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  • Ensemble Ülger - Vol. II - Traditional songs of the Khakas people

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

- FM 50050 - P & C 2013
more information songs in GermanEnsemble Ülger

1. Khoor-khoor – alghas (prayer), Khaas people - 3:56
2. Akh morcho – yr (lyric song), Khaas people - 2:59
3. Alyp Khan Khys – alyptygh nymakh (heroic epic), Khyzyl people - 2:45
4. Arbat taigha – yr (lyric song), Khaas people - 4:42
5. Chymyr khaia – instrumental, Saghai people - 2:17
6. Khoiballar yry – oiynda yrlajang yr (game song), Khoibal people - 1:58
7. Khymyskha yry – ang-khustar yry (lyric song by an animal), Saghai people - 1:48
8. Abyrai yry – yr (work song), Saghai people - 4:11
9. Töö köglerî – instrumental, Saghai people - 2:37
10. Aba syydy – ang-khustar syydy (lament by an animal), Khaas people - 2:26
11. Kenei ool yry – yr (lyric song), Khyzyl and Khaas people - 4:32
12. Chylygh künnerîm – yr (lyric song) - 3:24
13. Chazy köglerî – instrumental, Saghai people - 4:10
14. Attar oilatchang chazylarda – yr (lyric song), Khyzyl people - 4:47
15. Oidang oigha – saryn (lyric song), Saghai people - 2:45
16. Khys pala köngnî – yr (lyric song), Khaas people - 1:55
17. Püür syydy – ang-khustar syydy (lament by an animal), Shira aimaghy - 1:51
18. Yrys – yr (lyric song), Khyzyl people - 3:29
19. Taigha ünnerî – instrumental, Saghai people - 5:13
20. Pora adym – saryn (lyric song), Saghai people - 3:58
21. Aghyn khustar – saryn (lyric song), Saghai people - 6:04


The ensemble Ülger from Abakan in the Republic of Khakassia was founded in 1989. They have committed themselves to revive and keep alive their tradition in music as well as dance. Ülger means “Pleiades”, the winter stars that rise in early autumn and announce the long, dark, cold season. Legend has it that Ülger rides through the sky on a two-headed horse, scattering extreme cold and snowfall on earth. People believed the Pleiades to be the place of residence of powerful heavenly beings who decided upon a human being’s fate.

The Pleiades: The Mushins plays an important role in the Buryat-Mongolian cosmology. Already in earliest times, people believed that the Tenger (powerful heavenly creatures) of the western direction meet at the Pleiades in order to discuss how to help mankind in fighting death and diseases. In this gathering, they created the Eagle, the first shaman. The Pleiades - Mushins also plays an important role in the epic Geser and the creator Ülgen of the Altai population.

he Khakas people have been known for their rich storytelling traditions, both in epics with throat singing as well as prose, just like their neighbouring Turkic tribes. Songs and stories are often performed in accompaniment of the lute or the box zither. Besides storytelling, they had a wide range of songs for ceremonies, rituals, which lead the people through their life from birth to death, as well as songs for the various seasons. The Khakas also have a limited repertory of pure instrumental pieces and various ceremonial dances. In the evenings or during the long winter nights men as well as women used to gather and entertain therewith. They have attempted to copy the sounds of nature as well as those created when people are working. Hunters and breeders used animal sounds to call or attract their flocks. The oral transmission of their traditions was lost due to forced Russification and the modernization of folklore. Seasonal rituals, clan meetings and shaman sessions were prohibited or firmly discouraged, such as ritual performances at holy sites. Life cycle events like weddings, birth or death, ceremonies for infants and small children, death watches or prayers before the hunt have been lost. When Soviet politics loosened in the mid-1980s, most traditional practices had become rare or had disappeared altogether, especially ritual ceremonies, and epic performances of tribal history having historic importance have become neglected. The non-ceremonial music had turned into folkloristic stage music.

Now young musicians seek to revive these traditions. They move away from the Soviet-based reconstructed “folk music” in search for the authentic patterns of their ancestors. They have started to collect repertoire from the few remaining traditional performers in the villages still alive and from archived audio recordings and music manuscripts. They try to revive the past when village elders are visiting, and they further search the scarce historical ethnographic sources of their ancestors. The ensemble wants their repertory to play an important role in the process of revival.

In their repertoire today there are included heroic epics with throat singing and accompanied by the wooden box zither or lute, as well as old songs describing everyday life: at work, at the occasion of weddings, laments, ceremonial and prayer songs addressed at the heavenly owners of the sky, the mountains, the water, fire and other elements. Many songs were handed down with little or no text at all, which is why the ensemble rescues these old melodies from oblivion by creating instrumentals with them, or finding fitting traditional poetry to them. The aim is to conserve cultural traditions and values for a young generation, using the mother tongue.

Since 2003 the ensemble has been performing under the artistic guidance and direction of Aycharkh Sayn – a gifted musician, virtuoso throat singer, multi-instrumentalist and storyteller. The ensemble has participated in festivals and competitions in Russia and abroad. They have performed in Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Switzerland, France, and the United Kingdom. In 2005 Ensemble Ülger performed at the Sayan Ring Festival of Ethnic Music in Siberia, and since 2006 they have been touring the south of France several times, the last time being in 2011, when they performed at the Russian Art Festival in Cannes. In February 2012 they featured at the Russian Maslenitsa Festival in London.

