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Elisabeth Gordon: Australia is my home, but my heart is in Tuva

Elisabeth Gordon: Australia is my home, but my heart is in Tuva"Today I see your look is especially sad, and your arms are so slender, hugging your knees.

Listen: far, far away by Lake Chad, an elegant giraffe is wandering in the breeze."

There, to Africa, to Lake Chad, where Nikolai Gumilev's elegant giraffe is still wandering, is where Elisabeth Gordon wanted to go from Australia - to study musical traditions of Nigeria.

But she ended up on another continent: in Russia, in Tuva, where there are no African drums, but instead there is women's khoomei, the mystery of which bewitched  the young Australian woman.

And now Elisabeth has two families - Australian and Tuvan. Two mothers and fathers.

Two brothers and sisters.

And two houses. The only difference is that in her home in Brisbane, there are Spaniels, and in her home in Kyzyl, there is a Tuvan sheepdog, who barks with excitement when Elisabeth plays the igil.




- Elisabeth, how did these adventures of an Australian woman begin?

-  It started with a dissertation about music. My whole life is dedicated to music. I was born in Brisbane on 20 September 1985. I began to learn playing the fortepiano at the age of 2 years, to sing at 10, and at 13 I started to take professional lessons in vocals. My parents invested a lot of strength and money into it. And I did not disappoint them: I graduated from Queensland University as a musicologist.

After graduation I was expected to write a dissertation, but I could not come up with a subject for it for a long time. At first I wanted to write about music of Nigeria. But at the University I was told: "No, we won't let you go there. It is no place for a woman alone!"

So I had to think some more. Chance helped. My father was watching TV, and there was a broadcast about Tuvan musical culture. I heard this unusual singing and ran out of my room; it was khoomei. I was especially interested in the female version. I understood right away - this was it, this is what I will write about, it is an unique theme!

I came to the university, and I told them: "Russia. Tuva. Throat singing." And they answered: "We don't know anything about it. It is too complicated, and too far away.  Pick something else.."

But I did not want to pick another subject. So I decided to defend my dissertation at Australian national university, at the capital - Canberra. There was no problem there. They said: "It's your project - do it."

That was in early 2009. Right away I started to search on the Internet and in libraries everything about Tuva and its music: in English and in Russian. There was not all that much information.

-  Did you know Russian language at that time?

-  Not a word. I started to learn just for that purpose. I was very lucky - an Ukrainian woman lived nearby. Her Russian was very good, she had lived in Moscow for 40 years. So I began to take lessons from her. True, not very often. Once, maybe twice a week.

Only there was very little conversation practice. We almost always spoke in English during the lessons. We paid more attention to written language and grammar.  You agree, it is difficult to learn a language in this way. But I was persistent, after all I had a long trip ahead of me.


-  How did you get to Tuva?

-  Oh, that was a very complicated trip. I thought about the route for several months.

At first I wanted  to get to Kyzyl from Abakan by a taxicab. Bu then I decided that after all I don't know Russian language well enough for such a desperate step.

I envisioned - here I fly into Abakan - I don't know anybody, I know practically no language, so what should I do - sit in the street and cry plaintively: "Kyzyl! Kyzyl! Where is Kyzyl?"

I decided not to tempt fate and to fly to Kyzyl from Novosibirsk. But first I had to get to Novosibirsk!

Start with an 8-hour flight from Brisbane to Singapore. A 5-hour wait there. Then a flight to Moscow - 12 hours. Again a wait at the airport. Eight hours later, finally to Novosibirsk. I had to spend the night there. And only from there - to Kyzyl. I have never had to go on long flights like that before.

On 6 April 2010 I finally got to Kyzyl.


-  Your first thought?

-  I thought that everything was much better than I expected. Already on the plane I understood that it is much more beautiful here than I thought. In the window I saw the sky, mountains, steppe. But my idea of Tuva was very vague: I thought they all live in yurts, animals all around, there may not even be any electricity. I was ready for anything.

But now! Normal toilets in apartments, cell phone connections, internet. Not a single yurt. I was a bit upset about not finding any yurts in Kyzyl, but later I got to see as many as I needed, traveling through the districts.

