Global Music News 2/94

Global Music News February 1994, Vol III No. 1

Recording choral music and sipping moonshine

Global Music Centre goes to Mordovia and Udmurt Republic

Last October our ethnomusicologists went home; the home of the Finno-Ugric people around the bend of River Volga. That is where we Finns, Estonians and Hungarians originally came from. Our relatives Udmurts and Mordovians stayed there and their distinctive musical cultures have survived.

Some two or three years ago, we started to plan this broad project on collecting Finno-Ugric musical heritage.  First in Helsinki and then in Tarto, Estonia, quite a large group of us researchers of Finno-Ugric music from different  countries gathered together and considered what to do. And last year we started to act. First there was a recording and collecting trip which I made with Jarkko Niemi (also known as the singer and multi instrumentalist of Slobo Horo) to the Hanti people around the town of Surgut and now we did this one", says Ilpo Saastamoinen, ethnomusicologist, musician and Global Music Centre's president of the board.

Saastamoinen, Kari HakaIa of Global Music Centre and Aado Lintrop of the University of Tarto spent three weeks in Udmurt  Republic and Mordovia and recorded almost 250 pieces of music on multi track and video. The pieces were mostly choral music and the multi-track recording technique ensures that  each single vocal part can be later analyzed and notated separately.

Photo: llpo Saastamoinen &The Wailers

- "Mordovian language is actually rather close to Finnish. Their choral music is considered to be a close relative of the choraI music of the Setu people of South-East Estonia. And indeed it is. They have the same kind of harmonies. They use intervals  that we Westerners might think of as "dissonant". Mordovian singers have no exact rules of making their vocal parts. The harmonies are improvised. Every singer seems to improvise in her distinctive style which she probably has learned from her mother. The wildest thing we recorded in Mordovia was seven old ladies singing traditional funeral wails at the same time. Everyone had her own melody and her own key!", Saastamoinen recalls still impressed by the weird experience.

- "Before we went there, I thought that Udmurts sing mostly in unisono, but I had to change my opinion. They also have the same kind of harmonies, though not so peculiar as the Mordovian ones."

In the passed Soviet times we used to hear lots of "official" folklore, bombastic and banal, but otherwise the culture of minorities was all but disgouraged. How did it survive in Udmurt Republic and Mordovia?

- "Of course there was some of this 'official' folklore but it never overran the real thing", says Ilpo Saastamoinen. "It's the modern life style rather than the Soviet system that has made the original culture to disappear. Things like radios,TVs, international music and so on.  Udmurts and Mordovian music culture has survived in private parties, like in weddings, funerals and other family fests. An Udmurt family party is actually quite an experience! They are held on a potluc basis, everybody brings food and drinks and the parties tend to be incredibly plentiful. There can be plates in three layers on the tables! And of courset he grannies of every family bring their home distilled vodka, kumusha. It was really tiresome to be polite and taste every night from tens of bottles that old ladies brought and hy to wake up next morning to work again!"                       

Like in many places among the Finno-Ugric peoples, also in Udmurt Republic and Mordova not only the moonshine distillation but also the choral tradition depends on old women. Like Ilpo Saastamoinen says, "choirs with average age below 50 are rare."   

The future seems to be brighter though, hence younger generations are getting interested in their roots. "Our collaborator, Nikolai Boyarkin of the University of Saransk in Mordovia is teaching old traditions to enthusiastics youngsters. The results are quite convincing" says Saastamoinen. 

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