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22 January, 2013  ▪  Olena Maksymenko

In the Grip of Vibration

Old-new music practices thrill the world. It is also possible to play the ethnic instruments of ancient peoples and learn local guttural singing in Ukraine

When religion, art, as well as manners and customs were a single whole in everyday life, for the first time, man tried to make sounds, using hollow bones. In the authentic cultures of Africa, South America and Asia, the basis for one instrument or another could be, let’s say, a dried pumpkin, a blown up pig’s bladder or a tortoise shell (some African tribes also used human skulls). The logic was simple and sure: play everything that can make a sound.

Today, interest in anything ethnic in the world has become a large-scale epidemic. “A person with an African drum can now be seen more often, that a person with a guitar, – says Leonid Pavlonok, a Belarussian musician, who plays in the Nagual, Malanka and Orkestr Rekha (Rekha Orchestra) bands. – In our times, DJs playing “grandma’s songs” or something that is radically underground are particularly popular, for example, the didgeridoo with live drum and bass. Currently, East Slavic countries are seeing a powerful influx of ethnic instruments and interest in other cultures. This interest has dwindled somewhat in America and Europe, having peaked in the 1980-1990s, which saw the emergence of the world music concept”.


Widely know Ukrainian masters in narrow circles make drymbas (a Ukrainian mouth instrument), lyres, drums, maracas, tambourines, etc. For the most part self-taught, without special music (or handcraft) education, these masters have attained a significant (sometimes international) level of expertise by means of numerous attempts and mistakes, and have transformed their fascination into a full-time profession. Moreover, they rarely keep to authentic technologies: sometimes a plastic membrane on a tambourine or tom-tom is significantly more practical than a traditional skin: it’s not afraid of moisture (so can be played when it rains at festivals without any problems), it does not require the killing of an animal, cannot be damaged, and at the same time, sounds just as good. Not quite authentic, but practical – noted one musician, “a musical instrument is not a tamagochi, which has to be taken care of and nurtured”.

Thus, thanks to Dmytro Matyukhin , artist, musician, master of the didgeridoo and one of the authors and organizers of the “Overtonic” (Obertonik) overtone music festival, this Australian relative of the Hutsul trembita has become very popular in Ukraine. The traditional didgeridoo is made out of eucalyptus, gnawed out inside by termites during the drought season. “Aborigines knock on trunks and find those that sound the most suitable, – explains Dmytro. – They cut them down, clean them out inside if necessary, then they stick on a mouthpiece made of black beeswax and decorate them”. In contrast from the trembita, an authentic didgeridoo is not lifted into the air; the end from which the sound emits, is generally rested on the ground, since the instrument is very heavy. “in principle, it is impossible to make one like this in Ukraine: there are neither termites, nor eucalyptus trees, so needless to say, the guys work with different types of trees. They cut the trunk lengthwise, hollow out the internal cavity, after which the two pieces are joined together into a single pipe – the process is long, demands a lot of attention and is very complicated” – says the musician. After a series of experiments with dense cardboard, bamboo, metal and plastic, Dmytro succeeded in inventing his own “recipe” for making a didgeridoo: “I find plastic pipes on the construction material market and knock on them to hear the sound. At home, I heat them over a fire until the plastic is as malleable as plasticine, then give them the required form: I narrow them near the mouthpiece and widen them near the bell mouth. I make a comfortable mouthpiece from the same pipe. I then accurately adjust the required note by widening the bell mouth. When the half-finished product is ready, I design and decorate it”. Dmytro’s didgeridoos, which are colourful, phantasmogorically decorated and sometimes twisted into a ram’s horn, are gradually spreading throughout the world, ever-more people are gathering for his master-classes, willing to endlessly “prrr” clumsily into the pipe, until they finally learn how to make the necessary sounds. “I realized that there was a sufficiently free niche in Ukraine, – shares Mr. Matyukhin. – I learned through the Internet that Yaroslav Kaminskiy had already started making didgeridoos shortly before me. We met, spoke and realized that no one else seemed to be working in this field. So we decided to promote good vibrations in Ukraine!”


Some folk groups are reviving not only the skill of playing traditional ancient instruments, but also the good old principle of extracting sound from everything that comes to hand. This is how, in their time, the Belarussian group, Nagual, found fame – in the musicians’ hands, a vacuum cleaner hose “sang” – wonderfully, I might add – as did other unexpected items. “The choice of instruments was dictated by the wish to find something unique in both form and sound. And what was even better – if it could be made with your own hands. In addition, my fascination with the source of music pushed me to instruments with an archaic sound. We can make sounds using any everyday item!” In truth, the musician admits that groups have now changed their concept somewhat: “You won’t see us with plumbing pipes. Right now, we are using traditional instruments: a drum kit, guitars, a violin, accordion and vocals...” – says Leonid.