Khakassia and the Khakas people

The Khakas people are a Turkic-speaking minority, who settled in a region of endless steppes and mountain taiga at the upper Yenisei and in the Minusink Basin, at the foot of the Sayan-Altai mountain range in southern Siberia. Their Turkic-speaking neighbours are the Tuvans, Altaians and Shor people.
In the 17th century A.D. a part of the tribes migrated to the Tien Shan, thereby forming today’s Kyrgyzstan. The migrated Kirghiz have left behind a rich culture as well as an old runic writing.
In the Orkhon Inscriptions dating from the 8th century A.D., there are described the bloody wars and fights taking place in the 6th century against the tribes of the Göktürks, Xueyantuo and the Uighurs in the Han period. There are still songs from the time of this war for autonomy reminding and remembering these conflicts. Petroglyphs, tombs, ritual sites and deer stones tell of days and tribes long gone, which have all settled there from the 3rd century B.C. on, as has been proven by archaeological findings.
Those who remained settled where they live today, in the plains and steppes west of the river Yenisei, upstream in the mountain taiga and in the valley of the Abakan and its tributaries. In 1707, after strong resistance, the land was annexed by the Russian Empire. Songs recalling episodes from this struggle for autonomy have been sung to this very day. In 1923 the country came under Soviet rule, until in 1992 it got the status of an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation.

In today’s Khakassia, various ethnical groups settled between the 6th and the 13th century.
The Khakas tribes themselves were conglomerate of such mixed ethnic groups. In this area, there also settled Kets (the Khanty people) and the Nenets people (Samoyeds) belonging to the tribes of the Uralic group and speaking a Finno-Ugrian language. They formed tribal communities and for a long time were vassals of various Turkic speaking confederations (Dzungars, Oirat Alliance), among those also the Khirgiz and a Manchu-Chinese Qing Dynasty. In the early Soviet period they were restructured as “Khakas”, but they call themselves “Tadar”, with people mainly adhering to their lineage (family name) and clan (söök). In the North of today’s Khakassia there live the Khyzyl people, in the central part the Khaas people. The steppe Khakas (Khaas and Khyzyl) traditionally were pastoralists who moved from winter to summer pastures and supplemented their diet with hunting and agriculture. In the south, there were the Taiga tribes, the Saghai, Khoibal, and Piltîr people, who were fishermen, hunters and gatherers, living on agriculture.
Women held an important place in the Khakas society, which is reflected in many poems and stories of heroes (epics).

Female warriors have been great heroes against external enemies. Women wear a "pogho" (see right), a female breast ornament made of cowry shells, with pearl buttons and colourful beads sewn to the leather or textile.

The poghos build a bridge between generations and act at the same time as a spiritual protective shield that protects female fertility and thus secures offspring.

Worldview, ceremonies and rituals

The Khakas universe consists of three worlds: the upper world with Khudai or Khan Tigîr (“Ruler Sky“) and other spirits having supernatural powers; the underworld with Erlik, the ruler over the evil powers, and the middle world in which we live together with a wide range of spirits, of which the mountains spirits have the greatest impact on human life. People believed to be under the rule of supernatural powers, which they had to subordinate to and which they had to offer sacrifices to. This constitutes an animist worldview (animism – magical belief, religion - all human beings, animals and elements in nature have a soul – a ghost having differing meanings and differing characters). In the elements (fire, water, wind), the spirits have found their homes, furthermore in rocks, trees, mountains and at very particular sites. The belief in nature and to be in compliance therewith, these are two very important matters, which is also visible in texts. Animals live in societies parallel to the human one. Animals and human beings can enter each other’s world and even - temporarily or permanently - change shape.
After death people leave for the “other world“, returning to their relatives who reside in either the ancestral mountain or somewhere in the North. Spirits, who have not succeeded in setting over, will return as evil spirits.

The year is marked by spring, summer, and autumn ceremonies and rituals. The year (chyl pazy) begins in March, with the spring equinox, this constituting the beginning of spring. During the chyl pazy ceremonies the dark, cold season is bid farewell and the warm season met with prayers and coloured ribbons (chalama) that are tied to the sacred birch (pai khazyng) in prayers for a fruitful year. In June, the celebration of the first mare’s milk (tun pairam) is celebrated with riding, wrestling, archery and singing contests. In autumn nature is given thanks for a prosperous spring. Formerly also the return of migrating birds was celebrated in spring. As is known from text findings, migrating birds seemed to have been an important topic for nomads in Siberia and Central Asia. In multi-annual cycles, there were performed extraordinary sacrifice rituals for the spirits of the sky, the mountain or the water.

The spirit owner of nature (eeler) and in particular the spirit owner of the mountains (tagh eezî) are frequently addressed, in personal everyday prayers to show respect and maintain good relationships, and in community invocations and prayers to request the well-being of humans and animals. For misfortune, illness, and catastrophes a range of ritual specialists are invited who mediate between mankind and spirit world. They have helping spirits (töster), mostly in animal shape, whom they ask for help in order to influence the spirit world. Important ritual specialists are the shaman (kham), healer (imchî), and ritual cleaner (alaschy).

Ceremonial and ritual poetry is sung or recited with intoned speech or with overtone singing. Thanks, well-wishing and wish-praying poetry is used for many occasions in order to communicate in sessions and by way of praising words with the helping spirits. Therein these were asked to appear and help in order to manipulate the powers. The Khakas people do not know any praise songs (maktal) such as other Turkic tribes or the Mongols, through which the people may praise other persons, their home country, mountains, and so on using well-wished texts.

Alghys is performed to protect newborn children, a newly-wed couple, the family, community, and animals. Local spirits were also called for help, for protection, for a successful harvest, when entering new land or before hunting. Today, these are also sung as lyric songs. Invocations to the main spirit owners of nature were used to invoke and pray to the spirit owners of sky, mountains, water and taiga. Shamans and healers attempt to get the attention of their helping spirits with invocations and prayers and ask them to help in a session. In order to attract spirits, the people used whispered words and prayers, but also in addition whistling, shouting, moaning, exclaiming, animal imitations, reciting texts or singing songs and, in addition, frequently in accompaniment of a frame drum.

