A plea for help to the intrepid new Folk Roots hack came from the depths of a frosty land already locked in the primeval struggle with nature. For those of you who enjoy the odd music festival in the Greene and Pleasante, or who venture even further afield to continental Europe and beyond -- make yourselves a hot cup of cocoa, tuck each other in and shiver. The following is not to be tried at home, not at least until the next Ice Age is upon us and genetically re-engineered mammoth roam the gentle plains of Lincolnshire.
Try what you ask? Go to a folk music festival in Sakha, the republic formerly known as Yakutia in December. Where's that you ask? Away in the north-eastern corner of Siberia, Russia, CIS, Asia; the size of Western Europe and home to just a few million humans belonging to assorted northern tribes, sadly diminishing Inuit-style, the majority of Yakut (Sakha) and a hotch-potch of Russian colonists and Gulag survivors. Not to mention a few million wolves, bears, mink, and caribou, many whom have died recently with their feet stuck in ice thanks to sudden global-warming induced thaws and equally sudden returns to normal seasonal temperatures of -35ºC. Then of course there's a few billion dollars worth of diamonds stuck deep in the ground and poor old de Beers' continuing frustrations to negotiate a monopoly price out of wily old Sakha President Nikolaev. Finally, there's a determined bunch of artists, writers and musicians thawing out from the long Soviet cultural ice-age, in which their culture was diverted into "proper channels", shamans were sent to the Gulag and folk music was consigned to the happy smiling pigeon hole of life. I wondered what was left. It was December. February would be -60ºC. I decided to go.
Amongst this crew of cultural aktivisti is the person who made the cry for help. Misha Maltsev is very keen to connect his far outpost of humanity to the rest of the world. He is the guiding pen behind the free all-music-all-concept fanzine Nomad, lone DJ on the local Yakutsk radio with his show Oasis devoted "to the ecelctica of music with in-depth coverage to distribute cultural viruses", organiser of multi-media art happening Indikator and a central figure in the annual Tabyk music festival held (almost) every December in the capital, Yakutsk. Misha and everyone working at Tabyk/Nomad act as the only contact for North-Siberian and far-eastern folk music activities in the world. By the way, that's far-eastern in the Russian sense, meaning Kamchatka and beyond, not the beautiful balmy Bali or ordinary old Osaka.
Despite being the only resident of Yakutsk to be able to mix colloquial street German and English slang together in a clear seamless whole, Misha was failing to reach a certain famous London DJ, who had first agreed to come to Tabyk and then got prematurely cold feet. In London? Despite Misha's best attempts, this denizen of the decks was playing hard-to-get and not bothering to fax back. A flurry of email and Big Chill chap Mr. Pete Lawrence valiantly roped himself in at short notice to spin a night of world-rave-ambient grooves for the Sakha posse. So it was we left a +5ºC London for a -5ºC Moscow clutching hastily-assembled official invitations, DATs, musical instruments and as much clothing as fitted inside itself in as many layers as possible. We had been warned.
Clothing: 3 pairs of trousers (long-johns, track-suit & baggy jeans), furry-on-the-inside boots big enough for 2 pairs of socks, 2 scarves (one for the neck and one for the face and nose), simple vest, T-shirt, shirt with pockets, bomber jacket and padded-cotton coat and a big (preferably fur) hat covering the neck, ears and brow and finally serious gloves (inner and outer). Oh yes, and next time I'll go I'll be treating myself to double underpants (one oversized and one normal) Well, better safe than castrate, eh? And as for Pete, what can I say? Michelin man, watch out.
In Moscow I stayed with Tuvan singer Albert Kuvezin -- basso profundo extraordinaire of the Tuvan folk-rock group Yat-Kha, winner of the RFI prize "Decouvertes 1996" and currently at an inter-faith conference featuring a major meeting between shamans of the world -- Amazonian through Siberian -- and all major religions under the auspices of HH Dalai Lama. I was going to be playing Tabyk with Yat-Kha. Also staying there was the artist wife of a Yakut-Sakha musician Misha who gave me a present to take to her husband: namely, a pair of genuine fashionable British Dr. Martens boots. So, clutching this and various other presents and packages, our party of 50+ musicians, including Russian "Popsa stars", Moscow folk-punksters and Leningrad rockists, all boarded a "Diamond Air" Ilyushin at Sheremyetevo terminal 1 and set off across 7 time-zones for deepest darkest Yakutsk.
