June 14, 2018

“One rainy summer day, a little girl of 14 years old was sitting near the TV, and from the screen enchanting sounds suddenly captivated her attention and brought her to the front of the screen. She saw that small metallic instrument on people’s mouths, making amazing sounds. She remembered suddenly that she also has that instrument on the shelf, which her parents told her “do not to touch otherwise it can break”. That same day, she started to hit the tongue of the instrument and make her first true sounds. Her head turned, and she understood that she had fallen in love, that’s how this long story began …”

I received my first khomus when I was a one year old baby. My parents previously lived in Taatta Uluus – Taatta Municipal region. The region is mostly known in Sakha for being the home of the earliest Sakha writers and Olonkho tellers. Since, many more legendary writers have come from this region as well as Sakha culture and tradition being strongly held and maintained here. In total, the Republic of Sakha contains 36 Municipal Formations, including 34 Municipal Regions and 2 City Districts. Each Municipal Region has its own ‘Uluus Bahylyk’ appointed, which is the Sakha term for the leader of the region. In the context of my parents’ story, it was cold winter time and a freshly married couple with one baby were living in a such cold and old soviet style apartment, which was barely even heated. At that time in 1990, my father Valeriy’s friend and countryman from Khangalass Uluus, Ivan Khristophorov, was coming to Taatta Uluus for the Masterclass of Mandar Uus – a legendary blacksmith from Taatta Uluus. When Ivan was visiting my parents’ place he gave to us the first khomus which he had crafted after studying khomus making. In 1990, both Ivan’s career as a blacksmith and the 15 year journey of the khomus that he gave to us began.

In 20 – 25th June 1991 in Yakutsk, the second world Khomus Congress (International Jew’s Harp Festival) named ‘Vargan: Traditions and Modernity’ was held. It was the first time that this congress was held in Sakha’s territory (then inside the Soviet Union). People came from around of the world to discuss the khomus instrument’s destiny and to share, demonstrate and perform on each country’s national kind of khomus (or in English: jew’s harp). Fourteen years later, the concert from that event was re-shown on the local television channel ‘NVK Sakha’. I think that this congress event and its concert really created a big impact on the revival of khomus music in Sakha, even years later. I was already really curious already before that TV programme: Why and how does this small instrument, which looks so tiny, make such huge of variety of sounds? Khomus itself resembles a key, and I called it a key when I was small. Sometimes when our grandmother was visiting us she would take the instrument and play folk melodies or make pleasing sounds. After, she would quickly put it back its box and not allow us children to touch it. She said that the most sensitive part of the instrument is the tongue, which can easily break. The prohibition of not allowing me to play this instrument did its job well — I wanted to play it so much! Later I was allowed to play the instrument sometimes, and at that time I didn’t have any correct knowledge of technique or styles of playing, so I followed my intuition and my heart. I could improvise or make some sounds which I enjoyed, and from re-watching and imitating I could completely copy the manner of playing from the television recording of that Khomus Congress concert. That same year, with my strong ambition to learn more about this instrument, I applied to the local art school for secondary school children. I demonstrated everything that I could play from that TV programme and I was accepted! In that school, some teachers already knew me, as my first musical instrument had been violin which I took classes for in school. I remember that after one year of studying the violin I had asked my mother if I could not go back for the second year – it’s funny, yes! I knew then it wasn’t my instrument. After that my family tried to make me to join dance classes, but destiny wouldn’t allow it — in the first session my nose bled strongly onto the white dancing dress. The same day, the teachers (who were worried after that event) moved me from dance class to art/painting class, which I later successfully graduated from with high marks! I love painting by the way! I am sharing my arts/paintings here in our blog posts and on social media. I have so many to share with you! A long way to find my way, I would say, but it wasn’t too long really as I started from fourteen years old and took so many skills which grew with me through life.

My teacher’s surname in art school was also coincidentally Fedorova! She was a kind and understanding teacher. Rimma Gerasimovna Fedorova taught us to perform Olonkho (spoken heroic epic), to sing traditional folk songs, to read Chabyrgakh (fast rhythmic vocal style), to perform Toyuk (traditional blessing song), traditional Sakha Rituals like Ohuakhay (summer solstice circle dance), Algys (blessing ritual) and of course a large part of the course was based on Khomus. For me as it was important that I learned about Khomus music structure and the names of different techniques and styles of playing, since I could already perform many of these without knowing the theory behind them. For exams we should be able to perform traditional song melodies on Khomus from sheet music. The methodical text which we studied from was written by Nikolay Berestev.