Of course, it was difficult to get used to a new way of life. A different culture, different people - everything was different. But then I began to see more and more familiar things. "Nescafe" coffee, "Nesquik", even "IKEA" store. All of this was familiar. So I thought: "Everything is all right, I can live here."




-  So you went totally into the unknown?

-  Not completely. When I studied the literature about Tuva, I happened to find ethnomusicologist Valentina Suzukei's work about khoomei. So I wrote to her at her electronic address. And she helped me so much! She answered that I could live with her friends Orlan and Khimikmaa Saryglar. The plan was for me to live there only for a couple of months, but then they proposed  that I stay there. They are very, very nice people. And the have very important professions. Orlan works in the sphere of informational technologies, and Khimikmaa is an obstetrician-gynecologist; she works in the perinatal center and obstetric hospital #2.

They are like real relatives to me now. I call them my Tuvan mom and dad. They themselves suggested that I call them that. They said: "We are your family."

My Tuvan dad Orlan even thought of an answer to the question: "And who is Elisabeth, and why is she living with you?" , which is something that he is often asked. He answers: "She is my daughter. When I studied in Moscow, her mother came there from Australia. And now she brought Elisabeth to Tuva, saying: meet your daughter, bring her up." Dad is only joking, but many believe it - the dates look just right.

They really are like real parents to me. And I also have a Tuvan brother and sister: Amir and Anita. We live with Anita in the same room. At first it was simple: I could chat on the phone in English, and Anita did not understand anything. But now my sister  understands English and secrets are not so easy. She also jokingly complains: "Before I could talk to my friends as much as I wanted - Elisabeth did not understand. But now she understands!"

-  Do you miss your Australian family?

-  Of course. I miss my mother and father, and my younger brother and sister: Lachlan and Meredith.

Papa, Sidney George Gordon is an architect, now retired, he likes to play golf. Mama, Bronwen Nancy Gordon is a pedagogue, she works with people with psychological disorders - autism, Down's syndrome, and year after year she teaches them methodically simple living skills.

And three Spaniels live with us in Australia. We gave them names from Jane Austen's book "Pride and Prejudice". So now we have Mr. Darcy, Bailey and Austin running around the house.

I communicate with my parents by e-mail and Skype. I send them packages for holidays. I sent a green Tuvan hat to my brother. Lachlan likes it very much, and wears it all over Brisbane.


-  Did you learn any new things from your Tuvan parents?

-  My Tuvan mom taught me to cook national dishes. True, I have not tried it without help. And now I can also weed a vegetable garden! I learned so much about it. It turned out that there are three kinds of onions. Who would have thought so!  I never did anything like this before, I knew nothing about vegetable gardens: in Brisbane we only have a lawn in front of the house, and garden in the back. But there are no vegetables - only flowers.

Oh, I almost forgot! Orlan and Khimikmaa taught me to ski. I tried it only once before, when I was nine, in New Zealand. That ti9me I fell almost right away, it was not fun at all. But here at the station "Taiga" I put on the skis and I went. And this time I did not fall.

Also my Tuvan parents were the first ones to start teaching me Tuvan language, then my new friends joined in. my favorite Tuvan word is "chaa", now I end all the phone conversations with that. It is a very versatile word, it can mean at the same time: yes, I agree, good. And it can be used to say good-bye.

And, of course, "azhyrbas". Again it is only one word, and there is so much in it: we made an agreement, normal, I agree - it is even difficult to pick just one meaning for a translation.



And, I am sure, your Russian has improved, too?

-  Of course. When I first came, I pronounced many words incorrectly. For example, I told my Tuvan mom: I am riding in a matrushka. The whole family then tried to figure out what I had in mind. Then they explained it:  that is what I called a marshrutka. They tease me about it to this day: "So, Elisabeth, are you going to ride a matrushka again?"

I do not allow mistakes like that anymore. My Russian is now much better. I took Russian at the Tuvan State University. It was difficult. My instructor Alevtina Tarymaa did not speak any English. So that during the first lessons we both sat there with open dictionaries. Later it became easier. Now she speaks English and my Russian has improved.

But I still have problems with grammar. Especially with the tenses and with verbs. The first verb - poseshchat' (to visit).  So many different variants - posetit', poseshchal, posetim. Many-many-many!! I sit there, writing it all down, thinking in horror: "No, we don't need so much! Enough! The next verb, please!"

