Folk and Great Tunes From Siberia and Far East is a double CD by various artists from many of the remote Russian republics in Siberia and the Far East. Each of the two discs contains well over an hour of music in a wide variety of styles: unaccompanied polyphonic singing, solo or duo singers of old songs accompanied by traditional acoustic instruments, psychedelic folk rock, and of course lots of overtone singing from Tuva and other republics and regions. It’s a daunting but welcome task to review such a collection.
The collection was shepherded into existence by Russian folk music expert and musician Daryana Antipova. Her aim was to make Siberian folk music better known beyond all clichés. Anyone looking to popularize this music faces a couple of big obstacles: the historical efforts made by the USSR to eradicate indigenous cultures; and the ongoing globalization of the 21st century, which has led to the situation in which most Russians can’t identify or name a single Siberian folk act.
However, it is becoming better known outside of Russia. “When I was at the American Folk Alliance International in New Orleans in 2020, some local agencies promoting Russian folk musicians were already working with the bands like Alash, Altai Kai and Chirgilchin,” Daryana says.
There are perhaps a couple of performers on this set that English-speaking fans of world music will recognize, including Yat-Kha, one of the groups that has brought Tuvan overtone or “throat” singing to the world. They’re represented by one track on each disc: The elegiac “We Will Never Die,” which kind of blends Americana folk with deep Tuvan khöömei overtone singing; and the polished world music sound of “Shartylaam,” with overtone vocals accompanied by some fine circular guitar fingerpicking patterns.
Daryana Antipova’s own group Vedan Kolod, of Krasnoyarsk, which features vocal polyphony and folk instruments, also has two tracks: the mostly instrumental “Serbiyanochka,” an acoustic folk song with whistle, lutes and drones; and the stately song “Near The Spring,” with male-female harmony vocals accompanied mostly by a frame drum and the Russian Jew’s harp known as the khomus or vargan.
And another CPL group called New Asia has a couple of songs, both from their recent album Chorchok which I reviewed earlier this year. One is “Topshuur,” the opening track on that album, which I noted is “an homage to the traditional instrument and the style of music it plays. The song moves between overtone and regular vocal styles in a western style verse/chorus/verse structure and a three-beat time signature. Though it starts with a very pastoral setting of overtone singing accompanied by the topshuur and light synth strings, it rises to a dramatic climax that includes electric guitar with distortion pedals.” New Asia’s other song here is the high-octane “Village Dances,” a Siberian take on country-western music. Think throat-singing klezmer cowboys, with a bit of surf guitar and full electric folk band.
Apparently the Khakassian band Ulger is pretty well known in Russia and parts of Europe as well. “We are lucky that musicians from the wonderful band Ulger have agreed to be represented on this compilation,” Daryana says. They get two tracks. They seem to specialize in gentle songs with male-female duet vocals that mix regular and overtone singing, with various acoustic stringed instruments. One of my favorites on this album is their charming “Chylgyche Yry,” on which the singers are accompanied by lots of lutes, a frame drum, and some kind of flute. Their second song “Khalyn Churt,” is more of the same.
The rest of the album goes far afield. Among the more traditional offerings are the unaccompanied polyphony of “Mal’Chik” by the group Polyn’; the gentle shamanic folk rock of Khara, whose “Ognennyi buben” combines the morinhur (“horse-head fiddle”) and subtle overtone singing; Dmitry Paramonov of the Omsk region, who presents a male duet song “Po Matushke Po Volge,” accompanied by a simple harp-like zither; the Tuvan choral group Oktai’s short but powerful song “That We Should Build”; and another favorite, the group Sretenie’s driving polyphonic song “Pri doline kust kalinovyi stoyal,” which translates to the very traditional-sounding “At the valley, a viburnum bush stood.”
The sounds and rhythms of reggae have spread worldwide, including apparently to Siberia. The Tuvan group Khartyga’s “My Kargyraa,” which features overtone singing and a driving rock sound including electric guitar, has a reggae feel to its rhythm. The Kamchatkan singer Olga Lastochkina contributes her ethereal, experimental song “Zarya,” which made me ponder what a reggae album by Björk would sound like.
The khomus is a very traditional instrument, but the Yakutian shamanist performer Uutai’s “Singing Sky” doesn’t seem exactly traditional, combining a tour de force Jew’s harp solo with overtone singing. It’s maybe the most weirdly moving piece on this whole album.
A close second is the Buryatian singer Inga’s song “Yokhor” on Disc 2. To say it sets her soaring vocals over driving rhythm provided by multiple lutes just doesn’t do it justice. This is just an amazing performance. Her electric folk rock song “Traktor” on the first disc is similarly impressive.
There’s much more, including the shamanistic electro-folk of Ayarkhaan, the Kamchatkan performer Lydia Chechulina’s chanted song, the experimental blend of acoustic and studio effects by Tuvan Ug-Shig, including electronics that mimic the Jew’s harp, Khartyga’s humble singing juxtaposed with a grand pipe organ accompaniment … the music here is nearly as vast and varied as Siberia and the Russian far east. “The musical diversity of Siberian ethnic culture and indigenous peoples is huge,” Antipova says. “But if you can breathe in fresh frosty air together with the musicians while listening to their melodies, I am very grateful for that.” I’d say that sort of gratitude runs both ways.