The music of Nivkhi People

August 27, 2008 at 2:55 pm | Posted in Siberia, Traditions | Leave a comment
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Let’s gof rom language to music thanks to this wonderful article by Natalia Mamcheva, an ethnomusicologist from Sakhalin:

Aspects of the Music of the Nivkhs
by Natalia Mamcheva, Ethnomusicologist, Sakhalin

The Nivkhs are one of the minority indigenous peoples, who live in the region of the Amur river on the island of Sakhalin. Apart from the Nivkh people, other indigenous people who have long lived on the island are the Oroki (Uil’Ta) and Evenki people and until the mid 20th Century, the Ainu people. The Nivkh people have lived in the region for many centuries and indeed millennia. Their musical culture is rich and differs, in many respects, from contemporary European culture. Even at the beginning of the 20th Century they still followed an ancestral system, which ran through all facets of their lives, especially in their beliefs and their folklore. It is unique because it is so ancient and this determines many of its characteristics.

The folklore of the Nivkh people can be divided into 2 groups, the first being distinctive by its ritualistic character and the second by its lack of ritual. Ritualistic folklore is the most ancient and distinctive folklore because it is closely interwoven with traditional beliefs. Many of its specifics can be appreciated through the prism of religion. Until the end of the second millennium, the Nivkh people’s complex beliefs were connected to shamanism and in particular with the particular worship of the bear, which even had its own festival and where music played a vital role.

Nivkh music is chiefly vocal although it also uses musical instruments. In the most ancient forms the music is onomatopoeic and made up of signals. These are mainly imitations of animals, birds and the sounds of nature.

Shaman rituals took on their own specific form of music and song. They were played during special gatherings for healing and augury when the Shaman came into contact with spirits. When a Shaman passes into a trance, his singing would move from exclamatory sounds, growls, wheezing, and different tonal modulations and rhythmic changes. During the Shaman’s ritual, percussion instruments are often used, such as the Khas – a tambourine with rattles, as well as the Yampa – a girdle with metallic rattles. Apart from their musical role, these instruments have another function. The buben is a combination of a tambourine and a drum made either out of the skin of reindeer or seals. It is the main instrument of the Shaman and is believed to hold secret powers. Indeed it is believed that the power that calls up the spirits is contained within it. The girdle symbolizes the intermediary earthly life, as part of their trinomial view of the world, a characteristic of the ancient peoples of Sakhalin. One of the girdle’s functions is to protect, as the Nivkhs believe that ringing sounds, noise and metallic bobs drive away the forces of evil.

The bear ritual was a complex ritual, which lasted several days. This is the initiation of the main Nivkh totem, the bear, considered to be related to man. During the bear ritual the main instrument used was a percussive instrument, the Tyatya Chxach – Musical Log (a percussion instrument). It is played exclusively by women, who beat it with wooden poles. The pole symbolises the body of the bear. On one of its sides is carved the head of a bear. The instrument was considered sacred. The rhythm of the strokes depended on the rhythmical texts. The words were made up from ancient mythological texts, symbols, which are connected for the most part to the bear. The log dances were performed by the women dancing with fir twigs and wooden clacks – Korgosh – or with sacred bark from the Inau (a tree believed to have great healing powers). The dances of the women imitated the movements of the bear. These ritualistic dances were considered the climax of the Bear Ceremonies.

The music of the Shaman Rites and the Bear Ceremonies belongs to the most ancient times and has its roots deep in the Neolithic period. The ethnographer E.A. Kreinovich, wrote: “During the days when I observed the Bear Ceremonies, I was overwhelmed by everything that I saw and heard. Indeed everything that the Nivkhs uphold to this day with their worship of the bear, comes down to us from the Stone Age, thousands of years ago, of which neither we, nor they (despite having preserved these traditions) have absolutely any comprehension.

The epic genres of the Nivkhs are made up of myths and sung legends, both recited and in prose. In particular there are two specific genres; the Tilgush, which are heroic myths and the Nasmund, which are magic tales about wild animals and the need to co-exist with them.

The songs reflect the everyday life of the Nivkhs. The majority of the songs are improvised, although there are some that have a fixed melody and text. Musical instruments are divided in to several different groups. The most ancient are the ritual instruments of the Bear Ceremony and Shaman Sacred Rites.

Apart from these, the non-ritual instruments are very diverse. On Sakhalin one finds three types of Nivkh Jewish harps, the Zakanga, which is an arched form made of iron, the Kanga or Kongon, a brass and wooden laminar with an inner reed, and the more ancient Koka Chir which is a grass instrument.

