Painting with photo by Jan Scheerder
Okna Tsagan Zam, the National Kalmyk Djangartschi
Vladimir is the national Kalmyk Djangartschi. He was born on the way home from exile in Siberia in 1957. His Russian name
is Vladimir Karuev, but when he was born, his mother gave him the Kalmyk name Okna Tsagan Zam. Tsagan Zam means
The White Road, in a free translation means something like “The way to freedom”, Okna is his father’s name.
When he was a young boy, he had strange dreams. In one of the dreams an old man told him to sing the Djangar,
but he did not want to sing, however strange forces pushed him. He started to sing parts of the Djangar epic only for friends.
Then in 1987 he started to sing in public and in 1990, on the anniversary of Djangar, he received the title of
National Kalmyk Djangartschi. Then he was invited to a festival in Paris, it was the start of many concerts in Western Europe and Russia, later followed concerts in Japan, India and the USA.
The ‘Djangar’ is a centuries old heroic story, a source of ancient wisdom, the singers of this epic are called ‘Djangartschi’.
Most of the energy of Tsagan Zam is devoted to bring the old culture and traditions back to the people. In the summer he
organizes camp holidays for Kalmyk children on the steppe at Godschur. Here they learn about the Djangar and the
old nearly forgotten culture and traditions, but also their own Kalmyk language, old sports like bowing, spear throwing, wrestling and horse riding.
Tsagan Zan has a privately recorded CD of him singing a 61 minute version of the Djangar. He mainly sings in his Khargiraa with some khöömei (more Tuvan style that Mongolian khöömii) interludes. Tsagan Zam accompanies himself on the Dombra (dombra) and is assisted by an unknown Morin Khuur Player. The CD of Tsagan is not for sale in shops. It can be obtained by emailing Jan Scheerder email@example.com who is Tsagan Zam’s good friend in Holland.
Please read his article about his trip to Kalmykia below.
What does your name mean?
My grandmother gave me my name. Tsagan Zam means " the white road ", because I was born on the road, during the return of the Kalmyks to their Siberian land, after years of deportation. They called me " the white Road ", which also meant somehow " happy " because our return was joyous. It was in 1957 (editor's note: In 1943, Stalin had decided to deport all the Kalmyk people to Siberia. In 1957, Kroutchev authorized the Kalmyk people to return to their steppe to reconstitute the Republic of Kalmukia.)
Where do you come from?
I was born in the Republic of Kalmykia, in the town of Elista. The Kalmyks are Western Mongols. They came from the Altai, along the Volga and have been there for four centuries. I am part of the Ik Boukhus Baaktoudi lineage, to which Elan Ovla also belonged. He was a famous " djangar " singer at the beginning of this century. In fact the first book written on the " djangar " was based on his songs.
Are the Kalmyks still nomadic?
From the beginning, the
traditional life of the Kalmyks was nomadic. Today, Kalmyks have become
sedentary and ceased their nomadic life. A change of psychology occurred, a
change of life style among Kalmyks, which was followed by social crisis.
Today, we need to study our culture in more depth, preserve our epic poems, preserve our nomadic life and our cattle raising, our alimentation, all that we inherited from our ancestors. All the rules are written in the " djangar "
What is the "djangar"?
The "djangar" is a source of ancient wisdom, which gives us rules for living and helps us to make choices. It's the philosophy of life of a man that no one reassures, no one fools, and to whom nobody can promise happiness after death. The " djangar " says one has to live loving nature, his people, loving others and spend most of his life living in reality. The " djangar " also gives practical advice, for example regarding the equipment of a horse. It says that under the saddle, one should always put a few coats of felt, in the hair's direction, otherwise the horse might get callosities. The " djangar " will always exist because it is a source of information for the Kalmyks. It's a life model, a cultural model, with its own cosmogony. At the beginning, " Djangar " is the " Khan of the universe ", the man who loves all. There is a sun in the sky and on the earth, there is a man who must keep it all in peace. Djangar holds a yellow flag in his hands, it represents the sun. The main idea of " djangar " is that everyone lives in peace and good understanding on this earth, our Mother earth. We all are leaves of the same tree. The " djangar " is also the idea of reuniting the world, in a balance between human beings and prosperity.
Why do you sing the "djangar"?
When I was a kid, they called me
" the little old man ", because I preferred listening to the old wise
men than play with the other kids. It was the communist period at the time, I
finished school, did my military service and after I got my engineering degree,
I started working. But during that period, I did not feel satisfied. I did not
feel any purpose for what I was doing, it was not I, and it was not my path. I
liked the " djangar " poetry a lot, which I already sang, but only
among friends. In 1987, I started singing the " djangar " in public,
for the Djangar anniversary, celebrated in 1990.