Current folk artists experiment with various musical instruments, as well as with the musical capabilities of their own bodies. Ever-more people are ready to learn the art of guttural singing, which was previously a privilege of Shaman practice, but can now be heard more often at concerts together with different, sometimes modern musical instruments. “Guttural singing can be heard in African tribes and in Ireland (where it is quite a new style), in Guinea – women’s guttural singing, –  says Radvil, a master of guttural singing. – I think that every nation sang in this style at one time or another of its history, it’s just that for the most part, this tradition didn’t survive to our times. This is because the arrival of Christianity brought its own adjustments to pagan and Shaman traditions. Today, guttural singing is enjoying a revival in various countries. New styles and experiments are emerging. But the countries best known for guttural singing are still Mongolia, Tuva, Siberia and Buryatia”. The primary designation of guttural singing is to bring the singer to a so called “different state of consciousness”, to sing in a different dimension. The more practical, “vital” application of such a practice is for medical purposes. Today, some Shamans, such as Nikolai Oorzhak, conduct healing séances with the application of this type of singing. But at the same time, the singing is very distinctive and attractive for performing on stage.

“There are three different types of guttural singing: sygyt, khoomei and kargyraa, –  says Tagiro Vetroyar, a master of guttural singing. – The Shaman are convinced that the world, just like man and its microcosm, are divided into three levels: heavenly, terrestrial and subterranean. Sygyt is characterized by high, strong, piercing notes, khoomei – by its soft-sounding style and kargyraa – by a lower voice range with an intense croaking tone. Singing in one of the guttural singing styles, we interact with the relevant world, both within ourselves and in the environment. Even the extent to which a person is or isn’t Shaman is not important...” Today, musicians also daringly combine guttural singing with authentic Ukrainian melos, and with the guitar, and with the didgeridoo. “I think that guttural singing, just like any other form of singing, can be combined with any instrument. The main thing is for there to be harmony, be it with a guitar, percussion, drums or synthesizer. Some people are against guttural singing in effect losing its roots. I don’t agree with this. The main thing is what and how people use it for themselves and what they put into it” – says Tagiro.

At present, ancient practices are becoming ever-more accessible, since the Shamans are sharing their knowledge that used to be closed, they visit and organize thematic festivals, and are creating communities in social systems – they are concerned that their tradition is currently under threat of extinction. Those willing to do so, can master the art of guttural singing at master-classes, which are conducted after concerts, at festivals or in art cafes.


Interest in Native American Indian music currently appears to be less widespread, but more deepened and structured. Native American Indian music is not combined with modern musical instruments or the traditional instruments of other cultures as often. Expert and musician Kostyantyn Mitokaru makes many different wonderful things: wing-shaped psalteries and drums, but mainly native American flutes: “In 1869, the Reverend Alfred Riggs, a missionary who lived with the Santee Sioux tribe, offered the first description of the plains flute, which he saw while living with the tribe: “This flute is called a “cho-tan-ka”, (čhotháŋka – literally “large core” – meaning the large core of the timber used to make the flute). In addition to the Lakota name “cho-tan-ka”, Native American Indian tribes gave it other names, such as: šiyóthaŋka – “large partridge” (the flute was often formed in the shape of a bird’s head), the wiíkižo – “whistle” and the wayážopi – “they whistle on it”. “Love flute” or “courting flute” are terms that are often used in relation to Native American flutes in literature, which is not an accurate reflection of the instrument. It’s true that young Native American boys used the flute to draw to themselves the attention of girls they liked, but this was not the main purpose of the instrument”.

Lostyantyn became interested in the music theme almost by accident, when he was trying to make his own souvenir as a gift. “I wanted to hear its sound, – says the craftsman. – That’s how everything began. I began searching for information on the Internet and ask questions of various forums”. The learning process was quite difficult, since he hadn’t played any instruments until that time and does not have a musical background. The process of creating a flute begins with the selection of timber, calculations of the material required and a sketch or a design. Only then does the actual production process begin – for the most part, it involves handwork, the calculation of tone holes, their placement and decoration...

Fascination with music ethnicity is of a specific nature for each individual. For one person, it’s the search for new original motifs and sounds, for another – following trends, others search for their roots, while still others see it as a magical practice or scientific research. “Today, there is an abundance of guitarists, flautists and particularly drummers on every street corner! – says Dmytro Matyukhin. – In my view, Jimi Hendrix did everything with his guitar, that could be done. It’s doubtful whether it is possible to outdo him. The same applies to other instruments. For Ukraine, the didgeridoo is something exotic, in other words, there is still the prospect and opportunity to do something significant in this sphere”.


Didgeridoo massage:

Of late, didgeridoo massages have been common practice during master classes and festivals in Ukraine. Its disciples confirm that the ultrasound of the didgeridoo relaxes the muscles, helps during spasms, joint pains and stimulates bone growth after fractures and breaks. Ancient sound therapy procedures with the aid of overtone singing was used as help during chronic tiredness, stress, increased anxiety, sleeplessness, headaches and many other ailments and injuries.

A singing bowl for the purification of water:

The meditative Tibetan instrument not only immerses a person in a state of calm and contemplation, but can also be used for the purification of any type of water as a result of relevant treatment using sound. It purifies water and gives it healing properties. Some coffee addicts use this purification and “charging” means before brewing.

Dangerous wind instruments:

The Indian flute is made without any holes (the sound changes depending on how strongly it’s blown), but also serves as a blunt weapon, since it is made of extremely hard wood. It fulfills the function of a stick in combat practice. In ancient times, the humble and unpretentious Japanese pipe also had another function, as a tube, through which poisoned wires were blown.

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