Relatives of Mirgen Irgit


1. Khoor-khoor
Prayer (alghas), Khaas people. After a recording in 1970 from a private collection.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: voice, topchyl-khomys
- Tülber Pögechi: voice, aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: voice, yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: voice, (khai in küülîp style), chatkhan
- Lunic Ivanday: voice, (khai in kharygha style), tüür
- Mirgen Irgit: voice, (khai in küülîp style), sang, khongyros
Alghas, invocations to the main spirit owners of nature, was used in large sacrificial rituals (taiygh) to invoke and pray to the spirit owners (eeler) of sky, mountains, water and taiga.
This song is based on an alghas, a prayer invoking the spirit owners of nature (eeler), requesting to grant people and animals prosperity and protection from diseases. “Khoor-khoor” are untranslatable magical words.

Mirgen Irgit's great-grandmother
Anna Sarlina from Arshan aal, Altai aimaghy
in 1987 – with pogho, the ornament
for married women
Ayharkh Sayn, chatkhan
Sitting to the right, in the dark dress
– Anna Sarlina before she got married –
wearing sürmester (small plaits), the female
hairdo before marriage

2. Akh morcho – Little snowdrop
Lyric song (yr), Khaas people, Shira aimaghy. Recorded by Aleksandr Kenel in 1940, the manuscript at the archive of the Khakas Research Institute XAKNIIYALI, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: khobyrakh
- Tülber Pögechi: aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: khai in küülîp style, chatkhan
- Lunic Ivanday: khongyros
- Mirgen Irgit: voice
- “The little snowdrop is a delight to the eye. / The elders who have raised us open the road to life for us.”
This song reflects on an important Khakas family value: family solidarity and respect for the elders.

3. Alyp Khan Khys – Warrior Princess Alyp Khan Khys
Beginning of heroic epic (alyptygh nymakh), Khyzyl people, as narrated by Sömön (Semyon) Kadyshev, Chookhchyl aal (Troshkino), Shira aimaghy. From a recording at the archive of the Khakas Radio, Abakan.
- Aycharkh Sayn: khai in küülîp style, narration, chatkhan
Khakas epics always begin with recalling the genesis of the earth: the development of land and water; later on the hero or heroine is born and raised. There are further narrated his/her adventures with magic and spiritual powers as well as the battles against the underworld with the help of favourable spirits and creatures of the upper world. When reciting, there are frequently used sayings, wise phrases and idioms or riddles. When the narration reaches its climax, there are used descriptions, enriched with dialogues as well as songs and laments. If addressing a superior creature, there are added ritual texts, such as invocations for help or wishes in the form of poetry, similar to prayers. Aycharkh Sayn narrates the beginning to the moment when the heroine enters the story. The melody played on the chatkhan is typical for the beginning of epics.
- “Chirî pasti püderde poldy / chizî tasti tazarda poldy, / chirnîng pözîgî akh taskhyllary / ösklep parghan turypchadadyr. / Sughnyng chalbaghy aghyn sughlar / akh taskhyllardang kharaa-künörte yzylyp-solazyp akhkhlapchadadyr ...”
- “When the earth came into being, / when copper started to run, / snow-capped mountains / arose from the earth. / Water started running from large rivers, / roaring and buzzing day and night...”
Aycharkh Sayn continues with recounting the coming into being of the other main elements: the fish in the water, the trees and the taiga with their wild animals and birds, and the steppe with its people, settlements, and livestock. In this scenery Alyp Khan Khys is born, a noble woman of extraordinary physical and mental strength, destined to settle problems with the people’s enemies – both human enemies and supernatural forces from the underworld – with the help of heavenly forces. After wandering for years Alyp Khan Khys victoriously returns to her homeland, which she finds suppressed by foreign rulers. Using the help of supernatural powers, she is able to successfully free her home-country.
Sömön Kadyshev (1885-1977) was one of the last legendary Khakas khaijy (storyteller with khai) and the most cherished one. At his height in the mid-20th century, he was much recorded. He serves as a role model for today’s performers because of his clear reciting, sonorous khai, and the wealth of his melodies. Khaijy Sömön had an extensive repertoire of songs and stories of all kinds, among them 31 epics. One of his favourites was “Alyp Khan Khys”, an attygh nymakh (story on horse) about a Warrior Princess, one of the countless female warrior heroes in Khakas folklore, a tradition sometimes traced back to Herodot’s Amazon warriors. He recited it in küülîp khai style, accompanied by the chatkhan, alternated with unaccompanied intoned speech, and interspersed with songs and instrumental interludes.

4. Arbat taigha – The taiga of Arbat
Lyric song (yr), Khaas people, as sung by Mirgen Irgit’s great-grandmother Anna Sarlina from Arshan aal (Arshanov), Altai aimaghy. From a 1986 recording at the archive of the Khakas Radio, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: voice, topchyl-khomys
- Tülber Pögechi: voice, aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: voice, yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: voice, chatkhan
- Lunic Ivanday: syylas
- Mirgen Irgit: voice
The song also reflects on human life, as Mirgen Irgit explains: “Life is like a river: one takes bits from it and builds something from that.
Mirgen Irgit’s great-grandmother (see photos in Traditional songs of the Khakas people Vol. I and III) sang this song in 1986 at an aitys (singing contest) in Askhys, Askhys aimaghy. In the song she recalled early Soviet life, when the people of Arshan aal were allowed to take logs from the timber that was slowly drifting down the river Abakan towards the capital. Women and men alike pulled the logs with hooks on shore, dried them, and built their dwellings from it.

5. Chymyr khaia – Mountain "Chymyr khaia"
Instrumental from Altyn Tan Tayas, clan Tagh Khargha, Saghai people, Chogharkhy Töö (Verkhniaia Teya), Askhys aimaghy, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: khobyrakh
Khobyrakh or syylas (flutes) and timîr-khomys (jew’s harp) are played when people have spare time while pasturing livestock or haying.
Altyn Tan Tayas here describes the cliffs of Mountain Chymyr khaia and its surrounding landscape by improvising on a song melody (kög). Chymyr khaia is a marked mountain in the taiga above the remote settlement where she was born.

