Centres of Polyphony

The minorities of Russian Federation

The Volga-Ural Region minorities of Russian Federation  

The easternmost region of the Europe (west from the Ural Mountains, the natural border between the Europe and Asia), the Volga-Ural region consists of the big group of peoples, who speak on different language families (Finnish branch of Finno-Ugric languages and Turkic branch of Altaic languages), have different religious beliefs (pre-Christian, Christian, Moslem) and different traditional cultures. Unlike the North Caucasia, Volga-Ural region is not riddled with high impenetrable mountains, and the migration processes were very active here, resulting in a complete or partial change of languages, physical types of the populations, and cultures.
Finnish branch of Finno-Ugric family of languages are represented in this region by Mordvinians, Komi, Mari and Udmurts, and the Turkic branch of Altaic languages are represented by Tatars, Bashkirs and Chuvashs. Few of the peoples (or the part of the people) of this region practice various forms of traditional polyphony. Now we are going to have a closer look at the polyphonic traditions of the different peoples populating the Volga-Ural region.


Among the peoples of the Volga-Ural region Mordvinians are maybe the best known for their rich traditions of vocal polyphony. Although the first publications of Mordvinian songs were the monophonic versions of their polyphonic songs (see Uritskaya, 1973:147). Mordvinian polyphony was also one of the earliest to be published – Mitrofan Piatnitsky published them in 1914, followed publications from the 1920s. Finnish scholar A. Vaisonen published examples of Mordvinian polyphony in 1948 .
Polyphony is heavily featured in both regional groups of Mordvinians – Moksha and Erzia (both are the names these groups call themselves). Leading Mordvinian ethnomusicologists Nikolai Boiarkin distinguishes four types of group singing among Mordvinians: (1) unison –heterophonic type (mostly among Erzia-Mordvinians); (2) specific drone two-part singing, (3) developed two- and three-part drone type; and (4) late type of so called third polyphony, when two parts sing mostly in parallel thirds (Boiarkin, 1985:18-19). In her 1973 article dedicated specifically to Mordvinian polyphony, B. Uritskaya stressed similarities between Mordvinian and Russian polyphonic traditions, but failed to mention the presence of drone polyphony in Mordvinian singing (Uritskaya, 1973).
Despite the differences between these four polyphonic types, we may group these four types into two main groups of polyphony: (1) drone polyphony, and (2) heterophonic polyphony. Heterophonic polyphony is characteristic for Erzia, and the drone polyphony is present in both regions (mostly two-part in Erzia, with three- and four-part sections in Moksha). In Mordvinian polyphony all the parts are represented by several singers and they sing as a heterophonic “thick” melody (this is not the case, say, in Caucasia, or the Balkans, where the main melodic parts are virtually always performed by soloists). Scale system is anhemitonic, and chords with non-triad structures are usual (Boiarkina, 1985) Mordvinian traditional terminology clearly states the leading role of the middle part in three-part polyphony: the name of the middle part is Mora Vaig’al (lit. “voice of a song”), top part – Viari Vaig’al (“high voice”), and the base – Alu Vaig’al (“low voice”).


