This is exactly what the Nivkhs are doing. Right out on the banks of the rivers and lakes or in the forests, daytime is man’s constant struggle with nature for survival. After the last fish has been caught and the last meat spoils wrestled from the forest, the Nivkhs come back to their open encampment.PACIFIC RIM MUSIC FESTIVAL  

“Ancient Sakhalin in Music, Song and Dance”

old Nivkhi toolsFor most foreigners on Sakhalin, I suspect, the Nivkhs are so remote from their lives that they probably only turn up on politically correct calendars or books produced on Sakhalin with a chapter devoted to them in the midst of all the other articles on the island. Just imagine though, a Finnish violinist, Pia Siirala, who went up and lived with the Nivkhs during their vital fishing and hunting season where food is collected to see them through the winter. A Canadian friend of mine some years ago described his childhood over half a century ago when the whole family lived in a remote area and took to the mountains and forests in the summer and autumn to hunt, then smoke, cure and prepare their provisions for the winter. This is exactly what the Nivkhs are doing. Right out on the banks of the rivers and lakes or in the forests, daytime is man’s constant struggle with nature for survival. After the last fish has been caught and the last meat spoils wrestled from the forest, the Nivkhs come back to their open encampment. And here is the crux of the matter. In earlier days, after the children had been fed, the fires kindled for the night ahead, the Nivkhs would gather together for the entertainment of the evening, songs, ballads, tales from the past and legends and dances, but the younger generation know nothing of this. Forced removal of their parents from their homes and placement in boarding schools - where their language was forbidden and only Russian allowed - had a devastating effect on their oral traditions. This is very much like what happened in Ireland in my grandmother’s time; a native Irish speaker, she was beaten in school for speaking her own language and forced to communicate only in English. Yet language and music are inseparable. Fortunately in Ireland the music survived and is the strongest national identity that we have, and has been instrumental in the revival of the Irish language.

So, imagine the sensation when the Finnish violinist turned up at such an encampment and began to play Nivkh music that she had learned by ear from archival recordings made in the early to mid parts of the last century. With her was the Russian musical expert on the Nivkh traditions, Natalia Mamcheva, and they came bearing some of the old Nivkh instruments. Before long the camp had turned into a virtual rehearsal territory as older Nivkhs remembered how to play some of these instruments and younger Nivkhs enthusiastically embraced the traditions. Siirala and Mamcheva travelled like this,The first joint performances in Russia between classical and indigenous musicians. The classical musicians will perform the ancient Nivkh music with the indigenous performers gathering material from the old folks and roping in the younger Nivkhs.

As the Festival approached, preparations were at a feverish level in Nogliki. In the meantime Siirala had returned to her homeland to create a special composition based on the material that she had collected from the Nivkhs. Overwhelmed by the richness and extent of the material she had collected, she ‘did a Nivkh’ herself and headed off for two days in the forests near Savonlinna to mentally distil it all. The result was incredible.

Classical music performed in the Nivkhi FestivalI have known Siirala professionally as my concertmaster for many years, and when I arrived in Nogliki for the festival and heard this work I was overwhelmed. Yet how, I thought, will the Nivkhs react? On the first hearing the excitement was palpable as themes were recognised by the Nivkhs. Not only themes, but also the rhythms and the original instruments themselves that go back to Neolithic times. In place of the ‘tyatya chxach’, a log, engraved with bear heads on either side, which is beaten as their main percussion instrument, the musicians of Ensemble XXI knocked on the wood of their instruments. The tremolo and wide vibrato of the Nivkh singing and the instruments were brought out by the modern instruments to stunning effect.

The Nivkh music has a strong element of improvisation in itThe ultimate stamp of approval for me was the when the festival performance began and the Nivkh lady, tyotya Lida, one of the older generation, launched the performance with an original air, which was then heard as the Ensemble XXI musicians began Siirala’s composition. The lady remained in the midst of them and nodded as she recognised a theme, her body swaying at the highly contagious rhythms and emotion crossing her face as the piece reached culmination. It was surely the greatest compliment of all to see such reactions from a Nivkh performer who remembered the days gone by when their culture flourished.

The rest of the performance was a bonanza of colour, enthusiasm and humour as national dances were performed by the various ensembles that struggle to survive and continue the traditions. The youngest performers was three"The Bear Dance" performed by a young Nivkha years and six years old, the oldest well into their eighties. The performance ended with all the performers joining in the Bear Dance’ from the original authentic dance to the interpretations of the teenagers of 2004, almost reminiscent of Ireland’s modern interpretation of Irish music in the form of River dance’. These performances were just the beginning of the ongoing Pacific Rim Music Festival’s co-operation with the Nivkhs and the indigenous people of Sakhalin.

Now we have reached the stage where not only is time of the essence Time is of the essence as the older generations die out and carry the precious music with them. This valuable and ancient culture must be preserved, as it is part of our world heritage.(i.e. as long as we have the older generations still with us to pass on the traditions), but where it is essential that the whole of society joins in to save Sakhalin’s indigenous people. Now what is needed is a concerted effort on the part of many people, bureaucrats, the huge oil companies that are gaining so much on Sakhalin and their contractors. This does not mean empty rhetoric from the oil companies waving their IP’ (which I discovered is many company’s description of the Nivkhs) white papers in the background. A politically correct nod to the indigenous people is ridiculous as you move into their territory with policies and white papers created by so called experts recruited into these companies for the IP policy’. The Nivkhs are not initials, they are people just like you and me and part of the life of our society. They are highly intelligent and wise and certainly not fools when it comes to their livelihood and rights. The alternative attitude to them will benefit everybody. We cannot fly in the face of modern technology, but equally modern technology cannot fly in the face of the indigenous culture. Sooner or later it will catch up with the white man, as has been so evident in Australia with the aboriginals. Why not use that lesson so that the painful episodes and the confrontation that was needed for the aboriginal culture to be recognised, can be avoided on Sakhalin? This will need every single person on the island to be aware of the fact that we are living in the midst of a people whose roots lie in Neolithic times.

All over Europe, caves with the paintings of our ancient ancestors are being closed to protect them for posterity. Sakhalin’s culture is just as ancient and no matter whether you are a Russian or a foreigner on Sakhalin, you can play a role. I know that over a beer in the Kona Bar or a dinner at the Sapporo the Nivkh man fishing or hunting for his family’s livelihood for the winter seems seriously remote. However, if you think about it, he or she is doing exactly what you are doing - earning your family’s livelihood. And could I suggest something radical? Ask your company to organise an excursion to the local Nivkh settlement and settle down for some local fare, whether it’s smoked reindeer, salmon or seal.

As for the IP’ experts in their ivory towers that definitely would not survive even the thought of a night in a yurt, the clock is now ticking. President Putin himself visited the indigenous Nenets people in the Arctic circle and now the indigenous peoples of Kamchatka and North America are being granted a visa free zone by both countries to encourage the indigenous relationship. I would like to emphasise that from the very beginning of this project I was actually amazed that it was Russians that embraced the idea of our performances with the Nivkhs with such enthusiasm. This is a sign of the future when Sakhalin residents, of whatever national origin, will proudly proclaim their own indigenous people. 

And last, but not least a word to all of our sponsors, many of them foreign companies too. Thank you for blazing the trail and giving such a great example and joining our Russian sponsors in this unique festival where, for the first time ever in Russia, classical musicians played with indigenous peoples.

copyright © Lygia O'Riordan  

read about Returning to Sakhalin
Pacific Rim Music Festival 2003
  The Pacific Rim Music Festival 2001