6. Khoiballar yry – Song from the Khoibal people
Game song (oiynda yrlajang yr), Khoibal people, as sung by Yelena Borgoiakova from Khoiballar aaly (Koibaly), Askhys aimaghy. Recorded by Aleksandr Kenel in the 1940s, the manuscript at the archive of the Khakas Research Institute XAKNIIYALI, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: voice
- Tülber Pögechi: voice, aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: voice, (khai in kharygha style), yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: voice, (khai in küülîp style), chatkhan
- Lunic Ivanday: voice, (khai in kharygha style), tüür
- Mirgen Irgit: voice, khongyros
With such game songs adolescents of both sexes tried to outdo – and thus attract – each other with witty dialogue.

Ensemble: Albychak Sayn, Tülber Pögechi, Aycharkh Sayn, Altyn Tan Tayas, Mirgen Irgit and Lunic Ivanday

7. Khymyskha yry – Song of an ant
Lyric song by an animal (ang-khustar yry), Saghai people, as sung by Aleksandra Asochakova, Askhys aimaghy. Recorded by Aleksandr Kenel in 1945, the manuscript 167 at the archive of the Khakas Research Institute XAKNIIYALI, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: voice, topchyl-khomys
- Tülber Pögechi: aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: voice, yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: voice, chatkhan
- Lunic Ivanday: tüür
- Mirgen Irgit: voice
In this song the ant articulates the nature of its species that lives in a way parallel to humans. The song at the same time reminds the Khakas people to maintain good family ties: “Ants always live together in good harmony and overcome all difficulties. Whatever happens, brothers and sisters will always help”.
It has a typical Saghai melody, with short straightforward phrases.

8. Abyrai yry – Song of Abyrai
Work song (yr), Saghai people, as sung by a man called Abyrai. From a 1970 recording at the archive of the Khakas Radio, Abakan.
- Albychak Sayn: voice, yykh
Abyrai was herding his sheep on the steppe where an aitys (singing contest) was going on in summer 1970. He joined the stage unexpectedly and performed this herding song addressed to both the human audience and his animals, as if he sung it from a mountain. About shepherd Abyrai nothing further is known.

9. Töö köglerî – Melodies from the river Töö
Instrumental based on chatkhan (chatkhan oiyny), Saghai people, as played by Mikhail Kilchichakov from Chogharkhy Töö (Verkhniaia Teya), Askhys aimaghy / Abakan. From a recording at the archive of the Khakas Radio, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: khobyrakh
- Tülber Pögechi: aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: chatkhan
- Lunic Ivanday: timîr-khomys
- Mirgen Irgit: khazykhtar
An arrangement of melodies handed down to the ensemble by chatkhan player, poet, and playwright Mikhail Kilchichakov (1919-1990). He created his own improvisation melodies within the style of the Saghai people from the river Töö.

10. Aba syydy – Lament of a young bear
Lament by an animal (ang-khustar syydy), Khaas people, as sung by Para Sapsaraeva from Chookhchyl aal (Troshkino), Shira aimaghy. Recorded by Aleksandr Kenel in the 1940s, manuscript at the archive of the Khakas Research Institute XAKNIIYALI, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: topchyl-khomys
- Tülber Pögechi: aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: khai in küülîp and kharygha styles, chatkhan
- Lunic Ivanday: tüür
- Mirgen Irgit: khazykhtar
A young bear yearns for home, the taiga. He fell into the hands of bad people and now suffers terribly. He bewails his loss of freedom, living miserably among the humans, while his brothers and sisters safely and happily live in the taiga. The lament also covertly tells about a repressive political power the Khakas people once were subjected to.

11. Kenei ool yry – Kenei ool’s song
Lyric song (yr), Khyzyl people, as sung by the father of former ensemble member Ira Akhpasheva, Khaas variant of a Khyzyl song, Shira aimaghy, transmitted orally.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: topchyl-khomys
- Tülber Pögechi: aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: khai in küülîp and kharygha styles, yykh
- Lunic Ivanday: voice, (khai in kharygha style), tüür
- Mirgen Irgit: voice, khai in küülîp style, khongyros
This song recounts of how Kenei ool travelled from settlement to settlement as a highly respected guest. He was invited to every home, especially for weddings, because he always had graceful well-wishing words (alghys) at hand. This invariably yielded valuable gifts like a cow or a horse.
Because he never got drunk, Kenei ool would always ask for more alcohol, so that his good wishes became inexhaustible and he was rewarded more generously.

12. Chylygh künnerîm – The sweet days of my youth
Lyric song (yr). Recorded by Aleksandr Kenel in 1940s, the manuscript at the archive of the Khakas Research Institute XAKNIIYALI, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: voice, topchyl-khomys
- Tülber Pögechi: aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: khai in kharygha style, yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: khai in küülîp and kharygha styles, chatkhan
- Lunic Ivanday: khai in kharygha style, syylas
- Mirgen Irgit: khai in küülîp style, khongyros
- “When you fly high, lark, / never be afraid to use your voice and sing. / Let the various roads of my life / be like a ladder to future generations. / When you fly fast, hawk, / never lose your speed. / Let the difficult roads I travelled on / remain as a firm ladder to our children.
In this lyric song with the characteristics of an alghys (ceremonial well-wishing poetry), a woman sings about her youth, of which she keeps the best memories. She wishes her offspring to benefit from her life course.

13. Chazy köglerî Melodies from the steppe
Instrumental from Lunic Ivanday, clan Tilîn, Saghai people, Baza Pii (Beiska), Askhys aimaghy, Abakan.
- Lunic Ivanday: syylas
Lunic Ivanday here displays how the wind whimsically rolls over the steppe land with its gentle hills and spacious valleys.
With syylas or khobyrakh (flutes) and timîr-khomys (jew’s harp) there are improvised melodies in nature. In their spare time, while pasturing livestock or haying, people improvise on short melodies and imitate the surrounding natural sounds.

