Kira banner





Shamans &

Books & CDs



Inuit Journeys


Irina Ivanova Kimonko, embroidery artist

Irina Ivanova Kimonko, embroidery artist. Village of Gvasyugi; photo by Kira Van Deusen

Udeghe Songs and Stories Travel to Canada

(back to Articles index)

Music is an integral part of Tungus-Manchu storytelling as it is in many parts of the world. My report compares the ways song and instrumental music were used by Udeghe performers at storytelling festivals in western Canada in 1998 with the ways Canadian First Nations storytellers use music in that same context. I look especially at the spiritual and healing aspects as well as issues of privacy and ownership.

As a professional musician, storyteller, and ethnographer, I have conducted folklore research in the Khabarovsk Territory since 1992. In 1998 two of my Udeghe friends, Valentina Tunsianovna Kyalundzyuga and Nadezhda Efimovna Kimonko, were invited to perform at storytelling festivals in Vancouver and the Yukon. These festivals have taken place annually for more than ten years, and feature tellers of traditional tales from many native and immigrant cultures of Canada and the whole circumpolar region, as well as tellers of contemporary stories. Some performers, especially Yukon elders, present their tales in a simple conversational tone, while others are quite theatrical. Some use songs and musical instruments in their telling.

The festivals attract both children and adults who are interested in storytelling, myth, spirituality, native cultures, and the healing arts. The Yukon festival is organized primarily by First Nations people. The audience can enjoy the humor and emotional depth of good storytelling, and also get acquainted with its therapeutic, historical and spiritual aspects. There is often informal discussion about the symbolism and deeper meanings of stories and their place in various cultures. Although the storytelling festivals also include some music and dance, it is generally more satisfying for a storyteller to perform at a festival devoted exclusively to storytelling, where the stories stand alone and get full attention, as opposed to telling as part of a music or arts festival where the attention span for the spoken word is shorter.

The idea of a festival devoted entirely to storytelling was new to our Udeghe guests. In the Khabarovsk Territory, storytelling has yet to be reborn as a performance art. Although traditional stories are used extensively in schools as part of the native language program, they are rarely used as part of a ensemble performance, with the occasional exception of a very short humorous tale. Sometimes children act a folktale out like a play.

But these more set kinds of performances, which also take place in Canada, tend to eliminate most of the intuitive improvisation (actual changes in the story) and energy exchange between teller and listener that is essential to the healing and teaching quality of real storytelling. In a more intimate setting there can be a true interaction, and the listener experiences the story with body and soul rather than processing it intellectually. Music is one of the things that contributes to this experience and makes it memorable.

To top of page

Valentina Tunsianovna is the recognized authority on the meanings of various elements in Udeghe story and language and frequently tells tales to children. She is active in promoting her native language and over the last thirty years has recorded many stories which she heard from her own family and from other elderly people in her home village. She is also familiar with the stories and songs recorded by Arseniev in the early twentieth century, and by Yuri and Olga Sheikin and others more recently. She is co-author of the volume Fol'klor udegeitsev: nimanku, telungu, yekhe, published by the Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk.

Nadezhda Efimovna is very active in organizing cultural activities throughout the Khabarovsk Territory, especially for children. She works with the Association of Native Peoples, and both women are involved in political and ecological activities. They performed in Canada wearing beautiful traditional embroidered clothing, and brought archival versions of stories as told by elders in the fifties and sixties, emphasizing the ancient and unique qualities of their cultural heritage and explaining unfamiliar concepts.

They brought a shaman's drum and rattles, jaw harp kunkai and various small musical instruments such as the khua, a twirling disc on a string, to accompany their stories and songs. I gave brief translations before each piece. Our organizers especially asked to hear the stories complete in the native language, unbroken by translation, so that listeners could experience the music of the language itself.

Valentina Tunsianovna and Nadezhda Efimovna used music in several traditional ways. In fact, they used more music when performing in Canada, where most people don't understand either Udeghe or Russian language, than while telling the same stories to me at home in Gvasyugi village in the Khabarovsk Territory. The music helped to translate the stories by conveying emotion without words.