During the playing of the instrument the wavering of the reed amplifies with the help of the performers mouth, which is the main resonator. The melodies played by the mouth organ do not differ very much in difficulty, but the attraction is in the beauty of the flowing ‘cosmic’ sound, which is rich in deep overtones.

Tynryn – a peculiar Nivkh viola with round bow – belongs to the string instruments. The playing technique is unique. The instrument has three soundboards: a pannier made of birch tree bark the fingerboard and the performers mouth. While playing the performer lightly touches the open string with the tongue causing a tremolo. In the result of that an extra overtone line in appearing. Therefore one can play even two or thee voiced melody.

There are a great variety of woodwind instruments. The simplest are the wooden buzzing instruments, which rotate on a long rope. Over the years they have served many functions from being used as ritualistic instruments, or imitating the sounds of the wind, or have even been used as children’s toys.

There are many variations of the whistle, known as the Pevs, which is made from different kinds of cane – reed, bulrush, bamboo and others. Kalni is a peculiar musical pipe transforming the human voice. In to it melodies are sung with different colours caused by the vibration.

Nivkh Folklore has always been carried from one generation to the next through an oral tradition. It has never been written down. This means that improvisation and variations of character make up the whole process of folklore creations. At first sight Nivkh melodies are not difficult in their formation. They are based on 3 to 4 musical degrees. At the same time if one listens carefully, one realises that they don’t stay unchanged but vary all the time. Each sound should be thought of as a living organism. In most cases the melody represents improvisations on a theme.

The same song sung by different performers or even the same performer will sound different every time and will never repeat itself. Variations will remain within traditional musical norms and will have been produced in that particular ethnic environment.

All the songs are in one voice (without harmony) and without instrumental accompaniment. The instrumental music also has a solo character. There are two types of intonation – natural singing and singing with a throat trill. The second way is more ancient and traditional (with the throat trill) but only very few performers are able to master it. With this manner of performing the voice becomes richer, wider and creates different colours.

I would like to draw attention to the perception of early folk music and its specific nature. Sometimes its sound goes fundamentally against the aesthetic norm of general European listening traditions. That is why its value must be measured against other aesthetic changes and criteria of beauty. In early folklore music, including Nivkh music, the beauty is not in a richness of harmony, nor in complete forms as is the case in European classical music, but in the finest nuances and micro movements within the improvisation and sometimes with completely unexpected developments. As a result, someone who has been brought up within other musical traditions needs to try to penetrate as deeply as possible the very roots of this culture and to comprehend the rich possibilities of expression (with the very minimum of recourses) in full appreciation of its humble beauty.

In the twentieth century the traditional Nivkh way of life has chanced fundamentally. Due to this, the traditional lifestyle has also transformed gradually and with it the traditional beliefs and the rituals. This has fundamentally affected the culture. Some genres have begun to fade away and some have disappeared altogether. Nevertheless at the same time many musical genres have received a second life within the national folklore groups and we can only hope that this original and unique culture will not vanish and will continue to give us much joy for a very long time.

I am not specialist enough on music to know if there are common elements between all the cultures around the Artic circle. Maybe common construction materials or techniques? That is a point I never had thought about, but it could be very interesting, as music in old communities is strong and important, sometimes closely linked to spirituality or shamanism as well as to celebrations and rituals. The weak antropologist on me should start kicking the linguist! As far as I know, and i know it is not too much, the Bear Celebration could be a common element in many of this cultures. At least was practised for Saami people, as well as Nivkhi. Throat singing is practised also in Alaska, maybe in other places too.

Geography of Siberia: first aproximation

August 18, 2008 at 6:19 pm | Posted in Demographics, Maps, Naming, Siberia | Leave a comment
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If you take a look at a map, you will see how a vast land Siberia is. Thousands of thousands of frozen kilometers that extend from the Urals in the border between Europe and Asia to almost Alaska. Breathtaking! As it is to find out which indigenous people live there, where and who they are. So I will start looking fot it. In the following months I will try to redraw my route map, to make it more concrete. First step, the Wikipedia, as usual:

Demographics of Siberia

Geographically, Siberia includes the Russian Urals, Siberian, and Far Eastern Federal Districts. The north-central parts of Kazakhstan are sometimes included in the region.

Siberia has population density of only three persons per square kilometer. The oblasts with the highest population densities are Chelyabinsk Oblast and Kemerovo Oblast, with 41 and 30 persons per square km, respectively. Koryak Okrug has population density of less than 0.1 per square kilometer.


Click here to see the complete list of districts and territories.