At that time, I also started having strange dreams. In one of them, an old man told me that I should have sang the " djangar " since my teens. Several dreams followed that kept pointing me towards singing, but I still did not want to sing. I was embarrassed and was scared of the public. Still, mysterious forces kept pushing me to sing. The day of the anniversary of the Djangar, I received the title of Djangarchi, official " djangar " player. Once the festivities were over, I thought I was going to put my dombra away and go back to work. That's when I was invited to participate to a festival in Paris. It gave me the desire to go on and pursue my mission that would have died had it not been for mysterious forces, cosmic connections that prevented it. I toured several times in France, I sang, I doubled my energy level, it's a funny story. I feel something leads me. Even our encounter today is not gratuitous.
Tell us about horses…
The horse is a traditional subject for Kalmyks. One could not imagine Djangar without his horse. The horse is man's best friend, he shares his joys and sorrows and helps him to live. There isn't a Kalmyk who would be indifferent to horses. They bring out strange but positive feelings. To pick a good horse, we don't need to see any document. One only needs to have a good look among the horses and know immediately which one will be the best. We know the secrets about the horse's anatomy, the way it runs, the way it breathes, its teeth, its mane etc… And we learn all that it in the " djangar ". The same for men, we can make the difference and say who will become Khan. The sky created a reasonable, intelligent man. The main rule of life is to act with wisdom, and the sky will take care of the rest.
Is the Dombra a traditional instrument?
The dombra is the Kalmyk's favourite instrument. The dombra with two strings, like black and white, like night and day. One of the strings means the instrument, the masculine principle, and the other one the feminine principle. The epic poems are always accompanied with this instrument.
Who is your public?
At first I thought my public was composed of Kalmyks, Bouriats and Mongols. Now I believe that my public is international. French people do not understand Kalmyk, but they listen! The " djangar " is good for all. It carries a world notion that humans of this world listen to with a deep interest.
What about your Yurt project, can you still come back to the traditional yurts (tents)?
There are many negative and positive things in this world. So one must accumulate the best ones and evict the bad ones. I often travel in Europe and often meet people interested in our culture. I would like to create a centre in France, along the Atlantic Ocean. It would be a cultural centre, a museum that would regroup all the Asian and European cultures, where we could express our feelings, our ideas, and help others to discover our ancient traditions. I note a tendency to unification and I am for it. The Yurt is the idea of Genghis Man, the man of the millennium. He said one has to care for our world, like a mother takes care of her children. But at the same time, one has to note that some of them can give happiness, and others don't. Despite the massacres he is responsible for, Genghis Khan was a real gardener. He could distinguish the fruit bearing branches from the one rotting with a dampness that will not give fruit. So he would cut these last branches, to fortify the tree, and make it as fruitful as possible.
Interview and translation to English : Bella Le Nestour. Photos : John Allen Paris, June 2001
Travel to unknown Kalmykia, the country of Djangar with Jan Scheerder
Since I was a young boy, I've dreamed about Russia, the mysterious and faraway country, especially the Northern parts of the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. In my school years I used to read the adventures of Genghis Khan, Marco Polo and the Russian adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Many I have read more than once. I was fascinated by the mysterious throat singing techniques from Mongolia, Tuva and Altai. It was always a dream of mine to visit these places, but for a long time these countries were unattainable for tourists. One day I opened the newspaper and saw a picture of a Mongol-looking man in a beautiful costume. Above it was the text: Vladimir, throat singer from Kalmykia. It was an article about a big folkloristic festival, not far from my city. The festival was scheduled for five days, and I attended every day to listen to this mysterious man singing. The last evening, before the Kalmyks had to leave for home by bus (which would take them five days and five nights), I had the chance to meet Vladimir. It was difficult to communicate with him, because he only spoke Russian and I did not understand a word. We sat down, face to face, on the lawn at the festival place and I think we had contact on a ‘higher dimension?’ We ‘spoke’ for about half an hour and when we said goodbye there was a feeling of friendship. He presented me with a music cassette with some of his songs and a business card. I went home with the thought of never seeing him again.
Newspaper clip of Vladimir, throat singer from Kalmykia
I thought that I will never see
Vladimir again in the weeks and months that followed I daily listened to his
mysterious songs, in raw Kalmyk/Mongolian language. My wife did not enjoy the
music and advised me to make a friendly visit to Kalmykia. She said: "Then
you can hear it every day". That was the last drop in the bucket for me.
