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.
- 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
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
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
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.
Natalya Mamcheva 2004