The Epics of Upper Altai

V. M. Gacak (Editor-in-Chief), Z. S. Kazagaceva, (translations, commentaries, glossary of terms, etc.) et al.: Altajskie geroiceskie skazania. Pamjatniki fol’klora narodov Sibiri i Dal’nego Vostoka, T. 15. Nauka, Novosibirsk 1997. 664 pp.

Managing editors: Professor Aleksandr B. Soktoyev and Professor Viktor M. Gacak. Folklore of Siberi and the Far East. Address of the Editorial Board: 17, Prosp. Lavrentyeva, 630090 Novosibirsk, Russia.
Price: 40,000 Russian rubles.

Epic singers in the mountainous Upper Altai area favour a special laryngeal technique called Kay. W. Radloff wrote down Altaic heroic songs in the 1860’s already, and large samples of this material were published in St. Petersburg (Radloff 1866). According to Anohin, the geographer, the upper Altai people sing heroic epics using a tonality that resembles the buzzing of a flying beetle. This technique of performing the epics has its roots in the same tradition as the overtone throat singing. The epic singers in the Altai region use a singing technique in which the words are clearly differentiated, but the timbre of the singing is very close to that of the two-voiced, wordless singing style.

The oldest and most prominent of the living masters of the Kay is Aleksei Grigorevich Kalkin. He was born in 1925 in the remote Ulagan district in the former Altai Autonomous Region of the Soviet Union. After winning the contest for the title of the best singer during the festivities of the 25th anniversary of the Altai Soviet Autonomous Region in 1947, he gradually became very well known as a national artist. The following year he made a successful tour to Moscow, where he gave concerts in theatres and clubs, and took part in the gathering of folk artists of the USSR. The folk epics performed by Kalkin and other Altai epic singers have maintained their importance as one of the most attractive and peculiar forms of folk tradition in the world. The second prominent performer of Altai epics still alive is Tabar Chachiyakov, who was born (and is still living) in the village of Elo in the Ongudai district of the Altai Republic. During my field-work in the Altai Republic in 1996 and 1997 I had an opportunity to meet these old singers, and even to record their performances – really unforgettable experiences.

In 1963 S. S. Surazakov, the greatest collector of Altai epics, documented the best-known of Altai heroic songs, Maadai-Kara, with a tape-recorder from Kalkin at the Institute of Pedagogy (Gorno-Altaisk). This version consists of as many as 7738 verses, and it was published as a bilingual publication, in Altaic and Russian, in Moscow by the Institute of World Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in the series dedicated to heroic epics (Epos narodov SSSR).

Research on Altai heroic epics is being carried out at the Institute of Humanities of the Altai Republic, but there is a danger that the most valuable material will be lost forever if the Institute does not get modern facilities enabling it to at least make backup copies of the old tapes. As is well known, this situation is familiar at many research centres, archives and libraries almost all over Asia. What is needed is an international fund to help preserve materials essential for maintaining cornerstones of the ethnocultural diversity of Asian minority cultures for future generations.

The latest achievement of a small but effective research group at the Upper Altai Institute is the publication The Altai Heroic Tales. This appeared in 1997 in Novosibirsk in the series Folklore Monuments of Siberia and the Far East, published by the Sector of Folklore of the peoples of Siberia of the Institute of Philology of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The editor-in-chief is Professor V. M. Gacak from the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, and the local Altai team consists of Z. S. Kazagaceva and S. M. Katashev. The volume includes two archaic heroic tales, Ochi Bala and Khan-Altyn. The former has been noted down four times from A. G. Kalkin, the latter from another performer, Tabar Chachiyakov, five times already. This singer of tales performs his texts not using the kay technique, but with a special recitative in at amazing tempo

The edition is bilingual (Altaic and Russian). The most important part of the work from a folkloristic point of view is the editorial principle chosen for the publication. Two versions of Ochi Bala by Kalkin (performed in 1984 and 1985), and as many as three versions of Khan-Altyn by Chachiyakov (performed in 1965, 1984, and 1985) have been analyzed paying attention to variation (from whole episodes to lexical substitutions), additions, replacements and other features differing from one performance to another. This unique and extremely difficult and time-consuming work gives a profound picture of the epic texts’ divergences and similarities. The volume also includes an ethnomusicological analysis by J. I. Sheikin and V. S. Nikiforova, and an introduction and poetic analysis of the epics (by S. M. Katashev). One more text, a fragment from a heroic poem entitled Two Struggles of Khan-Altyn performed by the late master singer S. Savdin (1916-1985), has been added as an appendix – the interesting fact being that Chachiyakov and Savdin learned the epic of Khan-Altyn from the same teacher, K. Sakarov.

The Altaic Heroic Tales is a unique publication that is unfortunately in danger of being hidden behind the language barrier from researchers not conversant with Altaic or Russian.

Lauri Harvilahti
Helsinki University

(FFN 14, December 1997: 26-27)

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