The tundra (steppe) and the taiga (forest) cover immense territories of Siberia, from the White Sea to the Sea of Japan and from Yakutia to the borders of the polar Arctic circle. On this land, which is liable to freeze to up to twelve metres in depth live men who are conscious of the unbridled force of nature capable of crushing them at any moment. With their songs, their drums and their instruments, they defy the wind, the cold and the thunder.
This recording presents the three branches of the Altaic family: the Turkish, with its roost northern cough the Yakuts, the Mongol branch with the Buryats, and the Tungusic-Manchu branch with three groups from the Amur region: the Nanay, the Üdegei and the Ulch. Two groups belonging to the Samoyed linguistic family, the Nenets (or Nentsi) and the Nganasan, are also represented.
The Yakuts and the Buryats (328,000 and 353,000 respectively at the 1979 census) have inherited a certain number of points in common from their close and repeated contacts. The Yakuts, who came from the west of Lake Baikal, drove then vast herds northwards as far as the present Yakut plain. Their epics tell of lingering treks along the Lena. Cattle breeders (cows and horses), former nomads now more or less settled, Yakuts and Buryats remain passionate hunters since, in their eyes, this preserves virility. They also maintain a strong sens of clanship which shows itself through feelings of solidarity and hospitality (as illustrated, for example, by the countless numbers of guests invited to weddings). Their epic art is particularly well-developed; performances of the epic, within certain limitations (forbidden during the Summer and daytime) in the past, fulfilled a ritual role: indispensable before a hunt (the great majority of Buryat epics recount the quest tor a bride considered a hero's most demanding pursuit). Common to both cultures are rounds (ieekher in Buryat, osuokhaj in Yakut) in which, on the one hand, a trailing rhythm alternates with one suddenly accelerated by leaps, and on the other, improvised sole verses with choral refrains. Imitating the sound made by reindeer running, these dances once used to form part of the major spring and summer festivals (rituals to animate the shaman's drum, obtaining wild game, marriage).
The term Tungus covers an ensemble of small ethnic groups related linguistically, but widely dispersed; the total number of Tungus in Russia attained 56,900 in 1979 (some living in China). The major grouping is composed of the Evenk and the Even (or Lamuts), all hunters and reindeer breeders. The second largest group, more close-knit and homogenous,is made up of the minor peoples of the Amur region: the Nanay or Gold (10,500), the Ulch (2,600), the Üdegei (1,600) and the Negidal, Orotch and Orok, all hunters and fishermen settled in small communities.
The Nganasan of the Taymir peninsula are the most septentrional population of Russia. Hunters, fishermen, reindeer breeders, they live in small settlements that do not really take into account patrilineal clan partition. Their religion is based on an ensemble of animist beliefs which apply not only to natural elements, but also to man-made objects. As with most Siberian populations, shamanism occupies an important place in the Nganasan's ritual system. Man or woman, the shaman is elected by the spirits. This election is conveyed by a call, an initiation given by the spirits, but which must be backed up by solid apprenticeship under a professional. Once trained, the shaman undergoes an official investiture, the central element of which in that of animating the drum, only musical instrument known to the Nganasan, and exclusively reserved for this use. The shaman's activity is centred around the souls of humans and animals, and on spirits. Responsible for guiding and counselling souls, the shaman also acts on super-natural forces likely to pose a threat to the ommunity. To do that, he must not only be capable of incorporating them within himself, but also of exteriorising his own soul so that it can embark on a journey. Unlike the phenomena of possession where the passivity of the possessed is controlled by a ritualist, shamanism brings out the double activity of the shaman who, while maintaining total control over the ritual and himself, succeeds in manipulating the spirits in a constant adorcist and exorcist toing-and-froing.
The Nenets form the largest group in the Samoyed linguistic family. Their territory, covered by tundra and taiga, extends northwest of Siberia, including the Kanin peninsular and the shores of the Barents and Kara seas. Semi-nomadic, they make out a living from hunting, fishing and rearing reindeer moving their herds from one pasture to another. Their social organisation is based on a patilineal and classificatory system which orders regrouping by clans of individuals, ownership of hunting lands, fishing grounds and pastures, as well as places of sacrifice. Nenets cosmogony attributes the creation of the world and the living to a supreme god. It also encompasses an important number of secondary divinities and spirits who are directly invoked through sacrifices or through the intercession of shamans, the spiritual elect of those divinities.