There after I tried to locate Kalmykia and tried to find a way to visit
him. It was a nightmare to receive a visa for Kalmykia. The Russian
consular refused it three times. I have a good contact at a travel agency
in Amsterdam that specializes in travelling to Russia. They knew a Kalmyk woman
in Holland who helped me with an invitation in order to obtain a
visa. During this period I attended Russian language classes, so I could speak
some words and read the Cyrillic alphabet.
The Tupolev plane of the Russian airlines, Aeroflot, was scheduled to depart at 12h45. We were on our way to board the plane, when the stewardess sent us back to the airport building. Through the window we saw kerosene dripping out of the plane, maybe it was overfilled. The fire brigade inspected the plane, cleaned the floor and 45 minutes later the plane was ready for take off.
Red Square in Moscow
We had a perfect flight, except for some hard turbulence near Minsk. At Moscow airport, Sheremetchevo, a Kalmyk was waiting for me to help me with the local flight and took me to my hotel. But first he took me on a short tour of Moscow, which included the Red Square. The Red Square is a must for any tourist that visits Russia. The Kalmyk boy, Sasja, who was my guide, could speak good English. I expected a much bigger Red Square, but I must admit, it was underestimated on the military parades that I had seen on TV. Although the Saint Basil Cathedral made it look more impressive. Sasja offered to take me to the first Mac Donald's in Moscow, but my choice was a Russian restaurant. I ate my first Russian soup, Borsjt. I did not enjoy the soup because it was too sour for my taste. Moscow was experiencing a heat wave of 36' C during my visit.
We travelled by train to the outskirts of Moscow and then took a taxi to my hotel. I stayed in a non-costumed hotel Dom Tvorchestva, which means House of Creation and was founded by Stalin as a hotel for the Great Russian writers. It is in a park, and close by were some beautiful wooden dachas in soft blue and green colours. Nowadays the hotel is also open for other artists, sculptors and painters. I drank my first Russian vodka at this hotel. After Sasja left, I began to transpires and felt sick. I drank some mineral water, ate some bread and lay down on my bed. After half an hour I took a shower, but nothing helped. I had to vomit and it was like I had a fever. I think it was from the sour borsjt in the restaurant. That night I could not sleep. The next morning I took some aspirins and after a shower I went outside for a walk in the park. Far off I heard some thunder and I walked back to the hotel, and just when I arrived it began to rain and a heavy thunder began. I waited for Sasja, who promised to come at eleven, but because of the heavy weather he arrived at twelve. We went back to Moscow to buy a ticket for my flight to Kalmykia, and then we took the train to the airport Vnukovar. Vnukovar is a little airport about 35 km outside of Moscow, it is only for inland flights. Our airplane was a Jac 40. (Jacovlev)
On the left and right of the stairs of the plane were fully armed policeman. We entered the plane via the stairs under the belly, and we had to store our luggage ourselves in the cargo room, and then find a seat. There was no stewardess, so everybody was free to find a seat.
After a while the pilot came in and started the engines. With the stewardess, who just came in, he tried to close the emergency door. It was open because of the high temperature. To close the door was not easy, the pilot secured it with a leather strap. I did not feel happy when I saw this. Many of the passengers placed their luggage in front of this door. The seats were bad. I secured my safety belt, but after a deep breath it burst open. My neighbour told me to do it like him. He laid the both ends of the belt open over his legs, I said OK and smiled at him. The pilot and the stewardess went to the cockpit and we taxied down the runway. Then there was a heavy noise and the plane took off. Halfway through the flight the stewardess came in with plastic cups of lemonade. This plane did not fly as high as the Tupolev, so I could see more of Russia from the air. After three hours the landscape below changed, we drew near the steppe. The airplane circled and I saw the runway, a little strip in the steppe. It was a very short runway, so the pilot had to break hard.
Arrived in Elista and no Vladimir to meet me. When we stopped, everybody ran to the cargo room to pick up their luggage. Outside it was very hot and we walked through a big iron door in concrete fence and walked to the parking place. I looked around, but there was no Vladimir.
The steppe at Godschur wrestling and horse riding While Kalmyk songs are sang others dance
One of the passengers asked me where I had to go, and told me he knew Vladimir and he would take me there. We walked to the bus, and then I saw a big black Volvo, Vladimir came out and welcomed me as if we had been friends for years. When we arrived at his home in Elista, his wife Maya served dinner a large amount of cooked sheep meat. Before dinner she served Kalmyk tea, a salty butter tea. When I saw all this meat I felt sick again, and told Vladimir what had happened in the restaurant in Moscow. He took a big glass, filled it with a triple vodka, put some salt in it and ordered: drink this at once. Fifteen minutes later I felt better, and I ate a lot of meat and drank some more vodka. The sickness did not come back...