14. Attar oilatchang chazylarda – On the steppe where horses run
Lyric song (yr), Khyzyl people, Khyzyllar aimaghy, transmitted orally.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: voice, topchyl-khomys
- Tülber Pögechi: aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: khai in küülîp and syghyrtyp styles, yykh
- Lunic Ivanday: khai in kharygha style, tüür
- Mirgen Irgit: voice
A song accounting of former, undisturbed and nomadic stockbreeder life in the beautiful steppe: “Like the free life our people lived formerly, we should try to live as well.”
It has a long, lyrical melody, typical for the Khyzyl people.

Altyn Tan Tayas - topchyl-khomys
Tülber Pögechi - aghas-khomys
Albychak Sayn - yykh

15. Oidang oigha – From mountain to mountain
Lyric song (saryn), Saghai people, as sung by Yevdokia Tygdymaeva (1931-2006) from Oot aaly (Oty), Askhys aimaghy. From a recording from a private collection.
- Lunic Ivanday: pyrghy
- Altyn Tan Tayas: voice, topchyl-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: chatkhan
A woman recalls her youth, when she was attractive and rejected many young men by singing this song:
- “Oidang oigha oilaza / uiazy ilbek torimnîng. / Ongdaili kilîp chookhtaskhanda / oralbadakh arghyzym...”
- “Like a rolling landscape / is the broad back of my horse. / We are talking amicably, / so do not touch me, my friend! / Do not step on my heels! / Won’t everybody see it? / Do not step on the back hem of my coat! / Won’t everyone see it?
The song has a melody typical for the Saghai people along the Töö river, with a small range and short, straightforward phrases, on which it is convenient to improvise new texts for takhpakh (improvised song).

16. Khys pala köngnî – A girl’s longing
Lyric song (yr), Khaas people, as sung by Pelaga Aioshina from Chookhchyl aal (Troshkino), Shira aimaghy. Recorded by Aleksandr Kenel in 1946, published in his song collection “Khakas chonynyng köglerî” (Abakan, 1955).
– Tülber Pögechi: voice, aghas-khomys
A song about a girl who wants to marry but is disregarded by all boys. In the song she describes how she can be caught when underway in the steppe, and where she can be found when at home in the village.

17. Püür syydy – Lament of a wolf
Lament by an animal (ang-khustar syydy), as sung by Para Sapsaraeva from Chookhchyl aal (Troshkino), Shira aimaghy. Recorded by Aleksandr Kenel in 1940, the manuscript at the archive of the Khakas Research Institute XAKNIIYALI, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: topchyl-khomys
- Tülber Pögechi: aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: voice
- Lunic Ivanday: khai in kharygha style, tüür
- Mirgen Irgit: khobyrakh
The wolf complains that it is always found guilty.
- “Whenever livestock gets lost, / people say we have taken it. / But when you take a closer look / it turns out that they committed the crime."

Lunic Ivanday - syylas
Lunic Ivanday - pyrghy
Mirgen Irgit - sheep knucklebones

18. Yrys – Good fortune
Lyric song (yr), Khyzyl people, as sung by Mikhail Kadyshev from Chookhchyl aal (Troshkino), Shira aimaghy. Recorded by Aleksandr Kenel in 1940, the manuscript at the archive of the Khakas Research Institute XAKNIIYALI, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: topchyl-khomys
- Tülber Pögechi: aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: khai in kharygha style, yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: khai in küülîp style, chatkhan
- Lunic Ivanday: khai in kharygha style, tüür
- Mirgen Irgit: voice
- “I thought I was riding a horse / but it turned out to be a cow. / I thought I was dating a nice girl / but she turned out to be a woman with two plaits. / She was a khuu khat*, an ugly, already worn-out bitch!”
*Khuu khat is a mythological female figure: an ugly, withered woman with breasts that drag on the ground.
A young man sings in a humorous way about his misfortune in courting. He was dating a girl for more than a year. When his relatives came to the girl’s settlement to collect her for sas toi (“hair ceremony”, a key event in the wedding process when the maiden’s many small plaits (sürmester) are braided into two solid plaits, the hairdo of married women), the girl turns out to be married and to have three children already.
The deceived man finds himself alcohol, leaves to the steppe for a drinking party with his friends, and starts singing.

19. Taigha ünnerî – Melodies from the taiga
Instrumental from Lunic Ivanday, clan Tilîn, Saghai people, Baza Pii (Beiska), Askhys aimaghy, Abakan.
- Lunic Ivanday: timîr-khomys
Timîr-khomys (jew’s harp), khobyrakh and syylas (flutes) playing are always improvised. In their spare time from pasturing livestock or haying people improvise on short melodies and imitate surrounding natural sounds. Lunic Ivanday here recalls the sounds from the taiga, which he imitates with his timîr-khomys.

20. Pora adym – My grey horse
Lyric song (saryn) from Aycharkh Sayn, clan Choon Sayn, Saghai people, Sapron aaly (Safronov), Askhys aimaghy, Abakan.
- Aycharkh Sayn: khai in küülîp and kharygha styles, aghas-khomys
An enchanting song about pora at (grey horse), the sacred animal of the Choon Sayn söök (clan) to which Aycharkh Sayn belongs, performed with melodic khai* on the lute (khai in küülîp and kharygha style).
*In melodic khai the fundamental tone is not sung at one pitch, as it is usually the case in traditional khai, but sung at various pitches, thus allowing for a melody of fundamental tones.

21. Aghyn khustar – Wandering birds
Lyric song (saryn) from Altyn Tan Tayas, clan Tagh Khargha, Saghai people, Chogharkhy Töö (Verkhniaia Teya), Askhys aimaghy, Abakan.
- Altyn Tan Tayas: voice, topchyl-khomys
- Tülber Pögechi: voice, aghas-khomys
- Albychak Sayn: yykh
- Aycharkh Sayn: khai in küülîp, kharygha and syghyrtyp styles, yykh
- Lunic Ivanday: khai in kharygha style, tüür
- Mirgen Irgit: khongyros
In 2000 singer Khyrghai Sagalakova from Ulugh Nonyp (Bol’shoy Monok), Pii aimaghy, told Altyn Tan Tayas and Akhcharkh Sayn about an old tradition: people used to sing songs to see off the wandering birds when they left in autumn, and to meet them when they returned in spring. In a climate with such long, cold periods, wandering birds hold an important position – (see also Vol. III, song no. 13 Khangyra khangyr).
Khyrghai remembered, however, neither text nor melody, so Altyn Tan Tayan searched for traditional poetry that suits the subject and created music in a traditional form in order to keep this event alive.