Excluding territories of north-central Kazakhstan, Siberia thus has a total population of ca. 38.7 million (2005). The North Kazakhstan oblast has another 1.1 million inhabitants (2002).

About 70% of Siberia’s people live in cities. Most city people are crowded into small apartments. Many people in rural areas live in simple, but more spacious, log houses. Novosibirsk is the largest city in Siberia, with a population of about 1.5 million, followed by Yekaterinburg (1.3 million, Urals), Omsk (1.1 million), Chelyabinsk (1.07 million, in the Urals), Krasnoyarsk (0.91 million), Barnaul (0.60 million), Irkutsk (0.59 million), Kemerovo (0.52 million), Tyumen (0.51 million), Tomsk (0.48 million), Nizhny Tagil (0.39 million, Urals), Kurgan (0.36 million), Ulan Ude (0.36 million), Chita (0.32 million).

The above count, however, by including the entire Urals Federal District, includes areas not usually considered part of Siberia, e.g. the cities Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk and Nizhny Tagil listed above.

Ethnicities and languages

Most Siberians (close to the average measured over all of Russia of 79%) are Russians and Russified Ukrainians, but in certain Oblasts (e.g. Tuva), Slavic population is as low as 20%.

Most non-Slavic groups are Turkic. Smaller linguistic groups are Mongols (ca. 600,000 speakers) Uralic (Samoyedic, Ugric, Yukaghir; roughly 100,000 speakers), Manchu-Tungus (ca. 40,000 speakers), Chukotko-Kamchatkan (ca. 25,000 speakers), Eskimo-Aleut (some 2,000 speakers), and languages isolates, Ket and Nivkh.

Mongolian, Turkic and Manchu-Tungus languages are sometimes taken together under the term Altaic. Uralic and Altaic form the Ural-Altaic group, and the Uralo-Siberian group combines the Ural-Altaic with the Chukotko-Kamchatkan group. These are more umbrella terms than accepted linguistic relationships.

This last part is the most interesting for me. There are also some interesting links at the bottom of the page, this will be tomorrow’s homework. I see that they do not include the territories that are next to the Bering Strait and Kamchatka. So separate searches for them too.

Teaching endangered languages in Siberia

July 26, 2008 at 12:02 pm | Posted in Education, Language, Siberia | Leave a comment
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During the lasts years the Mercator Centre has been running some projects concerning endangered languages, some of them in Siberia. I already told you about the Voices from tundra and taiga projects, which apart of a consistent database of linguistic information included also the creation of teaching materials and methods adapted to the specific sociolinguistic situation of those communities. Here you have a sample of their work:

Teaching Endangered Languages in Siberia

During the last years several teaching methods for endangered languages have been developed and special seminars have been organised for teachers of these languages in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (2003), Hanty-Mansiisk (2004) and Buryatia (2005).

Teaching Samoyedic
Within the framework of the joint project “Writing and teaching Samoyedic”, the Russian-Nenets Audio Phrasebook and the Nganasan Multimedia Dictionary have been created. This work has been initiated by scholars in St.Petersburg and Groningen and financially supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO (as part of the research program Voices from Tundra and Taiga), the Russian Foundation for Humanitarian Research and the Endangered Language Fund. The results of this project will be applied to other minority languages.

Russian-Nenets Audio Phrasebook Nganasan Multimedia Dictionary

Teaching Nivkh
During his research work on Nivkh the Japanese scholar Hidetoshi Shiraishi (2002-2005 in Groningen, since March 2005 at Sapporo Gakuin University) has written a series of books with Sound Materials of the Nivkh Language. These books are published together with the related sound material on CD and they can be used for the teaching of Nivkh. The World’s Largest Sound Archive of the Nivkh Language on the Web can be found at the web site of Hidetoshi Shiraishi, which refers to the following publications:

Sound Materials of the Nivkh Language 1 (2002)
-Folktales of V.F.Akiliak-Ivanova-

Sound Materials of the Nivkh Language 2 (2003)
-Songs and Folktales of the Amur Dialect-

Sound Materials of the Nivkh Language 3 (2004)

Read the preface to the third volume by Tjeerd de Graaf here.

Of course there is so much work to be done, but that is a beginning, and a very positive one. To be honest, I would not mind to work in something like this in the future!

