Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Chirayliq report from Kežmarok, Slovakia

I spent the extended weekend at a video art festival in the small town Kežmarok in the High Tatras in eastern Slovakia.

Slovakia has a large Roma minority, mostly in the eastern parts of the country. As in most other post-communist countries, there are ethnic tensions and a lot of racism directed towards Roma people. Even the question of how many Roma people there are in Slovakia reflects racist problematics:

"... According to estimates of the urban and communal offices of the state administration from 1989, however, as many as 253,943 Roma live in Slovakia, thus constituting 4.8% of the population. Since these statistics did not include Roma who have a standard of living comparable to that of the majority population, Roma political and cultural activists estimate that the number of Roma in Slovakia is even higher, citing a figure of 350,000 to 400,000 in Slovakia." (Klara Orgovanova at Slovakia.org; my emphasis)

Anyway, I secretly made some photos of a handsome young man walking his puppy ...

(click the images for larger view)

(Photos by Tinet.)

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Guardians of the Tsam Dance

Tsam performers dressed as warriors pose for a photo. They serve as guardians of the sacrifial offerings at the Erlik Tsam from Urga. Erlik Nomun Khan is a deity with shamanic origins who is identified with Yamaraja, the Lord of Death, in Buddhism.

The Tsam dance is an important tradition of Buddhist worship in Mongolia. The first recorded Tsam dances were performed in Tibet over 1000 years ago. Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia through Tibet, and both belong to the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, with heavy emphasis of monastic lineage and esoteric knowledge. The Tsam dance is not only an artistic performance; it is primarily a religious ritual and its purpose is to defeat the enemies of Dharma - that is, combat suffering, aggression and ignorance. Besides the secret tantric meaning, which is only revealed to the initiated (and thus outside our reach :-)), it serves an educational cause. In the Tsam dance, performers mask themselves as benevolent and wrathful deities. (As a Shingon - also a tantric school of Buddhism - priest once told me: "Unfortunately people do not only learn by kind words...") This way, the lay audience learns to know its protectors and teachers in the next life. In Buddhist imagery, a fearsome appearance - a skull face, animal fangs, blood-dripping claws - does not necessarily mean that the creature is evil. Even the most chilling masks represent important teachers and guardians of the doctrine.

The Shanak sorcerers are described as sorcerers of "black magic", but their purpose is to defeat the enemies of religion.

An intriguing aspect of the philosophy behind Tsam is that "Besides pleasing the external environment, the tsam performance also purifies internal environment or mental afflictions of all sentient beings including humans and to lead them to the Buddha's path." (Geshe Luvsangenden.Z)

Found at Face Music, Switzerland

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Amadeus, King of Tango

Once in a blue moon, reading Finnish tabloids can make you shout for joy, and today was such a memorable occasion. Ilta-Sanomat reported that Amadeus Lundberg, 20, had been elected tango king of the 2009 Tango Festival in Seinäjoki by a narrow jury vote and an overwhelming call-in vote from the general audience in the semi-finals. Lundberg's repertoire included the titles Romanesca, Rakkaus ei oo pysyvää (Love Isn't Permanent) and Onnemme kyyneleet (Our Tears Of Bliss). (More about the cultural significance of the tango in Finland.) Lundberg has promised to be kind and humble during his reign.

(Photo: yle.fi)

The tango festival in Seinäjoki is a very Finnish institution, albeit a rather recent one (the idea was conceived in a sauna in 1984). This year, a change was introduced: instead of a king and a queen, only one single person could win the crown. This ensures that the best, and only the best, will win, regardless of gender. Perhaps the judges were wary of Lundberg due to his young age. He shows a lot of promise and who knows how far he can go if success does not quench the flame. One of the tango king's privileges is a guaranteed place among the 12 national Eurovision finalists. I almost hope that Lundberg will decline this "honour", although he could beat Alexander Rybak in a cuteness competition ...