After dinner we took a ride on the steppe for a few hours, it was impressive. You feel so small on this endless steppe, and it is wonderful to ‘hear’ the silence. Back home we spoke, Vladimir speaks a little bit German now, and I a few words in Russian. It was twelve o'clock when we went to sleep. The next morning we went to Elista for a look at the city. Elista is a city of 100.00 inhabitants, and modern in its ideas as a city. In 1865 it was a little village, and in 1930 it became the official capital of Kalmykia. During world war II (1943) all the inhabitants of Kalmykia were exiled to Siberia by Stalin and the city was totally destroyed by the Germans. In 1957 by a decree from president Chrustjov, the people returned to their homeland. Immediately they rebuilt the city and now it is a modern city with schools, hospitals, libraries, theatres and a university. There are also many churches, Buddhist temples (the Kalmyks are Tibetan Buddhists) Russian Orthodox, Christian churches and Muslim temples. We went to visit some friends of Vladimir, drank many bowls of traditional Kalmyk tea and again vodka... In the following days we left the city behind and went to the steppe. Only one who has been on the steppe will understand what it means when I say that the steppe feels like a sacred place, the boundless, endless plains give a man another understanding of life. The smell of the grasses and herbs, the deep blue sky and the silence leave a big impression to every one who has been there. You feel so small in this wonderful and peaceful place. We then rode on a higher part of the steppe and we looked over a long sloping valley, above us we heard the scream of a steppe eagle. At the end of the valley we saw a little settlement, there we saw the silhouettes of five yurts. Slowly we rode forward, it seemed we never got any closer. It felt like time did not exist. Time is not important there, daily life does not play out on a watch. A biological clock tells you when it is time to eat and when darkness comes it is time to sleep. When we arrived at the yurts, one of Vladimir's friends came out to invite us for the traditional tea. After the tea we went inside and sat down on a big felt carpet. Now the bowls were filled with kumis, a strong drink made of milk, it tastes sickly sweet. The kumis contains about 9% alcohol. It is a refreshing drink on a hot steppe. Vladimir took his dombra (two string national instrument) and began to sing. A deep growling sound and at the same time extreme high overtones come out of his throat, He sang about the national hero Djangar. (From now I call him Tsagan Zam, because I think his Kalmyk name fits him better.) The older men listen to his song with great interest. I can tell you when you listen to these songs, sitting near the yurts on the steppe, it gives you goose bumps.
When Tsagan is singing, it looks as if he is in a trance. In his songs you can hear the thousands of horse hoofs of the Golden Horde from Genghiss Khan trampling the steppe. Meanwhile a sheep is slaughtered, a woman fills the pan with water, to boil the meat on a stove outside the yurt. When the song is ended many of the audience shake his hands to thank him for the beautiful song. When the sheep is cooked, and the men sit down to eat, an older woman takes her dombra and begins to sing old Kalmyk songs, then invites others to dance. After the dinner I went for a walk over the steppe with a group of men. When we came back late that afternoon, the sun touched the horizon. It had been a very warm day with temperatures nearing 40' C.
Later that evening, when it was dark, a campfire was made. Again Tsagan took his dombra and began to sing. With the fire and the thousands of very bright stars in the blue/ violet sky, the music of the cicadas and sometimes the howling of wild dogs or wolves, it was much more impressive than before. It was late when we got to sleep in the yurt. I lay down on the felt carpet and looked up through the smoke hole, I saw the stars above and I thought of the poem from the well known Kalmyk poet David Kegultinov:
‘When in the steppe I stand alone With far horizons clear to view, Ambrosia on the breezes blown And skies above me crystal blue, I sense my own true human height And in eternity delight. The obstacles to all my dreams now shrink, appear absurd, inept, And nothing either is or seems except myself, these birds, this steppe.... What joy it is to feel all round wide open space that knows no bound!’
The next morning we rode straight through the steppe to a little settlement and bought ten bottles of ten mineral water, some bread and some sausages.
The roads on the steppe were very bad. It was all sandy roads or cart-ruts. We rode for hours without seeing any sign of human existents, no houses, no cars, no noise, only the unbelievable and endless steppe. Sometimes we saw carcasses, bleached by the sun.