Komi consists of two ethnic groups – Komi Zirians, and Komi-Permiaks. Although these both groups practice polyphony, for a long time they were known as mostly monophonic cultures (unlike Mordvinians, who’s polyphonic traditions were known for a century). According to the available data, Komi-Permiaks practice polyphonic singing wider than Komi-Zirians. N. Zhulanova states that polyphonic singing is particularly important for so-called Komi-Permiaks from the Invensk, who live in the southern part of the settlement of Komi people, and in a small region (around the river Lupia) in the northern part. Two main types of polyphonic singing can be distinguished in Komi-Permiak traditional music: (1) drone, and (2) variant heterophony. Drone two-part singing is spread through the most polyphonic regions of the settlements of Komi-Permiaks (see above), and the unique feature of their drone singing is that the drone is sung on top of the main melody (Zhulanova, 1989). Although this type of two-part singing exist in some Russian regions (particularly in Central and South parts of Russia), unlike Russian style, where the top drone is mostly sung by a soloist, and the main melody – by the big group, among Komi-Permiaks the drone on the top of the texture is performed by the group of singers.
Ex. 15. Komi-Permiaks. (From Nadia Zhulanova)
In the middle section of the settlement of Komi-Permiaks the tradition of polyphony is not as prominent, as in the southern and northern regions. Drone polyphony is absent in central regions, and the variant-heterophony is the only form of polyphony. Komi Zirians also practice mostly unison-heterophonic styles of singing, although Zemtsovsky points at the unique tradition of “collective polyphonic wedding song-laments” among Komi-Zirians and suggests links with the Russian tradition of wedding lamentation in eastern Vologda district (Zemtsovsky, 2000:774).


Mari people consist of three ethnic groups: (1) mountain Mari live on the right bank of river Volga, (2) so-called “meadow” Mari’s live between the rivers Vetluzhsk and Viatka, and (3) “eastern” Mari live east from the river Viatka. Mari singing tradition has long been classified as monophonic. Elements of traditional polyphony were researched by Oleg Gerasimov, who came to the conclusion, that variant heterophony is quite usual for Mari traditional culture, particularly in “rekrutskie” (soldier’s songs) and lyrical songs, where the large groups of singers are participating. The most interesting forms of traditional polyphony had been found among the Lugovie Mari (“meadow Mari’s”). In their group singing traditions the elements of so-called podgolosochnaia polifonia (complex version of variant heterophony, particularly widely spread among Russians, and generally among eastern Slavs) were noted (Gerasimov, 1988:20-21). According to Gerasimov, traditional singers indicate that they prefer to sing the main melody in their own way, “directly” (“priamo”) creating heterophonic texture, because “it sounds better this way” (Gerasimov, 1988, 20)


Udmurts (in Old Russian “Votiaks”) are usually divided into two subgroups – northern and southern, and are ethnically close to Komi-Permiaks. There are also more detailed ethnic divisions among Udmurts. For example, there is a specific ethnic group Bessermians in northern Udmurtia, regarded as the descendants of the medieval Bulgars from banks of the Volga River. Although most of the Udmurts are Christians, there are Moslem and pagan groups among them as well. In regards of traditional polyphony, both southern and northern Udmurtia have a tradition of group singing. In southern Udmurtia the result is mostly unison and variant heterophony. In northern Udmurtia functional polyphony plays more distinguished role.
Turkic languages are represented in Volga-Ural region by Tatars, Bashkirs and Chuvashs. Generally speaking, in Volga-Ural region Turkic language speaker minorities are more populous than Finnish speaking minorities.


Tatars are easily the biggest minority group in the Volga-Ural region (about 4 million population), and one of the biggest minorities in Russia. Besides the Volga – Ural region, Tatars also live in Siberia, and around the northern tip of the Caspian Sea (so-called “Astrakhan Tatars”). More detailed division of the Tatars living in these three regions is also available in the ethnographic literature.
In regards to traditional polyphony, Tatars possibly represent the most monophonic musical culture in the Volga-Ural region. As far as I am aware of, only one specific group – so-called “Christened Tatars” (“kriashennie tatari”) practice actively the unison-heterophonic type of polyphony (Almeeva, 1985). Christened Tatars are the only Christian group among the Moslem Tatars.
Almeeva noted the presence of the elements of drone type in so-called “third-fifths” polyphony. In this style the strong beats are mostly distinguished by the presence of harmonic verticals – fifth on the first step, or the third on the second step.


