Archive | September 2015

Huun Huur Tu and DakhaBrakha

Last Friday, I went to a concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall featuring the Tuvan throat singing ensemble Huun Huur Tu and the Ukrainian “ethno chaos” quartet DakhaBrakha. I went with several current and former UCLA linguistics professors, most of whom sing in Datvebis Gundi, and we started out the evening at the pre-concert Ukrainian block party on Royce Terrace. The Firebird Balalaika Ensemble was playing, occasionally accompanying Ukrainian dancers, and there were free potato piroshki. The Firebird Ensemble included balalaika, alto balalaika, domra (a sort of mandolin), kontrabass balalaika (giant! with endpin!), and bayan (a type of accordion with buttons on both sides and no keyboard). They played, among other things, Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás. While listening to the balalaikas, I spotted in the audience my former roommate, an economics Ph.D. student, and a local contra dance caller and her husband, who plays in a local contra dance band.

After the block party, we moved into the Royce concert hall, which I’d never seen before. It has a beautiful coffered ceiling. This is the hall where I will graduate in 2018. Despite having bought my ticket separately, I ended up directly in front of the other linguists, in the second row. Huun Huur Tu was on first.

The first time I heard Tuvan throat singing, I was a freshman in college. One of my professors, K. David Harrison, had done fieldwork on Tuvan and arranged for the ensemble Alash to perform on campus. I remember going primarily because I wanted to hear a person sing two notes at once. In this I was disappointed because it turns out the second note in overtone singing has a very different quality and almost doesn’t even sound like it’s coming from the person singing. Still, I enjoyed the songs and the traditional instruments and the unusual singing timbres, and when I heard Huun Huur Tu would be performing at UCLA, I was eager to see them.

Like Alash, Huun Huur Tu has four members, all men. They played a variety of drums, percussion instruments, strummed and bowed stringed instruments, and a long end-blown flute. I’d love to have a horse-headed, two-stringed igil! They are not a purely traditional ensemble but incorporate modern and global influences into their music (though I don’t know enough to be able to tease these out). Different singers demonstrated different styles of throat singing. I don’t know if I’m misremembering, but the overtones Huun Huur Tu produced struck me as much more audible than Alash’s. Maybe I was just better prepared to appreciate throat singing this time around. It was really impressive. And I actually recognized one of the songs they performed, Kongurei, I think because Alash played it and I later listened to recordings of it on Youtube. It has a beautiful melody. Another song Huun Huur Tu performed, which they told us was about the forest, featured a lot of bird calls and whistles and the like. When Sayan Bapa rubbed the ends of his guitar strings near the bridge to make a squeaking sound, it reminded me of learning to make animal sounds (woodpecker, cow, rooster, mouse) on my cello at Suzuki Camp when I was a kid. In another song about a horse, Chiraa-Khoor, there were a lot of horse sound effects (clopping, neighs, whuffles).

At intermission, we talked a bit about the mechanics of overtone singing (because linguists love talking about harmonics, formants, and the vocal tract). I think a couple of department members have already tried teaching themselves to do it. Then we settled in for the second half of the concert.

DakhaBrakha consists of three women and one man. The women wear white wedding dresses, tall hats of black fur (they kind of look like Buckingham Palace guard hats, but I guess they’re a little different), and abundant bead necklaces. They had even more instruments than Huun Huur Tu: drums, rattles, thunder tube (I think?), accordions, piano, cello, and something they called a zgaleyka, which I think is the same thing as a zhaleika, which is a small reed instrument with a bell made of horn. The cellist is self-taught. She definitely didn’t play her instrument like a classically trained cellist would, but she was adept at her own technique. The top face of her cello is painted or something; it’s covered with woven rug-like patterns in reds and oranges.

When they took the stage, the man announced, “We are DakhaBrakha from free Ukraine.” Their music involved a lot of intense percussion and the three women singing close harmonies. It alternated between gentle and energetic and wild. Some of the singing reminded me of Balkan singing. A couple of their songs were in English, though for the first one it took me a long time to figure that out. They played two encores, and at the end of their performance, I’m pretty sure I heard the man say, “Stop Putin.” Then he unfurled a Ukrainian flag.

