Performing arts, identity, spirits, and agency in the Sayan-Altay

I am an Amsterdam-based musicologist and musical ethnographer. Currently a PhD candidate in anthropology at Leiden University, I am interested in Sayan-Altay music and sound making, storytelling, and dance, with a particular focus on instrument building, indigenous knowledge and notions, post-Soviet urban music-making and identity building, and - most recently - agency in a globalising world. I present and publish about Sayan-Altay culture for both academic and wider audiences.

The Altay-Sayan, or - as locally preferred - the Sayan-Altay region, is an area named after the Sayan and Altay mountain ranges and extending over much of southern Siberia (Russian Federation) and northwestern Mongolia and small parts of Kazakhstan and China. The Russian part - to which I confine myself - is drained by the Ob and Yenisey rivers and their tributaries, the Katun, Biya, and Abakan rivers. It is the homeland of several Turkic-speaking peoples, most of which became minority groups in the twentieth century. They are, from West to East: the Altay, Shor, Chulïm, Khakas, Tuva, and Tofa peoples. Best known are the Tuvans, who constitute a majority in the Autonomous Republic of Tïva (Tuva) and are culturally close to the Mongolians. Least known probably are the Tofa, a near-to-extinct reindeer herding people to the north-east of Tuva in Irkutsk Oblast. The focus of my research is the culture of the peoples at the heartland of the Sayan-Altay region: the Khakas, Chulïm, Shor, and Altay peoples, who feel strongly related and whose languages, history, performing arts, and culture in general, are closely connected.

I became involved in 1995, when a Khakas musician happened to perform in Amsterdam. I let go of my earlier area of research - European medieval music - and started travelling back and forth to Khakassia and the surrounding countries. To date I have conducted over two years of musical and musical ethnographical field research in the Sayan-Altay region, with an emphasis on Khakassia. I learnt to speak the Khakas language, and, as part of my research I was often invited to perform with the Khakas chatkhan zither and to sing, with teachers and friends and at community ceremonies. I am the first person outside Khakassia to perform and substantially study Khakas music, and the first ever to systematically record and study Khakas urban music and dance, instrument building, and musical views in relation to shamanism.

In my academic work, I am particularly interested in the chatkhan zither, an important Khakas instrument that became extinct in the adjacent areas and that symbolizes the Khakas people and Khakas culture at large; in Sayan-Altay indigenous knowledge and tacit aesthetics of artistic talent, creativity, and performing, including shamanic views; in the impact of Soviet cultural policies and current global forces on the performing arts; in the role of the performing arts in shaping ethnic identity and building community; and in agency in an increasingly technologically-controlled, globalizing world. My research and involvement in Khakas music-making and the Khakas people have featured in a wide range of print, radio, television, and internet media in both Khakassia and Europe, including a documentary produced by Khakas TV (1999), two radio portraits (2002, 2005) in The Netherlands and Germany, and an extensive internet interview in Khakassia (2010).

I have published about indigenous conceptions of sound and music, music transmission, and music-making in relation to environment, identity, and religious and cultural revival. I have given numerous invited guest lectures and conference presentations at various institutes in The Netherlands, Germany, Khakassia, Great Britain, Austria, Canada, and Kazakhstan, and in a wide range of fields including music/ethnomusicology, research methodology, music education, folklore studies, anthropology of religion, and post-Soviet and media studies. In Abakan I have lectured a course on intercultural music contact (2005). For wider audiences I have introduced Sayan-Altay and Central Asian music and culture in introductions, workshops, and music performances in The Netherlands, USA, Germany, and Belgium; and advised and assisted in several cultural projects concerning Sayan-Altay and Central-Asian culture in The Netherlands, USA, and Germany. Also, I co-developed two anthropological MA programmes for Siberian universities (2005-2008).

My work aims to benefit local communities by creating valuable written and audio-visual records of music, storytelling, and dance practices, instrument building, and the rich indigenous rural views that are increasingly being replaced by canonic new urban legends; by producing analyses which demonstrate the richness and significance of Khakas performing arts, and by making indigenous views, performing arts, and culture in general known to a wider audience. These activities aspire to raise the profile of and interest in both traditional and modern performing arts in the Sayan-Altay region, and to contribute to the understanding of endangered cultures in Siberia.

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