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.
Bulgun Mandzhurakova, Nimgir Mandzhiev, Songs with Dombra
Alexandra relays a story that she heard from her mother about how the Kalmyks were sent to exile on 28 December 1943. Afterwards she recites a few lines from a song that curses Hitler.
Alexandra Sangadzhieva, A Song-Curse
Song 1: ‘Duuna, Duuna Modn’. Towering up, the trees are swinging in distance. Why do I love and hate you at the same time? You put on a woolen shawl with brushes. I have been waiting for you my dear. I wanted to share my tea with you, I wanted to live with you, but the demons have separated us.
Song 2: ‘Bichkn Ker Morn’. This song is about a boy who, riding a small horse and wearing good clothes, is going to marry his beloved.
Song 3: ‘Galun Shovun’. Composed in Siberia, this song is about nostalgia and homesickness.
Song 4: ‘Khozha’. This song is about a young man named Khozha, who was killed in a war. His friends vow to revenge for him.
Alexandra Sangadzhieva, Folk Songs
The song is about three boys who left their homes in pursuit of knowledge. Being from wealthy families, two of them did not study well. The third, who was from a poor family, studied well. Jealous, the two wealthy kids decided to kill the third one. Before the murder, the poor kid composed a song and asked his murderers to memorize it. Later upon hearing the song, people understood what had happened.
Alexandra Sangadzhieva, Gurvn Kevyuna Dun
From the side where the Sun rises,
A patterned silk shawl flies.
My mother who became the Sun,
I will remember her throughout my life.
At the top of the ‘turned back’ hill,
A pussy-willow is swinging.
Even by looking at the swinging pussy-willow,
I recall my blessed mother…
Sewn by my mother the satin shawl,
Has not worn out, it is still as if new.
Although there are many loving people,
No one can compare with one’s mother.
Anna Azvanova, Eezhin Dun, A Folk Song
In this video Anna and Maria sing a new song called Tsetsgyarich, Khal'mg Min'.
The lyrics are as follows:
‘Sitting around the table,
Let’s praise the new time!
We will meet the happy future with a well-wish.
It has been given to us by history,
It has been built like a fairytale.
It is protected by heaven,
Our wonderful town!
Blossom, my Kalmykia!
Fly up to the sky
And be along with the whole world
Our wonderful town!
Blossom, my Kalmykia!’
Anna Shurguchinova, Maria Mudzhikova, Tsetsgyarich, Khal'mg Min'
Bulgun talks about dances, musical instruments and songs that Tersk Kalmyks dance, play and sing.
Tersk Kalmyks danced lezginka and played on buckets as one would do on drums. We also played on dombra and the Saratov accordion.‘Yalukha’ is a good song. I tell my grandchildren that it resembles a ‘rap’, because of the same rhythm. Kalmyk ensembles sing various songs, but not this one. There is another beautiful song called ‘Keemya’. When we lived in Siberia, we also had pre-war recordings of the epos ‘Jangar’, which I really enjoyed listening to.
The song ‘Tavn uulyn beld’, probably, is a war-time song about Pyatigorsk. Its lyrics are: ‘Cannonballs fly at the foot of the Five Mountains. Despite the cannon balls, we will win! Bullets fly at the foot of two mountains. Despite the bullets, we will defeat the enemy!’
Bulgun Lapsina, About the Music of Tersk Kalmyks and Folk Songs
Dzhidzha says the following:
No one can sing today as people did in the past. ‘Saig syakhn saarl’ is a song of advice that mothers sing, whose daughters are about to get married. It is about the hard life of married women, who were brought up in love and care in their natal family. My mother told me that there was one beautiful girl in her village who got married to a man from far away and that she had to spend two nights in the steppe to get to his home. That place is called Gakhata, which is indeed far away.
Dzhidzha Araeva, About Folk Songs
Elsa talks about the peculiarities of the song Torgryash as it is known among the Astrakhan Kalmyks. The song is about the following. A long time ago there was a girl named Togryash who lived in the steppe. She married a boy who lived with his father in the forest. After the wedding the groom takes Togryash with him to his forest. On their way the groom falls off his horse and dies. Since according to the wedding customs she could not return home, someone in the groom’s delegation suggests that the bride should marry the groom’s father instead. Depressed, Togryash composes the following song.
Why did you, father,
Harness this broken cart?
Why did you, mother,
Bear unhappy Togryash?
In my precious heart
Why did sadness settle?
Why did you, gods
Create such wedding customs?
One hundred cows
Have already dropped dead.
And why did such a misfortune
Happen to beautiful Togryash?
In the dense forest
Birds scream and scream.
And from the closed eyes of the poor girl
Why do warm tears flow?
This white silk canopy
Whom did you sew it for?
And how shall I behave
With this old man?
This blue silk blanket
Whom did you make it for?
And how shall I behave
With this old man?
Elza Badaeva, Togryash
Galina sings ‘Togryash’ which is a song about a young girl who marries an old man.
Galina Mamonova, Togryash
Ksenia sings a song ‘Togryash’: Crowns of very tall trees are wobbling. From the wind the hemline of Togryash’s skirt is fluttering. A blue silk blanket for whom I will keep? Who am I supposed to think this old grey-haired man is?
Ksenia talks about the hard life of women and sings the song ‘Yalukha’: Black silky shivrlg (braids’ covers) play in the light that emanated from the girl’s cheeks called Yalukha. Dark-skinned beauty Yalukha came back home and she has calmed down. She woke up in the morning calm, she walked around the cooking pot calm. Round-faced beauty Yalukha, she became the iron fetters on the feet of her husband’s relatives.
This song is about the cases when a bride runs away to her parents’ house. Then her husband’s relatives would pursue her, that is why it is sung about the iron bindings on feet. Songs were created because of such cases.