Tuvans have been inhabiting the center of Asia since ancient times. They are nomads. There were famous and powerful shamans among the Tuvans, who first revealed the mystery of the healing feature of a drum’s sound.
The magic sound of a drum, accompanied by shamanic chant, cured sick persons. The character of a drum’s sound depends on the character of the patient or on the diagnosis of his disease. The drum sounds more universal according to its mysterious power and its practical meaning.
The signal sound of a drum
As Tuvan shamans believe, the signal sound of a drum is determined by the upper powers which send a signal from the sky areas. When a shaman holds a ritual, someone’s voice reaches his ears from the cosmos. This voice is provoked by a drum sound. Here it should be noted that a shaman drums as melodiously as the sky signal demands. One cannot catch a cosmic signal without drumming. There are neither earth, nor cosmic limits for a ringing drum.
A good catcher of sky signals is the roe deer skin. It gives the most diverse variation of the sound. It can sound like a nightingale or like a bullett. Sometimes it can be as sad as the voice of a lonely crane in the steppe, or sometimes you can hear it cry like a little baby. Our shamans prefer working just as shamans. In Tuva we have a special house where they come and work.
They are available full time and people come and are healed by them. Some cure people with the help of a drum. Among these are famous shamans like Khuurak Kyrgys or Saryglar Borbak-ool.
Invoking sound of a drum
According to old shaman Oorzhak Oktek-ool’s information, there are ill-disposed shamans. They stop their dispute only after destroying each other in a fight. During the invoking ritual, the drum sounds very threatening together with a raven’s cry. When the voices of other shamans turn into a raven’s cry it means they are irreconsilable. The shaman who drums with more sound combinations than the other, wins. Much depends on the skin the drum is made of. For instance a drum covered with the skin of a mountain goat a drum informs quickly about a rival shamans intentions.
That’s why tuvan shamans highly appreciate a drum of mountain goat skin.
When a Tuvan shaman holds a ritual for the invoking sound of a drum, his clothes should be black. The black color means „night“ and that a defeated enemy will never see the light of another day. Such a ritual is played by shamanic hymns, songs which shamans perform during their shamanic rituals. Everything, shamanic drum and shamanic songs and shamanic clothes, joins together in unity and this unity helps to defeat the enemy shaman.
Much depends on the skin of the drum. Our shamans value mountain goat skin very higly. As you know, the mountain goats live high up in the mountains, which means they are close to the skies and they breathe the purest air of the mountains. For the invoking sound of a drum you can also use fawn skin of an animal we call Maral. It’s a siberian deer, a female maral fawn, and our shamans like to use this skin.
During this invoking ceremony, the shaman often imitates the voices of birds and animals which he himself needs very much. For instance, he imitates the voice of a crow, a raven or an owl.
A drum’s sound finds lost things
In the history of Tuvan shamanism there were shamans who were able to find lost things. Sat Sotpaa, a narrator of folk tales told that in the locality of of Khondergey, Chöön-Khemchik kozhuun (district), where I was born, there lived a great shaman, Kaigal Dongak. The shaman Kaigal could find a herdsman’s lasso lost three years before. Shaman Kaygal’s drum was covered with the skin of a female maral and his rattle was made of a juniper root. He says the art of resource was hidden in them.
In the years of political repression the first victims became those shamans who were able to find lost things, or conjured when drumming at shamanic rituals. It is known that the drum of a shaman who finds lost things changes many times during one seance. It sounds like thunder, a waterfall, the voices of birds of passage or the voice of a long deceased throat singer. (Tuva is very famous for a unique form of singing: throat singing, when a singer can sing with his throat, making two or three sounds simultanously. But now there is not one shaman in Tuva who can find lost things with a drum sound.
Illustrations: During a ritual the shaman speaks with something invisible. This invisible being whispers into his ears where he can find the lost thing. For this search the most desired drum is the one that is covered with the skin of a female maral.
During the search the shaman can listen to the voice of a very long deceased relative. He speaks with this relative who shows him how to find this thing. The next thing that happens during this ceremony ist that the shaman usually again imitates the voices of birds and domestic and wild animals. For instance when he imitates the sound of a certain little bird that lives in our taiga and eats only cedar nuts – when he hears the voice of this bird he is sure to find something that was lost many, many years ago. He informs about it just by drumming. Many times that lost thing came into the yurt through the hole at the top and fell down into the drum of the shaman.