It was a good evening. I’d see both groups again.

In other news, today is the one year anniversary of the publication of Sparkers!

Dancing with Zedashe

I talk a lot about my Georgian chorus at UCLA, but the first time I ever sang Georgian music was in 2013, when Zedashe, a vocal and dance ensemble from Georgia, came to Minneapolis. Their many events on their tour stop were organized by a couple I knew through folk dancing and shape note singing in the Twin Cities. I attended the choral workshop. On that occasion, we learned the song Shavlego and the chant Saidumlo Utskho Da Didebuli Vikhilet. I still have the sheet music for both tucked into my Sacred Harp.

Anyway, Zedashe is back in the U.S. for the release of their latest album, Our Earth and Water, and they kicked off their tour with a slew of events in Minneapolis. On Saturday morning, I went to the choral workshop in the gymnasium of the parish house of St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral. This time, I was armed with a year and a half of Georgian singing experience.

The first song we learned was Amiranis Perkhuli, or Amiran’s Round Dance. Amiran was a great hunter, apparently. Unlike most Georgian folk songs, which are in three-part harmony, Amiranis Perkhuli only has two parts, which shows how ancient it is. It also has two choirs, which trade off singing the top part over the bass. One choir sings the same (I think nonsense) words over and over while the other choir sings the verses telling of Amiran’s exploits. And on top of that it has a circle dance which you do as you sing. We learned the steps and everything. You can hear the whole song and see some of the dance in this (at times weirdly staged) video:

After that, we learned the chant Ghirs Ars, which talks about Mary and cherubim and seraphim.

That same evening, I went to one of Zedashe’s three concerts. I’d never seen them perform before, just participated in their workshops, and it was impressive. There was more dancing of a very different kind, flashier, often flirtatious, with almost no touching. The nine members of the ensemble wore traditional clothing (minus the bandoliers of bullets for the men, which was kind of reassuring). And there were instruments! Drum and accordion, but also panduri, a Georgian three-stringed lute, and chiboni, a Georgian bagpipe with a huge bag that’s actually as big as a headless, legless goat.

Zedashe performed a version of Gaul Gaukhe, a war song I’ve sung with Datvebis Gundi, and a song called Parine. The funny thing about Parine is that I could hear it was essentially the same song as one Datvebis Gundi learned, except we called it Parina. And while we were told Parina was about some festival when one gives alms to the poor, Zedashe’s English title for Parine was A Handsome Boy’s Name! Somewhere, something got lost in translation…

The Great Minnesota Get-Together


In Minnesota, the State Fair is a big deal. Depending on how you measure it, our fair is the largest or the second largest in the country. During these Twelve Days of Fun Ending Labor Day, a common conversation starter is Are you going/have you been to the fair? As the end of August approaches, people wait eagerly for the critics’ write-ups of the year’s new foods (2015 introductions include the mac & cheese cupcake, kimchi ‘n’ curry poutine, and BBQ pickle ice cream).

I missed the fair last year, but this year I spent the better part of a day there. Here’s what I saw and ate:


Sheep in the Sheep Barn


I stumbled into the sheep program. A judge from Indiana inspects the yearling ewe class. The first place ewe he ultimately chose beat the second place ewe because “she [came] together a little nicer in that neck and shoulder region”.


A handsome rabbit


A new lamb in the immensely popular Miracle of Birth Center.


A calf in the Miracle of Birth Center.


This is Captain Jack, this year’s largest boar. He weighs 1,080 pounds.


There was an appalling lack of goats in the Swine Barn (their usual home) this year. Nothing but these Boer goats! I wanted Oberhaslis!


Yeah, it doesn’t get much more Minnesotan than this.


State pride


The first thing I ate this year was a new fair food, a Bapple (blueberry-apple) hand pie from Sara’s Tipsy Pies.


The seed art is always great.


And engagé.



You’ve probably always wanted to grow a champion sugar beet.


Or a truly monstrous kohlrabi. To think the farmer who grew that one on the white tray thought they had a shot at largest kohlrabi! Little did they know.


The first place winner of the Giant Pumpkin Contest. This pumpkin weighs 1,473 pounds, more than the largest boar.