Ensemble: Aycharkh Sayn, Altyn Tan Tayas, Lunic Ivanday, Mirgen Irgit, Tülber Pögechi and Albychak Sayn

Performing arts

The Khakas people have a rich tradition in storytelling, performing epics in poetry and in prose, proverbs, sayings, wise phrases and riddles, fixed and improvised songs, dirges and laments, wedding songs, lullabies, working songs and game songs.
Text always prevails over music. These linguistic tools are means to tell or sing stories in a convincing and persuasive way. Poetry does have the power to enchant the audience, and for this reason it is performed according to fixed rules. Contextually, poetry is formed on observations regarding parallelism between human experience and natural surroundings.

The Mongols also know songs that are existent in verse form, without any refrain proper, with full vocal power and in the highest register. The melody is surrounded by a “coat“; there is sung a range of more than three octaves; the Khakas songs, however, are rather limited, covering frequently only one octave, with that of the Saghais restricted frequently to only one fifth. These songs are always subject to rather strict rules of presentation and performance. The form is quatrains, and the beginning of every single line is determined by the same vowel of the first word. Texts are adopted by other singers, and there are added some new improvisations: in this way, long stories (songs) are generated and created. The Mongolian people definitely sing these long songs when they are out alone in the steppe and only riding rather slowly. The repertory is a symbol of the freedom and the vastness of the Mongolian steppes and also accompanies cyclic rites of the year and ceremonies of everyday life. Long songs are also an integral part of festivities taking place in the round tents. Among the Khakas, however, such songs are not very common, it is further prohibited to sing in the open steppes or in the taiga, as this might attract the evil spirits. The Khakas also do not distinguish between long and short songs. For rites, there are used alghys (prayers, blessings, thanks), and in gatherings and meetings there are performed alghys and takhpakh (improvised songs).

In the Khakas society creativity has a supernatural source; it is conveyed in the dreams of the people. Such gifts and talents are not only handed down in a line (family), but they may also be awarded to individual persons. Due to the gifts provided by the owner spirits, man and woman are gifted. Skilled story tellers of epics (nymakh), as well as singers singing improvised songs, are supported in their performances by the owner spirits.
Every man and woman can be awarded the gift of creativity by a spirit. Skilled and gifted storytellers of epics and singers of improvised song (takhpakh) are supported during their performances by the spirit owners of nymakh, khai, or takhpakh. They receive instructions and inspiration in their dreams, and are inspired and supported while performing.

Songs were performed at all events where people met spontaneously or on organization, but especially at festive family gatherings and singing contests. People were allowed to sing at day and night, but only in and around the house and the village. For this reason, the Khakas, as opposed to the Tuvin, Altaian and Mongolian people, did not sing songs when travelling or riding the horse across the steppes. Singing in steppe, taiga and mountains is prohibited because it attracts evil spirits. The Khakas people therefore, unlike the Tuvans and Mongolians, do not have travel songs. Most songs can be performed by men and women alike, except for the songs that belong to gender-specific activities, such as (lullabies) cradle songs and work songs. In general, however, songs without throat singing are mainly performed by women, whereas epic storytelling using throat singing is more or less limited to men.

Anna Sarlina and Kuprian Sarlin with their 3rd and youngest child

Some songs are integral part of specific occasions like family festivities and year-cycle ceremonies. Blessings (alghys) were recited or sung for welcoming and leave-taking. Love songs, courting songs as well as confirmation of marriage and dowry negotiations formed a rather impressive repertoire. In the context of death, various kinds of dirge (syyt) are sung. In the first year after death ritual dirges are performed: söök syydy (“lament over the corpse”) before and during the funeral and ibîrîg syydy (“lament at a post-funeral wake”) at the wake, to see off the souls of the deceased and thus ease the passage of the deceased into the other world. Later, people sing non-ritual dirges at home in order to commemorate the beloved.

The Khakas people have also songs that are not bound to specific occasions: takhpakh, a song with an improvised text, and saryn or yr, a song with set text and melody. With these songs, performed solo, performers can freely express themselves, sometimes to the accompaniment of a string instrument. Takhpakh are spontaneously improvised texts and give a description of the surrounding nature, one’s home country, a gathering or meeting, or another singer. Takhpakh singers show their talent in special singing contests called aitys. In such competitions two singers alternately compete with constantly improvised verses on a limited number of melodies, and try to outdo each other in originality and wit. Such singers are supported by their spirit owner, who gives them the ability to perform such inspired texts. Set songs are called yr (Khaas, Khyzyl and Khoibal) or saryn (Saghai and Piltîr), having more verses, an elaborated theme, and often more distinguished melodies. The majority of these songs are lyric songs, into which the performer integrates own thoughts and feelings about life and past events; some are work, game, or dirge songs.

The repertoire comprises a small group of dirge songs or laments (syyt) that are designated as lyric songs; dirge songs are ritual songs; laments having improvised texts are performed by a singer and tell of the person deceased and those he has left behind. Personal laments may be taken over by other singers, thus being slowly integrated into the common song repertoire.
Other dirge songs stem from epics or stories (kip-chookh) and constitute the oldest surviving form of the Khakas folklore. Laments are complaints about one’s misfortune, misery or suppression and are also often called “yr” ("song"). These laments are often sung by animals or human beings who have turned into animals and who sing about their harsh living conditions or unfair treatment - another display of the parallels to suppression and the life as vassals shared by the people.