In some places the grass was very high and lower in other places. We saw beautiful flowers and herbs, but desertification is also a problem in Kalmykia, thousands of square kilometres changed into dead plains. We rode in such a place. Suddenly in the distance we saw a flock of 100 saiga’s. Tsagan drove forward, the speedometer reaching 90 km/hr. I hung out the window with my video camera, as we rode beside the herd, it was fantastic to see how these animals ran beside the car. After a few kilometres we slowed down and reached a stop. Tsagan took a bottle of vodka, and as we have no vodka glasses, we drink from the bottle and relished these beautiful moments.
After half an hour we came across a lonely hut, our mineral water was too hot to drink, so we stopped and looked for a well near the house. I threw the bucket down and then pulled it up, filled to the brim with cool, clear water. We washed ourselves and I drank from the bucket. Tsagan said, do not drink too much because of ‘rtut’ Poisoned water I did not understand the word. When we walk back to the car, Tsagan grabbed my dictionary, and then I understood what he meant, ‘rtyt’ is the Russian word for mercury.
The water in most places of the steppe is poisoned with mercury and other chemicals from faraway industries. They dump their waste in the rivers, which transport these waste products to the lakes and then to the Caspian Sea. Up to 3 million tones of salts are thrown from the fields of Stavropol into the lakes of Kalmykia every year. The result is mass destruction of water flora and fauna, fish and water birds. The most acute problem is that of the drinking water. Some people use these waters for drinking and cooking, while it is even unfit for industrial use.
We roamed over the steppe a few more days and nights and in spite of the seeming monotony, it never became boring!
Back in Elista, I stepped back to reality and prepared to go home. Because there was no flight from Kalmykia to Moscow this week, I had to go to Volgograd. The next day at midnight, a friend of Tsagan would bring me to the Volgograd airport, a six-hour drive.
The last day in Kalmykia we stayed at home, we spoke a lot, and Tsagan asked me to send him an invitation, because he would like to come to Holland to visit me for a week or two.
During the ride to Volgograd we had some problems with the car, a Russian Volga, sometimes the car broke down, but the driver promised to be at the airport in time. He repaired the engine and the lights with some aluminium foil. Indeed, we arrived just in time. I had a perfect flight to Moscow, and from there to Amsterdam. A few months later Tsagan visited me and again we had a wonderful time. Kalmykia is always welcome!
A story about the first Djangartschi.
In ancient times lived a man, nobody remembers his name, he was very ill and he died.
Like every dead person, he was undressed and put on the steppe.
After three days the wild dogs came and began to gnaw at his legs, then suddenly he woke up and went back to his family. Everyone was very shocked and astonished to see the ‘dead’ man
coming back He took up his daily work and never told about his resurrection.
After 12 months a great Lama came to visit his family and asked if he could stay the night.
According to an old Kalmyk tradition, he asked if someone could tell him a nice story.
The man who had risen from the dead said that he knew a very special story.
The whole family was surprised, because the man had never had a talent to tell stories.
They were more surprised when the man, instead telling a story, started to sing a big part of the Djangar epic as if he was the best singer they ever heard.
All the audience wanted to know were he got that talent.
He told them the following story:
When I died, my soul went through the hell to the throne of Aerlik Chan.
Many strange people were sitting around his throne and made beautiful music.
Some played on Churs (violins) others on Zurs (flutes) and some played the Dombra (two string instrument)
When Aerlik Chan looked at me, he asked why I came here and he asked:
“Why is this man brought here, his time is still not come, bring him back to the Upperworld.”
I asked Aerlik Chan to stay here for a longer time, to listen to the beautiful songs and music of his singers.
He looked at me and said: “For the fear you had on your journey through the underworld, I will give you a reward,
choose from the songs of my singers the most beautiful song you heard and sing it for everyone who wants to hear it.”
I told him what I liked the most, than he took a stamp, pressed it on my tongue and said:
“Now you have to return to the Upperworld, but never tell about Djangar before a Lama asks you to tell a story.”
The Gällung (Lama) was so impressed, that he told the whole story to the Vice Chan.
The Chan immediately invited the singer and asked him to sing the story of Djangar for him and his court.
They all listened till deep in the night and afterwards the Chan made him to the first official Djangartschi and offered him 40 sheep. Everyone of the audience took of some of his cloths and gave it to the Djangartschi.
After a few years, every Chan had his own Djangartschi, but they all were only a shadow from the first.
Most Djangartschi know about 20 verses from the epic, but in the tradition, the first Djangartschi knew 360 verses.