A drum’s sound sings praises to the new drum
Shaman Kyrgys Khuurak confirms that the most impressive and solemn drumming is the drumming dedicated to a new drum.
A drum master makes a new drum for a shaman who’s drum has become old. According to the moon’s disk a shaman himself determines the date of the ritual to honor the new drum. A drum’s sound is widespread, universal and open. Though the drumming to honour a new drum occurs only once, its sound is very magic, mysterious and tender. For example: if a new drum is covered with a mountain goat skin his shaman master composes such a melody that a new drum sounds either like a ringing avalanche, the rhythmic running of a mountain goat’s quick hooves or the first spring rains. The drum that has been sanctified by a cult feast is able to cure a sick person.
When you meet a new shaman or an old shaman arrives with a new drum, they always used to hold a drum feast.
There was a holiday dedicated to the new drum or to a new shaman with a new drum. At that ceremony everybody could be present and for that ceremony the shaman, a new shaman, or an old shaman with a new drum, usually composed different shamanic songs to praise his new drum. Our shamans are very good at imitating the calls of different birds and other animals. For instance, when the new drum is covered with the skin of a wild roe deer, the shaman tries to imitate the voice of this wild roe deer.
A drum’s sound cures a mad man
In ancient times occupation of shamans eappeared and had quite a unique form of treating the sick. It is known that if a soul leaves a person he gets ill immediately. But if a person has a soul and behaves unsanely and inadequately the Tuvans call that person an „albystyg kizhi“ or a mad man.
Shamans believe no remedy can cure a mad man, only drumming can help him to recover. A drum’s sound aimed at healing a sick person is effective in spring and autumn. First gentle, then heightened and finally receding drumming sounds the whole night through.
With the aid of sky signals a throbbing drum restores the rhythmic work of a mad man’s heart as well as harmonic work in the respiratory organs. You know in Tuva there are, there were and we hope there will be shamans who can cure these mental diseases.
A drum’s sound calls out a soul
According to Tuvans, man has a soul. A tree has a soul and an herb, every living being has a soul. When a shaman looks for a soul that left a man, first the drum sound is like a lullaby, and then depending on the whereabouts of a vanished soul the drumming changes very often.
When a shaman holds a ceremony to find a soul, the drumming sounds like a ringing metal and whistling winds, or woods rustle and dogs barking, cows mooing or horses neighing. A shaman usually meets with the souls of people who have passed away on the seventh day after their death and on the 49th day.
We usually hold such rituals and ceremonies when we want to learn what our departed relatives want to tell us. This happened to Rollanda Kongar: she asked one of our shamans to talk with the soul of her mother.
A drum’s sound calls out a dream
A shaman-hypnotist is very respected by Tuvans. He cures by drumming a sick person who has a functional disorder of the nervous system or suffers from insomnia. When a shaman-hypnotist calls out a dream, his drum sound is as soft as a grandmother’s singing.
Sometimes the sound is as long as a daytimes echoe. This drum sound is as penetrating as fast horse’s hooves, when a herdsman rides at night. As people who are living in the 20th century know, lots of us suffer from insomnia.
I think that much depends on the climate we are living in. Before the communist times our Tuva was a very poor country and Tuvans had never known anything about insomnia. But with the and appearance of the atomic bomb and towns and all these things, even people in Tuva now suffer from insomnia. I think only shamans can cure this disease I consider to the curse of the 20th century.
Only while drumming can a sick person sleep and when he hears the shaman drumming his dreams can be very gentle, tender and undisturbed. If you have any trouble, for example with insomnia, you can apply to a shaman who’s present here with our delegation and who can cure insomnia. His name is Oleg.
A drum sound is a mystic magic that is able to heal a patient. Drumming is especially therapeutic when a shaman does it at night time. Drumming by day is less effective. That’s why Tuvan shamans have always treated patients when the stars sparkle. To cure a sick person, the drumming of a tuvan shaman is to consist, and does consist of seven tunes, just as the great bear constellation consists of seven stars.
Professor Mongush Borakchovitch Kenin-Lopsan is an archaeologist, poet, author, historian and a life-long researcher in Tuvan shamanism. In earlier times he served as a shaman too.
Translation from Tuvinian by Rollanda Nikolaevna Kongar.