One summer day I packed my backpack and headed out on an ethnographic expedition. I had just passed my exams and finished my first year as a student of the Moscow Academy of Music. This annual tour involves different students every go around because only several professors are engaged yet all students must participate at least once.
Our ethnographic laboratory had been studying the Bryansk region on the west of Russia for many years. This time we traveled in small groups of three students and one teacher and had to record ancient folk songs from people in the villages. Usually, when we came to a village, we met somebody from the administration or from the local library and then they introduced us to old women who could sing different, almost forgotten songs from the depth of centuries.
We divided the duties: our teacher interviewed people, one student wrote a diary, another one was in charge of videotape and I operated the dictaphones and took photos.
There are many abandoned villages in the Bryansk region because when the Chernobyl disaster happened, the wind blew that way, so there was a radioactive trace that convinced a lot of people to move to other places. Moreover, everywhere in Russia villages are dying for the reason of poverty. Young people just want to live in cities. However, some villages have been saved, though many of them have whole streets with empty houses. They really do look haunted by ghosts. In some ways maybe it is good because you guess that the people are happier in the places where they have relocated, and, meanwhile, nature is reclaiming the territory. It looks really beautiful when storks and other birds make their nests on the drawn roofs near young wild apple trees which pierce old dilapidated boards.
We stayed overnight at the homes of the natives. As a rule, they were common old women, lonely but very friendly They were poor and very rarely bought food in the grocery shop, so we purchased it for them out of gratitude. Usually, they treated us with mashed potatoes and fresh milk. And every evening they sang their rarely heard songs for us. In some villages, we stayed only for one night and then went to other places, but in some locations, even three days were not enough.
The old ladies were wonderful. During that expedition, I recognized for the first time that 70 and even 80 years are not really old ages. The women were very active, had clear minds and a great sense of humor. They rode their bicycles, kept on their work, owned chickens, dogs, cats and goats. One very old lady was bent because of a problem with her spine. The upper half of her body just hung parallel to the ground. It was strange to see her sitting with much agility on the bicycle and going to her hard physical job on the cow farm. And she also knew an incredible amount of ancient songs…
One time we were waiting for a certain old woman near her rundown, impoverished house. A local librarian who knew everybody there had advised us to refer to her. It was sunny and hot. We saw her approaching us barefoot from a giant field between overgrown bushes. She looked like a very kind dwarf and carried a bucket. We introduced ourselves and she was glad to help us with her songs. She remarked that I looked at her with attention, smiled and said: “What do you think I brought in this bucket? Berries! Would you like some?” I looked into the bucket and saw it was half full of stirring colorado beetles. These are pests which damage potatoes crops and she had gathered everything in the field by her hands.
We stayed overnight with her and she remembered many folk songs in sequence. She was impressed by the thought that she will die, but her ancestors' songs will live in our records. “It is a pity that the youth do not want to know our songs and these will vanish soon”, - she said
When the next day we were gathering our things to say goodbye, she told us a story from her youth. She had been at the age to become a bride but did not like any of the local guys. She did not want to be married but her mother had wanted her to be and reproached her regularly. It was unusual for anyone to break these 'rules' because in traditional society every girl is afraid of staying a spinster. One guy had tried to take care of her, but she had run away from him every time. One day she had a terrible toothache, her face had swollen up and she looked as she said “like a Chinese beekeeper”. She had come home and fallen asleep. Suddenly somebody began to wake her up. She opened her eyes and saw that guy. “What are you doing here? –she asked. – I always run away from you!” “Stand up, just stand up,” – he persisted. She did and they went out into the main room. Surprisingly she saw that the candles were glowing and the table had been set as a celebration. Her mother was waiting for them with an icon in her hands. “Do you consent, my children?” – she asked agitatedly. “Yes we do,” – the guy responded hastily. “Oh my God, what is going on?!” – our lady thought but she had not been resolute enough to interrupt the ceremony. That day she becomes the wife of that guy.
Unfortunately the guy had a problem with alcohol and their marriage did not make her happy. Several years later after big quarrels, they divorced. “Never marry without love, girls”, - she taught us. Actually almost all of us were already married but we smiled, nodded and promised. Then we left her regretfully.
All the expedition lasted two weeks. We met several dozen women and recorded about one hundred songs for our laboratory. Some of them I have gratefully used in my music since then, some others I will use. I was really enchanted by touching this fragile and disappearing culture and meeting those old experienced people who are full of curative wisdom yet remain optimistic. Some of them have printed themselves in my mind forever. For then next two years I requested to join in this expedition again but they could not let me go. However, I have saved magnificent memories and I hope one day I will return there just to visit those remarkable places again. I can still imagine the candles glowing at a young woman's hasty marriage ceremony, her eyes like saucers as her mother cried for consent and the bridegroom shouted: "WE DO!"
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