Trips and Tales (Part 76)
Igor has a band. He’s quite the renaissance man; ex-logger, spiritual communicator, healer, counselor, apparent raconteur and now –I discover– vocalist too! And I still feel that I have left something out. To be more precise, he performs in a vocal trio featuring himself and two Buryat women. Now, I remember him emphasising that music does not play a part in his Shamanic practice. I was a little surprised at this, expecting that the stereotypical drum (at least) would feature somewhere, somehow, but no. What about these vocals, then?
Firstly, ‘L’, my embattled translator confirms that yes, she has seen others use a drum in their rituals. I’m assuming that drums are not compulsory and that Igor was referring to his practice alone: he just doesn’t “do the drum”. Fair enough.
Reading between the lines it seems that shamans undertake their practice in their own individual manner -within reason. This is not affectation, rather: personality. There’s no mention of an official ‘Shamanic curriculum’, or ‘Board of Standards’ after all. Today though, there are modern Shamanic studies and “training” centres as well: both online and on location. I digress. At any rate, if shamanic beliefs and practices are “passed down” or conveyed spiritually through dreams, then some personal interpretation is likely to come across, surely?
I query the vocal component too in relation to the exclusion of music from Igor’s practice. After some consultation and more of Igor’s deep gravel tones, the answer comes back: “Singing isn’t music.” Ah, I see. “Music is instruments.” Igor and his colleagues sing traditional Buryat songs in shows for visitors. This scenario often appears to be the final destination for long-held cultural practices but shamanism is still alive and well in Igor’s culture (and in many others).
Ancient is the new modern
It’s an integral part of his ‘modern world’ after all, alongside: pensions, the burgeoning Western tourist trade, international politics and the internet. Russian and Mongolian communism could erase neither shamanism nor Christianity, although they tried. Russia forced native steppe-dwellers into Stalinist high-rise slabs in a misguided attempt to drag the unwilling into Communism’s now-abandoned future. Mongolia jailed practitioners and suppressed the old ways until finally abandoning such punishment in 1995. This was considerably late compared to Russia’s loosening of restrictions that started (gradually) in the 1980’s and ‘matured’ with the 1991 Soviet collapse. Religious liberation in both countries lead to boom periods for spiritual belief, both ancient and modern.
Shamanism, and the Buryat heritage are pretty tough, perhaps even enjoying something of a renaissance today, and for the foreseeable future. The sacred spaces and places are still acknowledged; spiritual locations where Igor, and fellow practitioners still go to pray and make offerings of vodka, he tells me! Spirits for the spirits.
And what about any general objections that ancient world-religions are often reduced to side-shows for the benefit of rich Westerners? Well, I’d guess that such a statement is our problem not the Buryats. Until those objecting can present a better solution to help a jobbing shaman supplement his 21st century pension, then perhaps they should keep quiet? There’s those regular alcoholic offerings to buy for starters, poured by Igor to show respect to the spirits: a regular part of his shamanic duty. Igor seems to have a foot in both the mundane and spiritual worlds, or perhaps sees both merely as part of the same whole. In any case, his pragmatism speaks of someone with both feet on the ground: Would you expect this within the stereotypical westernised view of a shaman?
Blessings in disorder
We’d been talking for about two hours and it was heading towards 10pm in Siberia when I finally asked Igor how life has changed beyond the demise of the CCCP. He tells me that during the Communist era: “Everything was in order, now it’s a big mess. Working was easy; everyone was provided with a job -on good money- by the government. Now we have to find our own way, and the pay is often not so good.” Another reality check from this practitioner of the spiritual! We exchange goodbyes and disconnect, with Igor’s well wishes and even a blessing (?) to take with me. I’m touched, it means a lot. Thank you Igor.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 77) Baikal at last
[Photo by mikeemesser]