While Nadia told two stories entirely in Russian, without music, Valentina told three nimanku in the Udeghe language. The nimanku are magic tales whose subjects go back to the time of creation, in which human beings interact with gods and spirits. Music is the language of spirits and so to communicate with them humans must also use music. Valentina included the song interludes which frequently punctuate that form, although using them in ways that may not be traditional, for example using the song to tell the whole story. This usually makes the story shorter and is part of adapting to a staged presentation. (The legends, telungu, can be told entirely in a speaking voice, or entirely sung. In this case, the singing aids the listener's memory.) The song interludes in the nimanku contain special words with no known meaning but which have rhythmic sounds and seem to belong to specific hero/ines and storytellers. These words are part of the unique melodic motifs each storyteller uses.

To top of page

Valentina Tunsianovna conveyed the entire story of the bear "Biatu" who marries a human woman through one of its song interludes in which the girl is calling to the bear. I told a summary of the whole story in translation. Nadia accompanied the song with a dance which resembled those done by women in theatrical enactments of Ul'chi and Nivkh bear ceremonies. This story is loosely related to the sacred story of the ancestry of the Udeghe people, in which a sister marries a bear while her brother marries a tiger. The published version of "Biatu" is told entirely in prose but we can guess where songs might occur—conveying conversations and emotions (Simonov 1998:81-85).

"Kilae" tells about a young man who bravely crosses the burning sea with rocks falling on his head, and marries one of the seagull-girls who live on the other side. Valentina told this story in prose at one festival and sang its song interludes at the other. When a nimanku is told properly, songs emphasise important conversations and climactic moments, helping to emphasize tension and drama and to underline important events. The seven sea-gull girls sing to the hero Yegdyghe saying, "How will you cross the burning sea, with rocks falling on your head?" He replies to them in song, "I will wear ice boots on my feet and seven pots on my head to protect me." Later, on the way back to his home, the girls sing to each other as they grow weaker and fall into the sea. Yegdyghe sings to the last seagull girl, encouraging her to keep flying. The music also shows the passage of time, as when Yegdyghe is crossing the sea. Valentina also used gestures and lengthened certain vowel sounds to call attention to new beginnings and other dramatic points within the story. (This story appears in Simonov 1998: 216-223.)

Udegei Shaman and Drum

Udegei Shaman Adikini holding her shaman's drum at a picnic on the river Khor;
photo by Kira Van Deusen

The story of Gamuli tells of a girl who climbs an ice mountain. She defeats the master of the wind in competition and then marries him. On her way to the mountain she meets two other girls who sing to ask her where she is going. She sings her reply, repeating the challenge of the Master of the Wind and telling about the ice mountain. In this instance the song reminds us of the challenge the girls face, the length of the road and difficulties to be overcome. It also shows that the girls are entering a competition with each other. The Master of the Wind's mother sings to him as the three competing girls try to climb the mountain, telling him to kill Gamuli. We three performers used the khua and vocal sound effects, conveying the roaring of the wind. In the later part of the story, gestures and a knife fight appear instead of songs as ways of adding drama to the telling. Usually storytellers add theatrical elements when performing for larger audiences. It seems to be an instinctive process.

As I look back at the use of song in these and other nimankuni, I see that singing is an expression of power and emotion while speaking simply conveys information. Story characters sing to challenge their enemies, when calling to their lovers, and whenever they strongly want to influence someone else.

To top of page

As in shamanic cultures throughout the world, both musical instruments and vibrations in the singing voice help call spirits—including healing spirits, helping spirits and the spirits of place and of the story itself. They help shamans and storytellers to journey to other worlds. The Udeghe language even distinguishes the speaking and singing voices with very different words (keie, speaking; jaga, singing) which indicates that singing and speaking have very different places in their culture. Certain vocal techniques, like overtone singing in Tuva, exaggerated vibrato, other tone colours which are difficult to describe, as well as frequent repetition of words and intervals, are especially powerful in opening doors to the world of spirit. Resonant instruments such as the drum, string instruments with skin heads, and others like the kunkai which have freely vibrating wood or metal parts also create rich overtones which help to shake us loose from everyday vision and thinking. We heard it in the very subtle old drum Valentina Tunsianovna played, which had belonged to one of the last Udeghe shamans, Adikhini, and also in the jaw harp.

