North! To Alaska!

By Alexander Campbell

In Chukotka the world comes full circle, North America and Asia almost touching each other, in a geographic ouroboros a snake circling around and joining its head to its tail, eating itself: here, where Asia and the Americas gaze across the waters at each other from their most extreme points of East and West, the two continental landscapes start to look similar, with similar plants, similar animals and even, with the Inuit, similar people.

This being an inaccessible and therefore exotic region of the globe, one knows so little about it (or that's been true for me, at least). We all know about the barren, frozen wilderness the land is locked inside; and we know of gold rushes to Alaska of the gold locked within the land.

Out of such mythic, empty terrains often pour stories of incalculable wealth that defies both the imagination and what one can see on the surface of poverty and harsh living conditions among the inhabitants. But any lucky adventurer who is going to be among the first to find gold, and strike it really rich, has to look past the dismal and unpromising surface of the place and brave the elements, the conditions, the heavy odds against surviving (not to mention against finding anything) and just go out exploring. There's simply no other way.

As for gold well, you know me: couldn't care less (or, well, you know what I mean). What I'm after is a different kind of wealth: world music, and the stranger and more exotic, the less well-known, the better, as far as I'm concerned.

And now here we are! in the far reaches of the Northern Arctic, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska.

But as for us after all our journeying across all this frigid ice and snow is there any music here, or is it all just fable? And if there is any music to be found here will we get lucky enough to be able to locate and then get some out?

Ergyron: the official State professional music and dance ensemble in Chukotka a sure-enough vein that we can mine, ongoing. It is not only dedicated to keeping the musical spirit of the two main ethnic groups the Chukchi and the Inuit alive; but also that of the Koryaks, the Chuvans, and the reindeer-herding Lamuts.

The Chukchi have strong female musicians from more than a single generation: Galina Tagriny (whom I would assume is no longer alive); Olga Letykai, a middle-aged woman who travels around the world demonstrating Chukchi music and dance (and then posting her demos on YouTube); and Veronica Usholik (who looks from online to be in her thirties), who not only performs Chukchi traditional music and dance but also incorporates it into her Rock band Gubernator. Usholik has the additional interesting talent of being able to sing ventriloquially while playing the jew's harp. Not all of the singers are women there is an elderly throat singer, Albert Ragtuvje.

I almost forgot to talk about the Ergyron ensemble the official touring ensemble of the Chukchi Okrug. They not only sing music & dance from the Chukchi and Inuit, but also the lesser known ethnic groups such ast the Koryaks, the Chuvans, and the reindeer-herding Lamuts, etc. They have a really haunting song called Nunlingran which is a town in the Providencia District of Chukotka.

Chukchi and Inuit singing/throat-singing incorporates imitations of a widely-varying bunch of sounds: animals, seagulls and other birds, other kinds of wildlife, various sounds of nature (and what sounds like sex). Very gritty, primal stuff but Chukchi music can also be very harmonious and melodic. The Inuit use high-pitched-squeals and throaty-deep sounds I cannot tell the difference when it is a male singer or female singer since they have the same vocal style although there seems to be more female musicians than men.

There's a great deal more about music of this region online at www.louisvillemusic.org/terrabeat/.