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Tag: Yakutia

Last Chance To See (But You Can Listen Anytime): Indigenous Siberian Fieldwork at the Loeb Music Library

The Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library’s Fall 2019 exhibition, Tree of Life: Cosmology and Environment in Yakutian Epic, features highlights from the Eduard Alekseyev Fieldwork Collection of the Musical Culture of Yakutia, 1957-1990. On display until Friday, January 24th are photographs and personal effects that document fieldwork in Yakutia (also known as the Sakha Republic) in the second half of the twentieth century by the ethnomusicologist Eduard Alekseyev, who was born there in 1937.

Dressed in a grey suit and holding a microphone on an extension stick, Eduard Alekseyev sits in a crowded auditorium. The date and location of this photograph are unknown.

Undated photograph of Eduard Alekseyev performing fieldwork. Image courtesy National Library of Sakha

Yakutia is located in the circumpolar region of Russia, straddling the Arctic Circle. Its capital of Yakutsk has the reputation for being the coldest city on earth. Dr. Alekseyev’s recordings of musical life in the region capture religious and cultural expressions of Sakha identity/nationhood that have survived Soviet repression, urbanization, and climate change. Also on display are musical instruments crafted in Yakutia and other locally made birchbark and metal handcrafts.

The Eduard Alekseyev Fieldwork Collection has been fully digitized and is available to stream. Among the different musical genres represented in the collection is olonkho, sacred epics sung by a narrator who differentiates between characters by alternating song and recitative. The texts traditionally describe a cosmography of lower, middle, and upper worlds, with the sacred tree, or tree of life, characteristically a larch, bridging across the layers. In the recordings, you will hear the khomus (also known as a mouth harp, jawharp, or Jew’s harp), the diungiur (shaman’s drum), and the bayan (button accordion). The collection also features musical traditions of Crimean Tatars recorded in Kiev, Ukraine. Listen here to Yegor Trofimovich Leveriev sing Siine tuhunan Toiuk (Song about the Siine River) in 1979, one of 689 freely available audio tracks in the collection.

Co-curated by Harvard graduate student Diane Oliva and Music Library staff member Christina Linklater, this exhibition marks the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, bringing special attention to indigenous language collections housed at Harvard Library.

The exhibition also details the process of preserving and digitizing sound recordings. Nineteen-sixties recording technologies relied on acetate and polyester audio tape reels and VHS PAL videocassettes: highly vulnerable for decay and breakage, these magnetic media are typically prioritized for preservation and reformatting. The original cases have been retained, which contain Alekseyev’s own annotations.

This reel case features handwritten notes by Eduard Alekseyev.

Loeb Music Library, AWM RL 16254


The Music Library holds several other audio and audiovisual fieldwork collections that capture musical expression around the world:

Lowell H. Lybarger Collection of Pakistani Music Materials

Stephen Blum Collection of Music from Iranian Khorāsān

Lara Boulton Collection of Byzantine and Orthodox Musics

James A. Rubin Collection of South Indian Classical Music

Marie-Thérèse, Baroness Ullens de Schooten Collection (Iran)

Kay Shelemay, Collection of Ethiopian Music

Richard Kent Wolf Collection of Fieldwork (India)

Virginia Danielson Collection of Field Recordings of Muslim Calls to Prayer

This post was contributed by Diane Oliva, a candidate for the PhD in historical musicology at Harvard University. Diane Oliva is the May-Crane Fellow of the Loeb Music Library for 2019-2020. 

Voices of Indigenous Siberia – The Musical Culture of Yakutia

A new finding aid from the Archive of World Music provides the opportunity to explore and listen to the music of the Yakut people. It features freely available online audio content with the download of RealPlayer.

Bruce Gordon and Eduard Alekseyev at work in the Audio Preservation Studio, 2009

Bruce Gordon and Eduard Alekseyev at work in the Audio Preservation studio, 2009

The Eduard Alekseyev Fieldwork Collection of the Musical Culture of Yakutia, 1969 – 1990 contains audio and video that documents traditional religious and ritual cultural expressions. Sakha (Yakutia) is the largest sub-national entity in the world. It is a circumpolar region, half of which lies above the Arctic Circle. From the 1960s through the 1980s, publication of materials about the rituals of indigenous cultures was suppressed, due to the Soviet policy of the times. The Yakut language is part of the northern Turkic linguistic family, and is considered a “vulnerable” language, according to the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

Eduard Yefimovich Alekseyev (b. 1937, Yakutia) resides in Boston and is a well-known ethnomusicologist and researcher of traditional Yakut music. He is the author of more than 100 publications in Russian, including such books as A Study of the Origins of Modality with Regard to Yakut Folk Songs (1976) and The Pitch Nature of Primitive Singing (1986).  Alekseyev worked very closely with Ghilyana Dorjieva (another scholar of indigenous musical culture in Russia, in particular, of the Kalmyk people) to identify and describe the materials in the collection.

Khomus by Nathan Hamm, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
Khomus by
Nathan Hamm

The collection includes original field recordings made by Alekseyev between 1969 and 1990; most were created in a fieldwork setting, but some were made during concerts, or at festival events of Ukrainian people in Kiev and Crimean Tatars in Simferopol. The main genres found in the collection are the olonkho (epic song and recitative), ohuokai (round dance), shamanic ritual and mystery performances. Frequently heard musical instruments are the khomus (jaw or jew’s harp), the diungiur (shaman’s drum), and the bayan (button accordion).

In this video, Eduard Alekseyev speaks about the olonkho genre and its transformative purpose as well as its change as a genre over time.

Audio Preservation Studio engineer Bruce Gordon has worked closely with Alekseyev to digitally preserve the polyester and acetate audio reel tapes in the collection — the end result of their work is the streaming content available in the finding aid, such as this recording of Vasiliy Osipovich Karataev performing the “Song of the Horse” from the olonkho “Erbekhtei Bergen.”

– Donna Guerra

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