Voices from tundra and taiga

April 2, 2008 at 9:44 pm | Posted in Language, Research, Siberia | 1 Comment
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Yestarday, a snowball came rolling from the Netherlands to Barcelona. It said that there is a research center, Mercator, the European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning. They work on a wide range of topics, so I just searched for the Arctic-related ones. With that beautiful title, here you have their Siberian project:

Voices from tundra and taiga

The NWO project “Voices from Tundra and Taiga” started in May 2002 and lasted until June 2005. In a number of subprojects, carried out by different teams throughout the Russian Federation, this project contributed to the strengthening and revitalization of various minor indigenous languages of the Russian North, including Nenets, Nivkh, Yukagir, Khanty, Mansi and others. The project was part of a general research program with the same name.

Final report

Short description of the overall approach:

The topic of the research program “Voices from Tundra and Taiga” is the study of endangered languages and cultures of the Russian Federation, which must be described rapidly before they become extinct. This research is in the fortunate position that our earlier work on the reconstruction technology for old sound recordings found in archives in St. Petersburg has made it possible to compare languages still spoken in the proposed research area to the same languages as they were spoken more than half a century ago. These sound recordings consist of spoken language, folksongs, fairy tales etc., among others in Siberian languages.

In the NWO project we applied the developed techniques to some of the disappearing minority languages and cultures of Russia: Nivkh and Orok on Sakhalin and Yukagir and Tungus languages in Yakutia. Our aim is to set up a phono- and video-library of recorded stories, and of the folklore, singing and oral traditions of the peoples of Sakhalin and Yakutia. For this purpose the existing sound recordings in the archives of Sakhalin and Yakutia are used together with the results of new fieldwork expeditions. The data are added to the existing archive material in St. Petersburg and part of is made available on the Internet and/or CD-ROM.

Spontaneous speech and prepared texts are collected that are valuable for (ethno)linguistic as well as for anthropological, folkloric and ethno-musicological analysis. For that purpose, the data are (video)recorded and analysed as to the art of story telling and language use. Described texts are published in scientific journals and books with audiovisual illustrations on CD-ROM and on the Internet. The materials thus become available for further analysis to researchers working in the field of phonetics, linguistics, anthropology, history, ethno-musicology and folklore. This information is also important for the development of teaching methods for representatives of the related ethnic groups and for the conservation of their language and culture. For this purpose the new centres are equiped with computers, software, sound recorders, literature, etc.

The research and documentation is carried out in close co-operation with local scholars. In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Yakutsk local scholars and their assistants participate in the archiving of the sound recordings and in fieldwork expeditions. They are trained at St. Petersburg State University and specialists from St. Petersburg State University also visit them in order to set up new centres for the study and teaching of local languages and related subjects.

Voices from Buryatia

In July 2005, Tjeerd de Graaf presented the final report of the NWO project carried out together with Russian colleagues in the framework of theVoices from Tundra and Taiga research program.The research group received positive reactions, both from scientists as well as from teachers, students, native speakers and local authorities. This applied in particular to Buryatia, one of Russia’s federal republics in Siberia, where Tjeerd de Graaf and his Buryat colleague Ljubov Radnajeva visited several centres in June and July 2005. During special teacher seminars, they reported on the results of their projects and on the use of information technology in language teaching. Scientists and teachers from Buryatia are ready and eager to take an active part in the realization of similar new projects. A proposal for such a project has been prepared and submitted to the INTAS Organisation of the European Union.

According to the latest UNESCO data, the Buryat language is considered an endangered language and is registered in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages. Meanwhile, many Buryat people demonstrate their wish that their children use the native language. Modern educational resources (such as computer-assisted language learning, multimedia teaching material) are almost non-existent in teaching the Buryat language. It should be mentioned that good and promising conditions exist to develop such teaching resources based on information technology. The proposed joint research project will make this possible.

If you have more snowballs for me (aka information, links and resources…) do not hesitate to drop me a line!

To stop or not to stop…

March 24, 2008 at 10:54 pm | Posted in History, Japan, Naming | Leave a comment
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In Japan! A month ago I read in a Lonely Planet Magazine that in Japan there was an indigenous group called Ainu, who came from Siberia. It was a cool surprises, as I liked the idea of stopping in Japan. But now I’m a bit confused, as the Wikipedia says the origin of this group is not clear at all. And it seems it is not going to be clear in the immediate future years, actually:

The origins of the Ainu have not been fully determined. They have often been considered Jomon-jin, natives to Japan from the Jomon period. “The Ainu lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came” is told in one of their Yukar Upopo (Ainu legends). Ainu culture dates from around 1200 CE and recent research suggests that it originated in a merger of the Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures.Their economy was based on farming as well as hunting, fishing and gathering.

