “For 10 years I’ve been studying this music.”

Mr. Michaud discovered a small company had begun offering tours of the country and he readily signed on for a two-week tour that began at the end of July. Travel time to the remote country added an extra week to the trip and redefined the Maine adage, “You can’t get there from here.”

“It was a long time getting there,” Mr. Michaud said. “It was just forever.”

Here in the United States, one of Mr. Michaud’s flights was delayed, causing him to miss a connecting flight. When he arrived in Moscow, where he had a full-day layover, he found his luggage had been lost. He was also on his own; due to the delay other members of his tour had gone ahead without him.

The next day he took a flight to Abakan, the capital of the Russian Republic of Khakassia. Getting from there to Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva, required a seven-hour taxi trip.

After a white-knuckle ride on dirt roads to Kyzyl, Mr. Michaud caught up with the other eight members of his group. A few days later, his luggage arrived, fetched from Abakan by the son of a newfound acquaintance.

“I got it just before we went for a week of camping,” he said. “I had been living out of my backpack.”

The group traveled to the Tuvan steppes, a flat and mostly treeless region where Mr. Michaud pitched his L.L. Bean tent next to the yurts of nomadic herders. Western visitors are rare in the area; even rarer are those who speak Tuvan.

Mr. Michaud had spent a year studying the Tuvan language with Hancock County language maven Wayne Smith. The lessons proved invaluable.

“I was incredibly grateful to have learned the language,” he said. “It was my window into meeting people. It made the trip so personable.”

Mr. Michaud had also learned to throat sing. “I call it novice throat singing,” he says.

Speaking the language and singing the music made Mr. Michaud somewhat of a celebrity with the Tuvans. He wasn’t shy about sharing his personal story with his hosts, and they rewarded him with admiration, especially the women.

“I got love notes from these women,” he said. “I had to explain to the others in the tour that this doesn’t happen at home.”

The tour of the countryside was supposed to include a visit to a shamanic symposium and a wrestling competition. The Tuvans’ version of wrestling is extremely popular. The competition went off without a hitch, but the visit with the shamans never materialized, which Mr. Michaud learned was not unusual.

“In Tuva they are not great about organizing things,” he said. “You pretty much have to go by the seat of your pants.”

Kyzyl proved to be a sharp contrast with the rural areas. Tuva was once part of the Soviet Union. Uniform concrete block buildings line wide boulevards. Symbols of Buddhism rest beside shrines to Soviet glory. The once-vibrant factories are closed.

“Things are in disrepair,” Mr. Michaud said.

The one bright spot in the economy is the traditional music, he said. A music school for the study of Tuvan music has even opened. And the music is now performed for audiences in clubs.

“It’s turned into a profession,” Mr. Michaud said. “It used to be the music of the herders.”

The high point of his stay in Kyzyl was the Khoomei Symposium and Competition, a multi-day celebration of throat singing. Held every five years, the event is depicted in “Genghis Blues,” a film tracing American blues singer Paul Pena’s discovery of throat singing and his trip to Tuva to take part in the competition. The film influenced Mr. Michaud’s decision to visit the county.

The festivities kick off, as they do in the film, with a parade. Mr. Michaud said he was excited about watching this spectacle but then learned he would be seeing the parade from an entirely different viewpoint. His hosts told him he was to participate. “They said, ‘No, you’re in the parade.’”

Mr. Michaud marched, carrying a sign saying he was an American, along with the members of his tour group and 40 or so other “foreign guests.”

“I could have gone home right then, satisfied,” Mr. Michaud said.

The symposium attracts scholars from around the world; scientific papers on throat singing are presented, Mr. Michaud said. The competition draws the finest musicians. This year the top three singers were members of the Tuvan group Alash, all of whom visited the Pemetic school last year and presented a workshop.

“It was a true joy to go there and visit,” Mr. Michaud said. “It was a truly fascinating trip. The landscapes were beautiful and the people were extremely kind and compassionate.”

But he doesn’t plan on returning soon. It’s an expensive trip, he explained. In the meantime, he’ll have to be satisfied with seeing his friends in Alash when they perform next month in Boston.

Mark Good / Mount Desert Islander
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