By Jenny Uechi
There’s a kind of music that conjures up images of clear blue skies, horses roaming an emerald-coloured horizon. It’s the traditional music of the Buryats, an ethnic Russian minority that practices Tibetan shamanism and lives a nomadic lifestyle similar to their cousins in Mongolia. This rich tradition of music is what Namgar (“white cloud” in Tibetan), a Moscow-based music group, has been working hard to preserve.
Led by prolific singer Namgar Lhasaranova, whose petite and girlish frame houses a powerful voice, the group plays traditional Buryat songs that tell ancient legends of epic heroes, legendary beauties, and the grassy landscapes of southern Siberia.
Ricepaper caught up with the group after their performance at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival to ask about their music.
“I grew up with my family, we were nomads,” says Namgar, speaking Russian through a translator. “We traveled with sheep, in herds, like all the traditional people in Mongolia.” She says that her distinct, soaring singing style owes much to her childhood as a sheep herder in the tiny village of Kunkur, on the border of Russia and Mongolia. “When I was a child, I was a herder. I would jump on my horse and herd the sheep — in order to hear myself in this vast, endless space, I have to sing very loudly, and that’s how all the Buryats sing.”
Based in Moscow, Namgar is the only group that plays traditional Buryat music, making them something of a favorite at folk and world music festivals. Members of the group play this little-known type of music for different reasons: Namgar’s husband, Jipo, plays the chanza or snakeskin lute because he grew up in Buryat and wants to continue the tradition. Others, like Bulat Gafarov, started out studying classical music in Moscow but fell in love with folk music , and mix Western instruments like the violin with the Morin huur, a Mongolian string instrument.
Namgar explains that while all musicians dream and wish for their music to be heard, their group’s prime objective is to keep Buryat music alive in their homeland. Namgar says the young Buryats now typically listen to Russian pop music (and to a lesser extent, American pop), and that they’re growing increasingly detached from their roots, as many Buryats are now in their third generation of not speaking traditional Buryat language, which is closely-related to Mongolian.
While much of the music that Namgar plays is shamanic music that is used to accompany private rituals, the group plays publicly around the world to let more people know about their culture. Thankfully, more youth have been interested in Namgar since they are heavily associated with world music, which has become increasingly trendy in recent years. With each concert in cities around the world, Namgar is bringing Buryat music to people around the world, taking with the hope that their minority culture will thrive in the increasingly globalized world.
Look for more of their music here.