(Photo: Helsingin Sanomat)

Amadeus Lundberg comes from a musical family. From a young age, he was taught to play the violin and to sing professionally. His father, Taisto Lundberg, is a founding member of Hortto Kaalo, the first commercially successful Romani band in Finland. We nostalgically remember their hits from the folk wave of the 1970's, such as the international Gypsy classic Tsaiori, the socially conscious Miksi ovet ei aukene meille (Why Won't The Doors Open To Us) and the comical Ei raha tekis pahaa (Some Money Wouldn't Hurt). Amadeus has toured the last 3 years as Hortto Kaalo's lead singer.

Taisto and Amadeus Lundberg (Photo: Turun Sanomat).

More Finnish Romani tango singers

According to blogger "Life after Helsinki 2007", Lundberg won the televote in the semi-finals "to visible dislike of the jurors". Yet, he went on to win their hearts and minds in the finals. To quote Unelma-tango (The Dream Tango, 1932) by Arvo Koskimaa and Erkki Ranta:

… tummien silmien taa
viittoopi kultainen maa.

… beyond dark eyes
a golden land beckons.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Yury Vizbor - "On the Razvumchorr plateau"

In this summer heat it's particularly interesting to mentally visit the harsh winters of the far north.

The Razvumchorr plateau is part of the Khibiny massif in the Kola peninsula. All the mountains have Saami names, which sound fascinating to my ears: Nyorkpakhk, Takhtarvumchorr, Vud'yavrchorr ...
These mountains are famous for their untouched nature and are popular among hikers (and their doggies), but on the southern edge of the massif, around the towns Apatity and Kirovsk, there are apatite mines (apatite is used in fertilizer, since it is rich in phosphorous). The Razvumchorr plateau is one of these mines. (Here is a Russian map, if you'd like to study the massif closer, and here is a photogallery at hibiny.net.)

The mines were built in 1929 by prisoners, according to this photostory at BBC.ru. In the 75 years of its operation, the Razvumchorr mine has been dug 350 meters deep. Temperatures get to below -50 degrees centigrade in the winters, and winds are often hurricane strength.

After Stalin's death the mines were no longer part of the GULAG system, but were converted into regular mines where workers were paid good wages with some benefits to compensate for the harsh conditions. This is the time period where Yury Vizbor's song is set.

Vizbor created the genre "reportage song", and "On the Razvumchorr plateau" (1964) was his first work in the genre.
It tells of the work conditions in the Razvumchorr mine. Due to bad visibility in the snowstorms, workers often have to walk in front of the machines and show them the way, as can also be seen in the video.

Here is my crappy translation of a couple of the verses:

"We sit at the table, smoking strong tobacco,
In one hour we have to climb up on the roof of the Khibiny
And charge through the howling, crawl through the dark,
Leaning our heads and cursing the blizzards.

He sits and sulks for some unknown reason,
My dearest mechanic, the boss of the roads,
In one hour he has to fight his way down from the plateau Razvumchorr,
Walking on the road in front of the tractors.

Because the road is full of dangers
And the bulldozer needs a human shoulder to lean on,
Because spring never comes here,
To the neck of the Khibiny, the plateau Razvumchorr."

There are some additional verses that are not used in this performance, but you can read them here (in Russian).

As you could see in the BBC.ru photostory, the apatite mines in the Khibiny were privatized by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partners in a rather shady way, and that deal is part of the case for which Khodorkovsky is now serving eight years in prison. You can read more about that in John D. Grace's Russian Oil Supply (page 124), or this article by Peter Baker from the Washington Post. Blogger Wu Wei gives a small personal insight on the repercussions of the deal.

Arkady Ostrovsky's article for the Financial Times is kind of symptomatic for many articles about the Russian privatizations: it jumps from Stalin and the GULAG directly to the privatizations in the 1990's -
failing to mention anything about the many decades during which the mines were run in a relatively honest fashion - and thus creates a comparison where the oligarchs come out looking maybe not half as bad.
But that's where this song and video come in.