Me and my lecturer at Art School, Taatta, 2010

One day, Rimma said to me “you’re playing really well, you could participate in one republic competition called ‘New Names’ funded by the Bargaryy fund”. This competition was founded by first President of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) Mikhail Yefimovich Nikolayev. The competition was held in Yakutsk in a Musical College named after Mark Jirkov. We all went together to Yakutsk: my mother, my teacher and the other participants. My main and significant discovery during this trip was from the widely different variations in playing that I experienced. Everybody who joined had lots of experience in competitions and performances and their own unique style. I also saw Albina Degtyareva (leader of the ‘Ayarkhaan’ ethno-group) there, who was a teacher in that college and jury member for khomus category of the competition. Well, I didn’t win anything that first year (I received ‘Thank You’ letter for attendance). The next year I received the 2nd place nomination, although for me the more important aspects were the experience and the opportunity to learn more about that instrument. Not long later, I won a different (local) competition for young artists in Taatta, for which the prizes were recording one track with a music producer and touring all over the Taatta region (which contains many Municipal regions, the main center being Ytyk-Kuel). The music production project was initiated by Sergey Popov and he created my first track in 2005-2006!!!! I was touring with my one composition over many villages in the Taatta region, along with a group of selected teenager. This early touring was a hugely significant experience from my youngest time.

I recently rediscovered my first track from these days in my old files and I’ve uploaded it here, if you are interested to hear it!:

I also noticed from my early days that there are not too many tutorials or method books on khomus playing technique or style available to the general population. Since I held my first khomus that summer after watching the concert on TV, it was like a lightning storm of ideas erupted inside me! I already knew that in the future I would write a methodical book of playing techniques! I did it in 2011 when the 7th International khomus Congress held was that year. Maybe some readers here remember that book: ‘Khomus and my World’. I know my book well and in time, I am planning to update it and re-publish it in a new format with full English translation!

Here is the cover and inside of my book ‘Khomus and my World’:

By the way you might notice that the picture is taken from Instagram. I had to take it from there to show because me and Oscar are actually right now sitting in the ‘Elephant Cafe’ in Edinburgh! We’re just visiting here for one day and this cafe is the place where J.K. Rowing wrote Harry Potter. I enjoyed those books so much! It is a really inspiring place to sit and take inspiration:

My name was Natalia Fedorova previously, but I didn’t feel that it is my name. When people asked my name, I would always think about it longer, trying to remember it: “what’s the name that I have?!”. Sounds strange and silly perhaps, but even this can happen! Since my childhood, I wanted a different name. Later in secondary school, I saw a dream where the letter “S” started to appear to me, then later changed into “Saydyy”. In Sakha language, Saydyy translates to ‘keep going, keep growing, developing’. To Saydyy I added the word ‘Kuo’ from the Olonkho heroic epic. Kuo is a word of Turkic origin meaning ‘beautiful, a beauty’. In the Olonkho epic ‘Nurgun Botur the Swift’ by Platon Oyunskiy, Kuo means something like ‘girl, but not yet a woman’, representing purity and title. The name of one of the main characters of the epic is ‘Tuyaryma Kuo’. Nowadays (in the present day) it has become popular and people have started to add ‘Kuo’ to their name so much, but the significance for me in those days was firstly to identify myself as a Sakha woman and secondly because it sounds beautiful. I like it, that’s the main thing!

In the end I performed so many times in many places and won some other competitions locally and abroad of Sakha and Russia. It was all a great experience for me, an opportunity to learn more and develop myself and my music. In 2009, there was a competition in our republic called ‘Khomus Kuo – 2009’ organised by the Khomus Museum and Center. While I didn’t win the main title, I was awarded the title ‘Djyuryusken Kuo’ (roughly meaning “girl who is playing strongly” in Sakha). Below, you can watch my performance from that competition. In my performance I demonstrated many playing variations using different khomuses, including an electronic khomus about which I will make a separate BLOG POST! Because ELECTRONIC KHOMUS is an amazing creation! I didn’t understand then how the jury didn’t appreciate my passion for Khomus music, but I am glad to participate in so many unique concerts and events.

An electric Khomus constructed by Valeriy Fedorov and made by Ivan Khristophorov (pictured below):

Khristophorov Ivan, Khangalass Uluus

Me at ‘Khomus Kuo’ competition, Yakutsk, 2009

Well, soon I will post Part B of this topic!

The story continues! …

By the way, I believe my first Khomus came to me as a gift from the UNIVERSE. I was born in winter and it came in winter. I really thankful to the master Ivan Khristophorov who created this magical instrument and to all the people who supported or were part this story.

Yhyakh is a National Solstice Celebration, it is what I will write about in my next BLOG POST. The reason for this is that next week is Thursday is 21st of June — The exact date of Summer Solstice, when all Sakha people will be celebrating Ysyakh!

Saydyy Kuo

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