But Alevtina Viktorovna thought that my grammar is better than the rest of it. And all that was because my Tuvan sister , a sixth-grader, was doing all my homework!

-  What inspires you in Tuva?

-  First and foremost, of course, music. That is what I especially came here to study. But it turned out that it is so closely interconnected with the whole way of life in Tuva, with the culture. Life is simpler her, and that is good. Everything is very quiet, without hurry, deliberate.

At home it is just money, money, noise and money. But here it sometimes seems that people do not really need all this.

-  And what do you really dislike?

-  The streets are very filthy. Very. At home, if I see somebody dropping garbage on the street, I come up to them and I say: "Oh, pick it up, please. Throw it into the garbage basket." And the person obeys.

I do not do this in Kyzyl; I am afraid that they will have a rough answer. I have not heard once anybody else to reprimand anybody, for example, an adult to a child. The adults themselves throw everything on the ground, as if it should be like that.

Sometimes it seems to me that it is the fault of civilization, which was brought to Tuva together with alcohol. Traditional Tuva is completely-completely different.



-  And did you have a chance to see Tuva beyond Kyzyl?

-  And how! I have visited many districts with the National Orchestra: Mongun-Taiga, Bai-taiga, Erzin, Ovyur, Pii-Khem, Chaa-Khol. I have even visited Kungurtug, which is difficult to get to.

-  How did you get into the Orchestra?

-  It was totally by chance. Valentina Suzukei introduced me to Choduraa Tumat from "Tyva Kyzy" ensemble. Choduraa told me a lot about female khoomei and about Tuvan music. And she brought me together with other musicians. Many people from the National Orchestra were among them: Zhenya Saryglar, Maiya Dupchur, Andrei Mongush, Sean Quirk.

This year, before Shagaa holiday, Tuvan new Year, was the first time I played with the National orchestra. Afterwards the artistic director and conductor of the National orchestra, Ayana Mongush, proposed to me to play more often with them, to play the piano. I agreed right away: it is both musical practice, research for the dissertation, and a chance to see the whole Tuva.

Sometimes I even forget that I am not a Tuvan myself. When we travel around the kozhuuns, I never see any European faces, I hear only Tuvan speech and I begin to feel like I am Tuvan, too. Before, I never liked to perform on the stage, I was shy. But here! Such good, sincere people!

-  Did you learn to play any Tuvan folk instruments?

-  Yes, the igil. Zhenya Saryglar is my teacher. Usually I prefer to play at home, only for myself. It is easier to concentrate, I am not that good yet with this instrument.

I played the igil in public in September 2010 - at the "Dembildei" festival, with Choduraa Tumat and Japanese student Mao Terado. And then once more - in Khovu-Aksy village, in April of 2011. We performed together with my teacher Zhenya  and the group "Ugulza".

-  Haven't you forgotten your dissertation?

-  I have done a lot of preliminary work and I have a lot of notes, but the dissertation is not ready. There is so little time1 there are always places to go with my friends - musicians: now here, now there. But I keep convincing myself that it is also research. Even when they give me khan - that is also research of Tuvan culture. Isn't it?"

-  What other Tuvan dishes have you tried?

-  Almost everything. But I just can't understand salted tea with milk. And that there is very much meat. but dishes made of barley flour - dalgan - are very tasty.

-  How did you survive our pronounced continental winter?

-  It was not as bad as I thought it would be. In Australia, of course, there is no snow, but when I was little we vacationed in new Zealand, and I saw snow.

But I have never experienced such cold as here. But event hat was not awful. One just has to dress correctly for it. My first winter, I asked my Tuvan parents: "What do I need?" And they helped me to sort it all out.

Now I have warm winter boots, a hat, cashmere sweater, warm things from yak wool. That way it is safe to go outside. I like very much to walk in the snow. You walk, and behind you there is the sound - crunch-crunch.

-  So, maybe you will stay in Tuva?

-  I have to leave on 4 December. I don't even know how I will get home.

Australia is my home, but my heart is here.

There is an English expression about this: home is where the heart is.

Nadia Antufieva, "Center of Asia", translated by Heda Jindrak
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