Valentina and Nadia performed bird calls, which are frequently used in hunting and in shamanic ritual where they may also be calling helping spirits and carriers of messages or proving the shaman's transformation into a bird.

They also demonstrated Gongoi, the opening part of a shamanic ritual where those present traditionally participated by taking up the shaman's drum and yampa, (belt with bells) to begin calling the shaman's sprits and raising energy for the kamlanie. In Canada spectators used rattles and other small instruments.

Subtle musical vibrations can act directly on a person's physical and energetic systems to bring about healing. The rapidly growing art/science of music therapy also makes use of subtle vibrations as well as differing musical styles in working with many different physical and psychological illnesses. In my own newly beginning practice of healing using the sounds of the cello and my voice I find that different registers and tone colours can affect specific energy centers and physical organs. Juxtaposing these sounds can help harmonize the activities of discordant parts of the human body and psyche, and remove foreign energies. The specifics vary with each client. In addition to my healing practice I use music in storytelling to attain similar results, in correspondence with the imagery of the story.

Music provides a pause in the plot for the story's lessons to sink in. It maintains the imagery which has been created with words, or shifts it subtly to prepare for what will come next. It gives listeners an experience beyond words and embodies experiences from other times, places, and realities. Music intensifies emotion and aids memory, which is why tellers use it to reinforce important lessons.

For Canadian and American First Nations people, especially in the west, public performance involves complex issues of song and story ownership by individuals and clans. Outsiders (including native people from other clans or nations) do not have the right to record or perform them and can cause grave offense by doing so. In the Yukon, clan tradition is stronger among the Tlingit people than among the Athabaskans, although present in both. In recent years the issue of cultural appropriation has added new levels of controversy. First Nations (and other) people have become increasingly aware and vocal about the fact that outsiders have used elements of their cultures to make money and build careers at their expense. Very often the cultures are distorted beyond recognition and in insulting ways—the most flagrant example being the portrayal of "Indians" in the movies. For this reason First Nations people are insisting on their right to be the ones to present their culture to others.

Several generations have been brought up in residential schools away from their own cultures and today's young people intermarry outside the traditional structures, which makes for considerable debate over who belongs to which clan. For this reason, and because young people are not fluent in the native languages so necessary to conveying ancient songs and stories, performers tend to use contemporary material which is less controversial. In developing their artistic talent, many young people use elements of tradition in new formats. They also write their own songs which convey the realities of living on reserves and other social problems more directly than would be possible through traditional tales.

Nonetheless, judicious use of sacred tradition has served to raise public awareness of their cultures, and oral histories have stood up in court as evidence in negotiations over rights to the land. Native leaders point out that recording important facts on paper is as foreign to their thinking as clan ownership of both physical and intellectual property is to European Canadians.

There is a big difference between the festival performances of Yukon elders and those of younger generations. The elders tend to tell their stories more intimately and conversationally, sometimes with the help of translators, while younger people perform either alone or in multi-generational stage ensembles using elaborate costumes and dances as well as stories and songs. They use non-traditional instruments like guitars and electronic instruments. As in the former Soviet Union, First Nations ensembles use dance choreography differently from the traditional ways, although they are less likely to have studied dance and choreography professionally and thus have adopted fewer foreign elements. Both young and old tend to speak more publicly about spirituality than performers I have seen in Russia.

Today's Yukon elders are devising ways to convey to mixed audiences important concepts about the land and about respect for all living beings. Listeners from within the community have enough background to understand the humor and pathos of the stories on multiple levels ranging from the spiritual to the historical and political, while some outsiders may be having their first encounter with First Nations culture and catch only part of what is going on. For example, since First Nations people have been actively negotiating land claims with the government over the years the festival has taken place, performers make public statements about their rights to their ancient territories through telling legends set in those places. Some people understand the reference and others do not. First Nations stories are often tied closely to geography—underlining the fact that storytelling and music are forms of communication with the land, harmonizing our vibrations with those of the planet. For example one song expresses people's thanks to a lake for not letting them starve. Thus one story or song can have both a political and an ecological message as well as the human emotional qualities involved with the plot and characters.