The most prominent Khakas storytelling tradition is epic stories (“epic with a hero”) performed by specialized storytellers at meetings and gatherings during long winter nights – also to accompany souls into other worlds, or before hunting to please the spirit owner of the animal to be given the permission to shoot deer. Performance with throat singing and the box zither or lute was reserved for male performers and called “epic with a horse”. Unaccompanied recitals, being performed with intoned speech voice, are called “epic on foot” and may also be performed by women. An “epic on horse” sets off with an instrumental prelude. Then the storyteller tells the story alternating with throat singing and with repeated text having temporary shifts to a higher or lower tone and with unaccompanied intoned speech. The overtones of the throat singing create an extraordinary timbre texture that brings about the supernatural time-space feeling, in which the epic world comes to life. Every now and then the story is suspended with an instrumental interlude, a blessing, well-wishing expressions, songs or laments.
The most talented storytellers are provided with inspiration by their spirit owners and they are called eelîg khaijy (kaichi). They could endlessly sustain their performance. Such a story could last for several nights in a row, being interrupted only by short breaks. The storytelling tradition was continued without any interruption by Khyzyl storytellers until the 1970s. Among the last great ones were Semyon Kadyshev (1885-1977), who lived among the Khaas people near Lake Shira, and brother and sister Pyotr Kurbizhekov (1910-1966) and Anna Kurbizhekova (1930-1990), who lived along the Üüs river.

Prose stories, which are called “kip-chookh”, are told by women as well as men and include sacred myths about the origin of the world, creator spirits, spirit owners and other supernatural spirits; stories and legends about historical heroes, shamans, ancestors of the tribes; as well as humorous tales and fairytales. The most comprehensive kip-chookh stories, just like alyptygh nymakh stories, “epic with a horse”, include songs, dirge songs, and laments.

Epics (stories) and singing were accompanied by string instruments. In this way, the gait of a horse was imitated, or the adventures of a hero were being emphasized. Hunters used various wind instruments to imitate animal calls and thus attract the desired game. When people played flutes, string instruments or the jew’s harp, it was mainly for personal entertainment. They improvised on standard melodies, or they spontaneously created their own melodies, being inspired by the sound of the environment or closer surroundings.
Such rich creativity is awarded by a supernatural source, conveyed in the dreams of the people. Such gifts and talents are handed down in a line (family) and on the basis of their ancestors. Men and women alike are supported by spiritual powers, which are independent but, however, still responsible for the epics performed in throat singing. These spirits protect and support the “khaijy”, the storytellers of epics, and takhpakhchy, the singers of improvised songs.

Traditional vocal techniques

- Khai (throat singing – guttural singing)
Khai (or kai, as it is called among the Altaian and Shor people) is the traditional form of overtone singing from the north-western Sayan-Altai region, with only the highest and lowest vocal registers being used. It is largely a male vocal technique, though women are known to have performed and to perform it as well. It is inextricably linked with heroic storytelling, epics with a hero / heroine; it is in high esteem and constitutes an important part of the cultural heritage.

Throat singing and overtone singing is a common feature of all southern Siberian Turkic, many Mongolian, as well as some Kazakh peoples. It is also performed by many Turkic tribes in Central Asia. Overtone singing is a very special technique, wherein a single vocalist produces simultaneously two distinct tones. In its clearest (Tuvan and Mongolian) form, one tone is a low fundamental pitch that is sustained like a drone, while the second is a series of flutelike harmonics that resonate high above this drone. A real master may amplify the overtones at the expense of the fundamental pitch, even to the point that the drone becomes inaudible. Another technique often used combines a normal glottal pitch with a low-frequency pulse-like vibration, known as vocal fry. Texts are usually sung in such a vocal fry of about 25-20 Hz. The Shor and the Khakas people do not usually sing their texts in such a fundamental pitch, as they use kharygha more sparingly.

Unlike the Tuvans and the Mongolians, the more northern located Khakas, Altai and Shor people do not express the overtones very much in their khai or kai. Khai is produced by generating a fundamental tone while pressing the diaphragm and slightly pressing together the vocal cords. In this way, a hoarse sound arises, accompanied by soft overtones that change with the vowels of the recited text, thus creating a multi-layered sound hovering above the basic drone. Primarily, the epics are performed together with a string instrument. In the Khakas tradition, however, the overtones are rarely used to create a melody. Khai is not used to show virtuosity, but rather to convey texts in a convincing way; for this reason, this is only rarely performed independently. By using the technique of khai, the storyteller clearly emphasised the text, while at the same time making overtones subtly resonate above the recited text. The overtones help to reinforce the story’s text, as they create an extraordinary timbre texture that brings about the supernatural time-space feeling, in which the epic world and the story come to life.

- Kharygha, kharghyra (from khorlirgha, the Khakas word for snoring) or ulugh chon khai (“khai of the respected elders”) is the lowest sound a human voice can generate. This sound is related to the Altaian karkyra and the Tuvan kargyraa. It rises from the deepest part of the trachea and resonates in the chest. It is used for short episodes in heroic epics.

- Küülîp or küveler means “humming” and sounds an octave higher than kharygha. It is related to the Altaian köömöi, the Tuvan khöömei, and the Mongolian khöömii, but focuses less on producing discernible overtones. It is the main style for storytelling. This style is often simply called “khai” because it is the only style that has survived the Soviet period.

- Syghyrtyp means “to whistle”. This is a style of overtone singing, wherein there are generated tones in the throat that are comparable with the wailing sounds of the wind. Overtones are created between cavity, pharynx and tongue. This style is related with the sygyt of the Altaian and Tuvan people, wherein the highest and brightest tones are generated as the highest register of the voice is used. (In nature, every single tone and sound has overtones; even the wailing of the wind has its overtone vibrations). Whistling is only sparingly used; it is only used for short melodies at the end of phrases; humming (küülîp) is followed by whistling.

The old performers mostly used küülîp to perform stories and songs. Performers today use khai (overtone) mainly for songs and, to a smaller extent, for prayers. Kharygha and syghyrtyp are as frequently used as küülîp.