As duty-free vodka passed between rows, some slept, some chattered the night away, we flew over the frozen wastes below, the dark only occasionally interrupted by the lights of Siberian cities. At 7am a light snack was served (tea). You could feel the plane shudder as the cabin crew jauntily announced the outside temperature: a mere -50ºC. We exited the plane to a stark choice -- one old stationary bus or a brisk 200m walk. After about 3 nanoseconds glance at the frozen windowpanes of the bus we made across the frozen tarmac for the arc-lights of the main airport building, just visible through the haze of the dense frost-fog. The far-north early morning darkness enveloped everything, every drop of moisture froze in the nostrils, and thawed and refroze pulling at the hairs and skin inside in a most peculiar way; every breath through the mouth stung the lungs until you learnt to stick to the nasal passage method. It was cold, very cold indeed. I felt a slight hysteria around me, a desperation born of an extremity I had never encountered.
Five hours later -- all of us properly baked by the sweltering heat of a hotel room and 50cl bottles of local vodka brought to us by our kind Yakut artist guide Olga and other assorted cheery local musicians -- we gave musician Misha his Dr. Martens. He took them with pride -- "real English boots", said he and paused. "Maybe OK for summer". I loked down at his traditional thick leather Siberian boots with thick 2" felt soles lined inside and out with sheepskin and fur. "What fur?", I asked. "My old dog!" came the reply. "Ah, even in death...", I reflected and started unpacking instruments for the night's performance.
The vodka called Bulus flowed; apart from tasting like a very high-grade Gin, it is safe to say that this is "probably the oldest vodka in the world". Distilled from solid blocks of prehistoric glacial ice, this very recherché and cheeky little number has fine length and herbal bouquet which gives one no headache the morning after. Our grapplings with the dubious pleasures of stroganina (frozen sashimi fished straight from the river Lena) downed with this extraordinary liquor helped us to the first of many moments in which we decided Yakutsk was really not a bad place after all. Soon enough, we descended to the permafrost level, jeeps arrived on and off we skidded into evening darkness, clutching instruments and fearing frostbite.
The Tabyk festival is held in the main concrete sports hall of Yakutsk. Very much a youth affair, the nightly audience of 1500+ was less than usual due to the fact that many stayed away because of the unseasonably cold weather. A more temperate -35ºC might have doubled the number.
The festival opened with a strong performance from the 50-strong national folk-dance company who entered from the side against a wild modernist backdrop of lights and dry-ice, in a long line with eerie half-whispered chants, their arms linked and lifted up and down in waves like birds' wings. Dressed in traditional far-northern style caribou-tasselled buckskins, the clothes, the embroidered headbands and bits and the wonderful unfamiliar features lent them an amazing look. The line struck a still jagged pose -- more Sovietesque than trad I felt -- while 2 old Yakut shamans (male and female) came on and lit ritual ceremonial fires sprinkling various liquids, horse-hairs and herbs onto it and muttering and chanting good wishes for the festival in Sakha. Smelt well strange. Once that was over, we were treated to a wonderful chanting line-dance -- the boys offering huge grunts and exhalations and the girls high-pitched birdy noises. Faster and faster they went till they turned into a circle, round and round till you could see their eyes gleaming in the multi-coloured half-light, laughing. "A northern dance, probably Evenk" -- said Olga and Misha.
