Roots Revival, A Global Perspective—Part 2: From the Taiga to my Basement
The liner notes contained no lyrics. No translation. Just this:
“The text tells the story of a man and his wife who fled on skis from the Red Army during the Bolshevik Revolution. The man understood that the soldiers would hunt them down by following their tracks in the snow, and to ensure that his wife survived, hid her in a pine tree. He skied away and indeed, the Red soldiers found and killed him. His wife survived and composed this song.”
That’s all I had to go on. That, and an arrestingly beautiful melody that somehow managed to render the key of E Major devastating. The song is called “Kharagay (The Pine Tree).”
I spent years being obsessed with this song. I listened to it repeatedly, of course, but when I get obsessed with a song, I need to play it. I need to sing it. This song being in the Khakhas language, of which I know nothing, made singing it kind of tough. I had to look on the map to even know where the Republic of Khakassia is (in south central Russia, between Mongolia and Kazakhstan just east of Tuva). Extensive cruising of the information superhighway yielded little.
The more elusive a piece of music is, the deeper my obsession becomes.
The obsession is part of my deep interest in roots music—an interest that, for me, has become less and less bound by geographical boundaries. If you look through my music collection you’ll see as many albums by Boubacar Traore or Pham Duc Thanh as by Bill Monroe or Gillian Welch. And they’re all in pretty regular rotation at my house (although none perhaps are as beloved right now as The Harrow and the Harvest!). There are so many amazing musicians all over the world working to preserve and evolve traditional musical forms in the face of the accelerating and sometimes soul-crushing pull of modernity. As time goes on, the common threads between these traditions and their contemporary guardians have been coming more into focus for me.
This global musical preservation effort is documented in myriad ways from DIY releases to big state-funded cultural preservation and promotion campaigns. In the West, we’re fortunate to have Smithsonian-Folkways, who are responsible for, among other things, the indispensable Harry Smith Anthology and the wonderful Woody Guthrie Asch Recordings box set. We should also be grateful to them for their recordings of roots music from around the world.
In 2002 Smithsonian-Folkways released a two-disc compilation called The Silk Road (which I think of as kind of a prequel to the recently-released Music of Central Asia series). That’s where I first heard “The Pine Tree,” performed by a group called Sabjilar from Khakassia. The compilation is full of amazing stuff, but that song stood out to me immediately and has stayed with me ever since. I still can’t listen to it without tearing up. The solo female vocalist delivers the melody in a gorgeous voice that is at once strong and sorrowful. The instrumentation is sparse—two plucked zithers called chatkans basically following the melody, then adding some subtle counterpoint in the interludes between verses. The phrasing of the tune has an interesting mixed-meter feel punctuated by accents in the chatkan part. In the third verse a male throat-singer enters with a stunning low E drone that really takes the emotional impact over the top. Again, I don’t know how they got the key of E Major to sound so sad.
I needed to sing it. I wanted to bring it to my band, The Waxwings, and have it become part of our repertoire alongside some tragic old American/English/Scottish/Irish ballads like “The Suffolk Miracle,” or “Down in the Willow Garden,” that we were doing at the time.
It was easy enough to adapt the music to make it playable for myself and other western musicians, but what about the words? Short of traveling to Khakassia, or tracking down a translator, I was left with little choice. I wrote my own lyrics to flesh out the ballad, using the melody and the brief synopsis provided in the liner notes. It was an interesting challenge: the melodic phrasing took some getting used to and I had to imagine all the details of a story from a time before I was born and a place I’ve never been.
I stayed pretty true to the melody but I created a somewhat different setting for it, replacing the harmonically stagnant drone with a progression of chords and using some fast picking to give it more rhythmic motion. I used guitar, banjo and hammer-dulcimer instead of the 2 chatkhans. The other big change was that I made it a duet. In my adaptation, the story is sung by both the husband and wife through first-person narration and through their dialog with each other.
When I finally had it done, I brought it to the band. I was really excited to finally have completed my adaptation and be able to share this obscure Khakassian gem with American audiences in a (possibly) more accessible version. But it didn’t work. For some reason we couldn’t get it together. We dropped it after a couple rehearsals. I was disappointed, but my obsession didn’t die.
One weekend when my wife was out of town, I found myself down in the basement for many a long hour recording the backing tracks and male vocal part. When my wife returned, she sang the female part. The song now appears as a secret track on the download version of the new Waxwings album Age and Wonder—so secret, in fact, that I don’t even think most of the band members know about it (sorry about that, guys).
Our version (listen here) pales in comparison to the original in every aspect, but through this unusual cover-song exercise, I hoped to somehow make a musical link between two distant cultures each trying to connect to their own cultural roots through song. So, if you don’t like our version, I hope it at least leads you to check out the originalwhich I have uploaded to the little music player thing on the left side of my ND profile page (it can also be heard on Sabjilar’s Syr Chome album released on Pure Nature Music in 2000).