- Khomys (string instument)

This is a two-string or three-string lute, related to the Altaian topshur, the Tuvan doshpulur and the Mongolian tovshuur.

The Khakas people play two types of khomys: the aghas-khomys and the topchyl-khomys. Both have a body and neck carved from cedar wood, but while the former has a wooden sounding board from cedar wood, the body of the latter is covered with the skin of wild roe deer, domestic goat, or cattle. The traditional stringing is of twisted horsetail hair, and the strings are tuned a fourth or fifth apart; the three-string khomys is tuned a fourth plus a fifth apart.


- Yykh (string instrument)

This is a two-string fiddle of the Khakas people, related to the Altaian ikili, the Tuvan igil and the Mongolian ikil.

Its body is similar to the khomys but has a longer neck. The body, like that of the topchyl-khomys, is covered with the skin of wild roe deer, domestic goat or juvenile cattle. The strings are made from twisted horsetail hair and are tuned a fourth or fifth apart. It is played with a bow made of willow branch with horsetail hair stringing, and it is coated with larch or cedar wood resin.

- Chatkhan or chadyghan (string instrument)

The chatkhan is the most prominent instrument of the Khakas people. It is a plucked long box zither with six to fourteen strings, distantly related to the Tuvan chadagan, Mongolian yatga, Japanese koto, Chinese quin and Korean kayagum.

The Khakas zither is a 1.5 metres long box from spruce wood, with each metal string running over an individual movable bridge made from sheep’s knucklebone. It is likely to originally have consisted of a short body (about 50 cm long) hollowed out from underneath like an upturned trough, with strings of horsetail hair.
However, in the 18th century it already broadly had its present shape: a long box of nailed boards with 6 or 7 metal strings. It has a rather smooth sound, ideal for performance in intimate company. The chatkhan is tuned in a pentatonic scale, with one or two strings tuned a fifth and/or octave below the lowest melody string, to obtain a drone. Some strings are also pressed to the left of the moveable bridge with the left hand, to raise the pitch. The strings are plucked and strummed to the right of the moveable bridges with the right hand to produce both melody and drone. The left hand is used to press particular strings to the left of the moveable bridge. In this way, diatonic melodies can be played on the pentatonic instrument, as well as the adorning gliding tones and vibratos so typical for the instrument.

Unlike the long zithers (yatga) of the Mongols, who mainly used the long zither at court and in monasteries since strings symbolised the twelve levels of the palace hierarchy, the chatkhan was used to accompany lyrical, historical and epic stories and heroic tales in intimate gatherings of common people, especially at weddings and nocturnal dead wakes.

The chatkhan (like the Khakas lutes) could hold a spirit, and therefore handling and playing was bound by taboos and rituals.

- Khobyrakh or Shoor (wind instrument)

Formerly an open end-blown flute similar to that used by the Bashkirs and the Caucasians. It was a 30 to 65 cm long, smooth, hollow pipe without finger holes, made of the stem of a large umbelliferous or willow cut on the spot. The Khaas tribe called it “khobyrakh” (lit. “hogweed”, a kind of umbelliferous), while the Saghai and Shor tribes called it “shoor”, like the Altaians, who locally also call it "shagur" or "komurgai" and which is similar to the shoor and the khobyrakh. It has, however, holes at the side and is made from wood. Its length is 30-40 cm.

Nowadays it has a small block with a slit at the top, six finger holes, and it is made of wood veneer (ash, mahogany and other species) or plastic.


- Syylas (wind instrument)

An open end-blown flute similar to that used by the Bashkirs and the Caucasians. It is bigger than the khobyrakh (60-80 cm long) with four finger holes to the front and one to the back. It is made from the stem of the big chevil (parasol-like plant, designation for big umbelliferous plants) or from wood. Today it is mostly made from plastic.

Melodies are created via airflow by covering or uncovering the lower end, using a finger. As such a traditionally produced instrument is unsuitable for transport, rather fragile and frail, this instrument is nowadays made from plastics. Today, it often has 3 and sometimes even 6 fingerholes.


- Pyrghy (wind instrument)

A large, minimal 85 cm long, conical, sucked trumpet from wood is used to hunt large game
(elk, Siberian deer, red deer).

It is made of two identical conical wooden halves, tied together with strips of birch bark or willow. By inserted into the corner of the mouth and sucking in air with force, sounds are generated that resemble a deer's call and attrackt the animal.

Today it is used in addition as a signalling instrument to open community celebrations, clan meetings, and shamanic sessions.

- Timîr Khomys – jew's harp.

This is a small horseshoe-shaped instrument to which a stiff spring is attached. Today it is made of brass or steel (timîr-khomys literally means “iron utensil”) but in the past it was made of wood.

The player places the frame of the instrument with his left hand to his mouth, touching the front teeth, and taps the spring, which is called ‘tongue’, with his right hand. The instrument’s tongue acts as a vibrator, while the mouth cavity acts as a resonance chamber. The player can vary pitch and timbre by changing the shape of the mouth cavity, opening or closing the throat, and changing the attack on the instrument's tongue.

- Tüür - single-sided frame drum – shaman’s drum (tungur) – (percussion instrument)

The drum consists of a round wooden frame fixed inside with one vertical and one horizontal wooden stick and covered with the skin of a cloven-hoofed animal. Formerly it was only used as a ritual instrument by shamans (kham). Today it is also used as the main percussion instrument in music ensembles.

When used as a ritual instrument, drawings are made on the outer side of the drumhead, and coloured ribbons (chalama), metal bits and bells are attached to the horizontal stick inside. It is beaten with an orba, a drum stick made of wood and leather.

- Orba – drum stick .

It is made of the urinary bladder of an animal filled with grain and has a handle.

- Khongyros (percussion instrument)

Made of leather and filled with grain.
- Khazykhtar (percussion instrument)

Rattle of sheep knucklebones.

- Sang (percussion instrument)

Iron hand bell with a wooden handle shaped as a male ibex