Kalmyk folk songs are imbued with deep historical, cultural, and aesthetic meanings and layers. Notable and tragic events, the fate of various people, famous and ordinary alike, ideals, hopes, and desires: all have found their reflection in folk songs. Folk songs have been performed during rituals and ceremonies, as well as in the context of everyday life. They include a variety of themes, including historical, religious, educational, wedding, love, and other themes. In terms of the size of melodic lines, folk songs can be divided into the following types: long songs, hymns , lyrical songs, and songs performed with a dombra (musical instrument).
Today hymns and long song are not so well remembered, and the melodies of many old songs have been modified by modern performers. In contrast, lyrical songs and songs sung with dombra still enjoy great popularity among the Kalmyks.
With their poetic forms, melodies and meanings developed over centuries, long songs, or ut dun, constitute an important part of the musical heritage of the Kalmyks. Since the performance of these songs requires a high degree of musical mastery and skill, singers often spend many years practising and put in considerable effort to achieve perfection.
Apart from being sung for personal enjoyment, longs songs are also widely performed at weddings and during celebrations, ceremonies and rituals. All long songs are dedicated to specific personages. Thus there are special songs for guests, Buddhist priests, parents, etc.
Hymns celebrate the teachings of Buddha, religious leaders, monasteries, geological features imbued with religious significance and Tibet. This particular musical genre was especially popular among the Oirat tribes during the period when they adopted Buddhism en masse in the 16th and the 17th centuries. At the beginning of the 17th century when some Oirat tribes migrated to the lower part of the Volga river in what is today Kalmykia, hymns did not lose their significance among the new arrivals but developed further by expanding their subject matter. In Kalmykia, hymns that hitherto were exclusively religious, came to include songs with secular themes. As a result hymns about national heroes, the aristocracy, parents and about the nomad's best friend – the horse – appeared.
Lyrical songs are different from other musical genres in that they are more informal and convey emotions, moods and feelings of ordinary people. Because they intimately describe the everyday life of nomads, lyrical songs became popular among the Kalmyks and have developed a variety of genres, including love songs, songs about one’s mother, about Siberian exile, about orphans, the motherland, and military service, just to mention a few. In contrast to long songs and songs performed with dombra, lyrical songs may be sung on any occasion by anybody and do not have to be accompanied by musical instruments.
Songs Performed with Dombra
The Kalmyk name for this genre is dombrt keldg dun, which literally means 'songs recited to the dombra (musical instrument)'. As its name suggests, these songs are not meant to be sung but rather spoken or recited with a special intonation and rhythm. During a performance singers come up to the player of the dombra in turn, bend over the upper part of the dombra instrument, called the ear of the dombra (domrin chikn), and recite their couplets. The singer then moves away from the dombra performing a short dance. This dance provides the singer with an interval during which to prepare for the next round. Singers may also improvise their couplets during singing.
This genre may be viewed as a dialogue between the singer and the dombra instrument, the latter serving as a medium that connects the former with the audience. Songs with a dombra are usually very emotional as they often concern dramatic and unhappy events, such as the death of a hero, the unsuccessful conclusion of an important business, the bitter fate of orphans, platonic love, unfulfilled dreams and hopes, and so on. The recipient of such miserable stories is first of all the dombra, to whose 'ear' the singer relays his sad tale. These songs may be performed both on formal and informal occasions.