Ainu men generally have dense hair development. Many early investigators proposed a Caucasian ancestry, although recent DNA tests have found no traces of Caucasian ancestry. Genetic testing of the Ainu people has shown them to belong mainly to Y-haplogroup D. The only places outside of Japan in which Y-haplogroup D is common are Tibet and the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.In a study by Tajima et al. (2004), two out of a sample of sixteen (or 12.5%) Ainu men were found to belong to Haplogroup C3, which is the most common Y-chromosome haplogroup among the indigenous populations of the Russian Far East and Mongolia; Hammer et al. (2005) tested another sample of four Ainu men and found that one of them (1/4 or 25%) belonged to haplogroup C3. Some researchers have speculated that this minority of Haplogroup C3 carriers among the Ainu may reflect a certain degree of unidirectional genetic influence from the Nivkhs, with whom the Ainu have long-standing cultural interactions.According to Tanaka et al. (2004), their mtDNA lineages mainly consist of haplogroup Y (21.6%) and haplogroup M7a (15.7%). A recent reevaluation of cranial traits suggests that the Ainu resemble the Okhotsk more than they do the Jomon.This agrees with the reference to the Ainu culture being a merger of Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures referenced above.

Some have speculated that the Ainu may be descendants of a prehistoric race that also produced indigenous Australian peoples. In Steve Olson’s book Mapping Human History, page 133, he describes the discovery of fossils dating back 10,000 years, representing the remains of the Jōmon, a group whose facial features more closely resemble those of the indigenous peoples of New Guinea and Australia. After a new wave of immigration, probably from the Korean Peninsula, some 2,300 years ago, of the Yayoi people, the pure-blooded Jōmon were pushed into northern Japan. Genetic data suggest that modern Japanese are descended from both the Yayoi and the Jōmon.

In the late 20th century, much speculation arose that people of the group related to the Jomon may have been one of the first to settle North America. This hypothesis is based largely on skeletal and cultural evidence among tribes living in the western part of North America and certain parts of Latin America. It is possible that North America had several peoples among its early settlers – these relatives of the Jomon being one of them. Kennewick Man is also cited at times as supporting this hypothesis.

Groundbreaking genetic mapping studies by Cavalli-Sforza have shown a sharp gradient in gene frequencies centered in the area around the Sea of Japan, and particularly in the Japanese Archipelago, that distinguishes these populations from others in the rest of eastern Asia and most of the American continent. This gradient appears as the third most important genetic movement (in other words, the third principal component of genetic variation) in Eurasia (after the “Great expansion” from the African continent, which has a cline centered in Arabia and adjacent parts of the Middle East, and a second cline that distinguishes the northern regions of Eurasia and particularly Siberia from regions to the south), which would make it consistent with the early Jōmon period, or possibly even the pre-Jōmon period.

Jomon and Yayoi are Japanese periods. A lot of new information here, I have looked for the words in bold too:

The Nivkhs (also Nivkh, Nivkhi, or Gilyak; ethnonym: Nivxi; language, нивхгу – Nivxgu) are an indigenous ethnic group inhabiting the northern half of Sakhalin Island and the region of the Amur River estuary administered by Russia. Nivkh were mainly fishermen, hunters, and dog breeders. The Nivkh were semi-nomadic living near the coasts in the summer and wintering inland along streams and rivers to catch salmon. The land the Nivkh inhabit is characterized as Taiga with cold snow-laden winters and mild summers with sparse tree cover. The Nivkh are believed to be the original inhabitants of the region deriving from a proposed Neolithic people migrating from the Transbaikal region during the Late Pleistocene.

The Nivkh suffered heavily from foreign influences, the first of which was the migration of the Tungusic peoples; latter Manchu and Chinese dynasties forced tribute upon its people. In the late 19th century, Russian Cossacks annexed and colonized Nivkh lands, where they are a small, often neglected, minority today. Today, the Nivkh live in Russian-style housing and with the over-fishing and pollution of the streams and seas, they have adopted many foods from Russian cuisine. The Nivkh practice shamanism, which is important for the winter Bear Festival, though some have converted to Russian Orthodoxy.

They number 5,287 (2002 Russian Federation census). Most speak Russian today, though about 10 percent speak their indigenous Nivkh language, which is considered an isolate language, though for convenience grouped with the Paleosiberian languages. The Nivkh language is divided into four dialects,though they are sometimes grouped with the nearby Chukotko-Kamchatkan and Altaic languages.

I haven’t found anything for Okhotsk and Satsumon. Everything is pretty confusing right now. Maybe I will have to take more things into account, such as way of living, religious believes, or material culture. Lets see what came then.

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