You can also win prizes just for growing some nice tomatoes.




I caught the Celtic duo Willow Brae playing under the AFL-CIO marquee. Here, the Scottish smallpipes! She also had border pipes.


Walleye mac and cheese!


Prize-winning Swedish-inspired crafts in the Creative Activities building


And in a different vein…


So many snickerdoodles


Not the most photogenic contest


Prize jams and jellies


Prize maple syrups


What passes for ethnic baking in Minnesota


Swedes-in-a-blanket: Swedish meatballs in lefse



In Which We Wave At Canada

After leaving the Boundary Waters, we drove back to Grand Marais and had lunch at the Angry Trout on Lake Superior. We bought some smoked trout and walleye cheeks from the fish market next door, then headed further north to Grand Portage, at the very tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead. The actual Grand Portage, or Gichi-onigamiing, is a 9-mile trail that bypasses 20 miles worth of rapids and falls on the Pigeon River near where it flows into Lake Superior.

We stopped at Grand Portage State Park, almost at the Canadian border, to see the waterfall. On the way into the visitor center, there were signs giving the English and Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin) names for various animals. I later learned these seven animals were clan names of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.



We walked the extremely accessible trail to the High Falls as thunder rumbled in the distance. These falls (there are more) are about 120 feet tall. They’re on the Pigeon River, which at this point forms the border between the U.S. and Canada.


Part of the High Falls


In case you can’t figure out where it is…


The U.S. (Minnesota) is on the left and Canada (Ontario) is on the right

Back in the visitor center, I found this sign listing helpful Ojibwe words:


And then we turned back, not having actually visited Canada.


The Boundary Waters

Last week, my family went canoeing and camping in the Boundary Waters. It was my fifth trip there and the ten-year anniversary of my first time in the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters are a network of lakes that straddle the U.S.-Canada border in northern Minnesota and southern Ontario. It’s a wilderness area where you camp, canoe, and portage between lakes. It is one of my favorite places in the world.

We drove up from the Twin Cities on Monday afternoon, passing through Duluth and driving up the North Shore. At Grand Marais, we turned inland and drove another hour and a half up the Gunflint Trail to Seagull Outfitters on Seagull Lake. We spent the night in the bunkhouse and embarked in two Kevlar canoes on a gray and misty Tuesday morning.


Seagull Lake

Armed with a map, I navigated us into the Boundary Waters proper and around the northern end of Three Mile Island. Seagull Lake is very large by Boundary Waters standards and apparently has over one hundred islands, which can make it tricky to navigate. We investigated two campsites on Three Mile Island and one on another, much smaller island, which was unfortunately taken, so in the end we went with the first campsite we looked at.


Our campsite’s cove


The sun comes out in the cove

We camped for three nights. During the day, we explored different parts of Seagull Lake: the palisades, some rapids, various islands.


The palisades


Brilliant sky, brilliant water

We had a campfire each night. We did not move campsites or do any portaging (even though we had light Kevlar canoes–portaging one of them sure beats carrying an 80-pound Grumman). We saw lots of birds: bald eagles, loons, common mergansers, gulls (it was Seagull Lake, after all), a woodpecker, gray jays. Our campsite was also home to at least one very territorial red squirrel who chittered constantly at us. We saw crayfish and minnows in the water and a bright green caterpillar on land, and my brother spotted a large turtle sunning itself on a rock.


Bald eagle


Turtle (from behind)


Crayfish, with faithful fish friend following behind


Red squirrel eating pine cone

One of the best parts of going to the Boundary Waters is getting away from everything: enriching one’s MA thesis, revising one’s manuscript, remembering the day of the week. There is just water, sun, sky, rock, and trees. It’s peaceful and quiet and empty and wild.






My mother is into rock balancing these days

The morning we left, we took a side trip to see a landmark labeled Falls on our map. It was at the north end of the lake, outside the Boundary Waters and near the U.S. Forest Service’s Trail’s End Campground. There was a small waterfall and rapids beyond, and we walked the 38-rod portage to see them and the lake at the other end. Then we paddled back to our outfitters and hot showers.


The start of the portage


The rapids