To top of page

While the Udeghe performers used songs within stories, Yukon elders may tell a story about a song—how a given person got the right to sing it, where it came from, the occasion for its composition. The song is an integral part of the story. In private a storyteller may sing the entire song within the story (as opposed to song interludes like the Udeghe). Sometimes a person may tell such a story without singing the song at all, depending on who is present, since the song is the most private part and should not be sent out into the wider public among unknown people. When working with anthropologists these storytellers often ask to have the tape recorder turned off while they sing.

One Yukon elder expressed her contempt for those who sing in public describing private events and feelings outside the song's proper context. She said, "It's just like radio," meaning the singer was foolish to sing without knowing where the song was going, who would hear it, and how they would accept it. Such things should stay within their own circles. For similar reasons Tlingit elders do not sing personal songs in public, although occasionally an Athabaskan elder does. Both of them use the important songs and stories to define the quality and history of their own lives. In the words of Tlingit/Tagish elder Angela Sidney, "I tried to live my life right, just like a story." (Cruikshank, Sidney, Smith, Ned 1990: 1)

Because words and musical sounds are so powerful, we need to be very careful and aware about how we use them. My Udeghe friends agree that it is dangerous to speak in broad circles about certain spiritual matters although this does not affect their public storytelling and singing since they choose their material accordingly. In my experience, the peoples of the Amur are most cautious with personal life stories about shamans, and about the use of plants and other methods of spiritual healing. In Chukotka and other areas where people have personal songs often given to them at birth, singers I've heard have asked permission before singing someone else's song out of respect for the composer.

A song is perceived as having greater truth than the spoken word, probably because of its greater emotional power and connection with spirit. In a story told by Yukon elder Annie Ned, a shaman is taken away by the caribou, but people don't realize it until they hear the caribou singing the shaman's song, proving that the transformation has taken place. The story continues, telling how the man's relatives gradually helped him to return to the human world, but after that he was unable to hunt caribou. The emotional content is still alive long after events have faded into history. Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank describes a woman in Alaska who was so moved by the tragedy described in a song that she was unable to perform it 180 years after the fact.

Younger First Nations people sing many kinds of songs at festivals including traditional welcome songs, songs composed for the potlatch (the most important holiday ceremony), and humorous songs about contemporary life. Unlike many parts of Siberia where a drum is an instrument that can only be owned or played by a shaman, many people own drums, which are sometimes given as gifts. Young First Nations people compose their own personal songs, although occasionally someone may sing a song that belonged to an older person (with permission). There are songs created for special events, but mostly those held privately among family and friends, such as a potlach.

There are many commonalities between the Udeghe and the Yukon First Nations in terms of finding ones own voice after being under colonial rule. Song and story heal wounded communities and cultures by contributing to knowledge and pride in who we are. The two Udeghe women adapted to the interests of people they met in Canada, speaking about the use of healing plants, and the teaching functions of stories which is more strongly emphasized by Canadian peoples than by Siberian. They found much in common with people they met in terms of their history, spirituality, culture and contemporary political and cultural problems, as well as differences surrounding story and music. On my voyage to the Yukon with my Udeghe guests, music served to unite peoples across cultures, beyond differences in language, and to open doors to new communications.

Cruikshank, Julie. 1999. The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory. Vancouver: UBC Press

Cruikshank, Julie in collaboration with Angela Sidney, Kitty Smith, and Annie Ned. 1990. Life Lived Like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Sheikin, Y.I. 1998. "Fol'klornaya muzyka ude" in Simonov, MD. 1998. Folklor udegeitsev: nimanku, telungu, ekhe. Novosibirsk: Rossiiskaya Akademia Nauk.

Simonov, MD. 1998. Folklor udegeitsev: nimanku, telungu, ekhe. Novosibirsk: Rossiiskaya Akademia Nauk.

Thanks to: Julie Cruikshank, Johanna Kuyvenhoven, Nadezhda Kimonko, Valentina Kyalundzyuga, Louise Profiet-Leblanc, Olga Sheikin, Yuri Sheikin, Mikhail Simonov.

© K. Van Deusen 2000

(back to Articles index)

To top of page