Bashkirs (Bashkort in Bashkir) are another major population in the Volga-Ural region. In Bashkir physical type and traditional culture the elements of both substrate and superstrate are evident. Finno-Ugric peoples made the autochthonous substrate of Bashkirs. The strong elements of Turkic nomad peoples came from the North Central Asia and southern Siberia from around the 7th century, and migrations became particularly active during the 10 – 13th centuries. In regards of the polyphonic music, there is a clear connection between the traditional music of Bashkirs with the Central Asian singing cultures. This is a tradition of overtone singing, or solo polyphony (when one person produces a drone and together with the drone creates a melodic line on top of the drone, using the natural whistling-like harmonics of the drone). We will concentrate on this type of polyphony when we will be discussing polyphonic traditions of Central Asian region. So far we should mention that the overtone singing of Bashkirs is the westernmost instance of the presence of the Central Asian type of overtone singing. Tradition of overtone singing among Bashkirs is called “uzliau” (Zemtsovsky, 2000:773).


Chuvash population (“Chavash” in Chuvash) is divided into three groups: “Upper” Chuvashs (Vir’ial, Turi), “Lower” (Anatri), and “Middle-Lower” (Anat Enchi). Upper Chuvashs live in northwestern region, Lower Chuvash live in southern region, and Middle-Lower Chuvashs live in central and northeastern regions of their ethnic territory. Like most of the Udmurts, Chuvashs are Christians.
Regarding the tradition of vocal polyphony, according to the available data, only Low Chuvashs (Anatri) display the live tradition of polyphony. According to the specific two-part texture, Chuvash polyphony is close to the “third-fifths polyphony” tradition of the polyphony of so-called Christened Tatars (Almeeva, 1988:4). As in most of the musical traditions of the Volga-Ural region, Chuvash traditional singing (and polyphonic singing as well) is realized on pentatonic scales. Although pentatonic scales in the region are mostly anhemitonic, Chuvash and Mari singing also display rarer hemitonic forms of pentatonic scales (Zemtsovsky, 2000:773). In hemitonic pentatonic scales the number of the notes are five, but they do include half-tone steps, usually absent in most of the pentatonic singing cultures. Japan is maybe the most well-known for the use of hemitonic pentatonic scales.

North of European part of Russian minorities  

Another important group of the Russian minorities live in the northernmost part of the European part of the Russian Federation. These are Finnish-speaking peoples: Saami, Nenets, Karels, Veps. No information is currently available on the polyphonic singing of these peoples. Together with the ethnic Russians, living in this region, North Russia remains arguably the “most monophonic” among all Russian populations, the biggest region of Russia (and in fact, of the Europe) where no traditions of vocal polyphonic singing have been documented so far (except the unique and now extinct tradition of two and three independent melodies, sung together, recorded in the 1920s by Gippius. See above). Unison and octave singing (with slight elements of heterophony) has been the only form of group singing in this region.

Jews and Rom

Discussing the music of Russian minorities, Jews (in Russian – “Evrei”) and Rom (in Russian – “Tsigane”) traditional music should be taken into account as well. Found in most of the regions of the European part of Russia, Jews and Rom were very influential in 18-19-20th century Russia as brilliant musicians. Although the mastery of musical instruments of Jews was well known and highly appreciated in Russia, no data is currently available on vocal polyphonic traditions among them. Later in this chapter I will discuss in detail the polyphonic traditions of few other populations of Jews from the Middle East and Europe.
As for the Rom musicians in Russia, their singing style widely featured contemporary urban style polyphony, with parallel thirds, European functional Tonic-Subdominant-Dominant harmonies, and European instrumental accompaniment (mostly guitar). Rom choirs (so-called “khor tsigan”) were extremely popular and many follower-ensembles existed in many Russian cities. I remember my professor in ethnomusicology in Georgia, late Grigol Chkhikvadze telling me that for few years, while he was studying in Russia (in Sankt Petersburg) during the 1930th, he was a director of “Khor Tsigan” (“Rom Choir”). Rom singing style was very much appreciated in Russia and had a profound influence on Russian popular singing style.

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