As they exited stage right the waiting national instrumental folk ensemble struck up -- an extraordinary mash of post-Soviet ultra-arrangements played on indecipherable trad Yakut string instruments and backed up by furious bashings on some sort of Yakut drums. Confused? Well, I was wondering when we were going to get some folk-folk when the very wonderful Khatylaevs Family trio appeared. They seemed to have come straight out of the forests, dressed in more buckskin and trad hats; playing real rootsy spike fiddle, drum, khomuz (jaws-harp) and singing alternately in the high yodelled style and making horse noises.
Before I could think "Is this it?", on came the legendary Soviet folk-rock group Cholbon, to whom I owe my life. Singer Alyosha swapped me his own muskrat fur hat for the useless thermal thing I'd bought in eco-friendly London. I protested his generosity -- "Take or die!" he replied. I am alive.
Cholbon, now minus the other half of their charismatic double frontsperson line-up, Nikifor, due to weirdnesses beyond our ken, come from a little hick town 500km out from Yakutsk. They can rehearse all year, except May which is when it is too dangerous for bassist Namuri to make it over the unthawed river to the other side. Now with Sakha's #1 actress and performer Stepanida Borisova also out front, they mix traditional Sakha singing and the rock-solid Yakut "lurch" beat to weave themselves manic shamanic atmospheres that occupy space somewhere between Can and the Grateful Dead. But the sound is totally unique, quite unlike anything we westerners know.
By the time it was Yat-Kha's turn to play I had almost forgotten what exactly the difference was between folk and rock, so different and so intense is the music and energy that everyone seems to emit here. More local bands came and went until the atmosphere was diverted by Russian "Popsa" star Zhanna Guzarova who came onstage to a standard practice backing-tape-mimed performance lasting 20 minutes. Some audience were understandably cross having paid upwards of $15 for a ticket. Unknown Leningrad rock trio Tequila Jazz continued the slew away from the Sibe Vibe, though the audience went along with it proving that a good drummer and clear arrangements can't be beat.
Matters were brought back to the point with the last-minute arrival of Ay-Tal, who nearly didn't make it for all the frost-fog that had grounded most flights. The band have moved on from the more experimental phase they were in at the WOMEX in Berlin '93, when they turned up dressed in raw reindeer skin leathers and wigs and smelt like an entire herd of the things from 30m. Their sound is now far more based around traditional folk singing, though polyphonic with 5 or 6 of them at the mic (it was hard to count by that point, thanks to the Bulus which never seemed to run out -- so concerned were our hosts with our health). The band struck up many old favourites for an enthusiastic crowd.
The Big Chill took off on the last night and the sounds of London ambient/freestyle floated to the roof of Yakutsk's main sports hall. Pete escaped a day or two late but Yat-Kha were well and truly stuck thanks to the fog. So that gave us the chance to check up a ballet/opera centred around the struggles between dark and light with the lashings of shamanism and heroism thrown in, written by the same bashing percussionist from the national Folk Orchestra. Very MIDI it was and if I described it as hyper-Gothic, I would probably be guilty of understatement.
Five days later the fog lifted and we said our good-byes to our dear friends -- Olya, the Mishas, Marina, Yasha and all kind people who had taken such good care of us. We crawled out of the hotel Sterkh slightly par-boiled but in one piece and took a Kras-Air flight (add an "H" in there somewhere and you're not far off the company statement) to Krasnoyarsk, and then onto Tuva where we witnessed Huun-Huur-tu's first ever concert in their homeland. But that's another story...
The republic of
Sakha is highly recommended to everyone, though as hotel prices are almost as
extreme as the weather ($250 US a night), be sure to make friends with some
of very numerous, highly talented and attractive musicians, writers and artists
that inhabit this outpost of human endurance, physical and cultural. Or
become a diamond-dealer or a well-funded German evangelical missionary.
In winter it gets down to -70ºC, in summer it reaches a very decent +40ºC
and there are rumours of upcoming music events in the latter more clement weather
time-period. Oh, and one other tip -- do not eat in any ground-floor restaurant.
This is because the chill of the permafrost (that is to say the ice in the ground
that is there all year round) will always ensure your food is half-cooked and
liable to make your wish for more frozen strips of fish and Bulus than is strictly
good for your liver.