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Baldan Chimitovich Gomboev
The Hardships of a Buryat Stradivari
by Sergei Kez

The gift of a master reviving Russia's musical instruments came unbidden by his compatriots


First published in Russian by Nezavisimaya Gazeta www.ng.ru, NG-Regiony # 7, regions.ng.ru 24.04.2001

English Translation: Dmitri Morenkov, [email protected]

Proof-reading: Tristra Newyear,[email protected]
Reprinted with the permission of the author

His turbulent and passionate life is coming to a close in a crooked wooden house at the edge of town. Here the researcher and craftsman, Baldan Chimitovich Gomboev, has his bedroom, his laboratory, and his museum of traditional instruments.

In the past decades Gomboev traveled across most of Russia. The voices of the musical instruments he brought back to life were thought to have disappeared forever. But thanks to his work, they are heard today in Buryatia and Tuva, Kalmykia, Khakasia, and all the four republics of Northern Caucasus.

"In the whole Soviet Union, there were only seven of us constructors," Gomboev recollects. "Apart from me, there were three professionals in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, and one in Georgia. Two were working in Central Asia. But they all worked exclusively on their own ethnic instruments, while I was a nomad moving from republic to republic from 1980's. So in terms of internationalism, my conscience is clear before God."

This man, with his rare gift, traveled to where he was needed the most by the invitation from RosMuzProm ["Russia Music Production", a state organization]. Nearly every "trip" resulted in years of living in a new place. Just before settling down in Ust-Orda, it was Tuva.

"Over in the republic of Tuva, me and my wife Nadejda Dmitrievna revived a whole orchestra of folk instruments. They are now actively involved in cultural revival. In the musical college there, they even started a new department of folk musical instruments. While we were working there they started to prepare professional players on every kind of folk instrumentario. At one time, I was teaching as many as ten talented Tuvan guys simultaneously, and all of them can now work independently."

Prior to Kyzyl, Tuva, there were six years of hard creative work in Kalmykia, where, after Gomboev's labors, the State Orchestra of Kalmyk folk instruments started to perform in full, with a new, full-blooded sound. And everywhere he went, Gomboev had to start the whole thing from scratch.

"Revival - it means, you start with some folk instruments, and by way of experimental research you create modern instruments that fit into an orchestra," Baldan Gomboev says. "Every ethnic group, of course, had its own self-taught master without a diploma. Even so, there is a gulf between a traditional master and professional constructor. The former uses the technical drawings of his predecessors, while the latter comes up from the roots and is in constant search of perfect sound and form. And that's not all. You have to have a certain combination of talents. First, golden hands. Then comes artistic taste. Third is an ear for music. And the fourth is to play some instrument yourself. Finally, when these four divine gifts are combined, we get a professional of highest quality. It is a pity such people are few."

"I feel uncomfortable speaking about myself, but for a start, I finished Siberian Forestry Technique Institute in Krasnoyarsk: you cannot do anything properly without knowledge of wood. Then I finished the Faculty of Physics and Technique at Buryat Pedagogical Institute. It is impossible to start reviving ancient instruments without a solid training in theory."

Baldan Gomboev has never gotten tired of giving his rare and generous gift to people. Someone outside the field can hardly imagine what challenges he faced. Take huur for example. This ancient musical instrument is considered native for the Buryats, the Mongolians, and the Kalmyks. However, though these instruments share a name, they differ in form, timbre, and sound. This is the result of the phonetic variety of the respective languages, says master Gomboev. The problem is always the same: to create an instrument that corresponds to the specific characteristics of a particular ethnic group.

When Gomboev came to a new town he would spend two or three months in local libraries reading every available work on the ethnology, history, and music of the area. Bit by bit he gathered together materials related to a certain instrument. Then he would go out to the streets, shops, and theaters to listen to people speaking their native language, investigating the origins of local phonetics.

After this, Gomboev started doing calculations and deduced the timbral particularities of a certain instrument. Then, he made series of experiments and removed everything extraneous: model followed model, and this routine work often took years. Only after a long period of time, experimental samples were given to musicians to be tested first-hand. The final result was the project documentation, which allowed identical huurs to be made in Moscow or New York.

Through decades of work, Baldan Gomboev moved closer to his life's dream: with his help, the beginnings of a Buryat folk instrumentario have been created. Destiny preserved Gomboev on the way to it. More than 20 years ago, Gomboev nearly lost his poor eyesight. But then, the master says, his other eye, which was nearly blind before, started seeing. After this, he had the possibility to create an experimental laboratory in Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, and to fill in the gap in republic's folk instrumentario, as well as that of the Buryat Autonomous Regions of Aga and Ust-Orda.

Then the "wind of change", as Gomboev calls it, touched his "forge of folklore", and now there is no laboratory in Ulan-Ude anymore. The republic's administration obviously thought they could do without it, ordering instruments from neighboring Mongolia. Meanwhile, business-minded Mongolians soon requested payment in hard currency, which the financially dependent region did not have. The result is they failed to buy new instruments, while murdering their own domestic production as well. Practically everything supplied to artistic groups nowadays is slipshod and carelessly made.

However, Baldan Gomboev does not consider his activist mission complete, and this makes his heart ache. The season is perfect to start testing new instruments, but there is no room and no assistance for it. There is only a small winter hut half-dug into the ground of master's yard. A hut like this can ruin the remains of one's health, and Gomboev has none to spare.

The other problem is materials. Gomboev needs resonant pine, dried for a minimum of fifty years, but there is no place and no resources to buy it. In the course of our talk, the master confessed, "It is a wrong place I got to." As I found out, Baldan Gomboev and his wife Nadejda came to Ust-Orda at the invitation of the head of the okrug administration of that time. This "trip" has already lasted seven years. He took it, planning to create a strong ensemble of folk music.

"I thought it would be like this: I would come and throw at their feet the whole bag of tricks I had gathered in my lifetime, so that they would use it while I am alive and can do things and teach. But no, they are getting so savvy about their money. When it comes to banquets, they always find the money, but for instruments nothing. There have been no serious orders for instruments in seven years. What I produce is only interesting for those who want an exotic souvenir as a present for some official. That is why I do not offer anything to anyone these days. Only foreigners are really interested".

Another regret of the legendary master is that he cannot get home. There, in the Kijinga Steppe of Buryat Republic he was born in the long-gone years of collectivization. There, following herds of long-horn cattle, he listened to his granny Syrma singing folk songs, and learned to sing along with her. There he made his first huur out of a tin can and horsehair.

If you look carefully at a huur, the master says, it reminds you of two human hands holding a flower.

What grieves me most is that the government has never given appropriate acknowledgement to Baldan Chimitovich Gomboev, the earliest self-taught composer of Buryatia, performing since 1943. The man who did so much for development of ethnic cultures across Russia has not so far been given the status of Honored Cultural Worker of the Russian Federation.

"I have an explosive temper, and I often argued with officials. Looks like this is my destiny". However, it looks like it is time to give the master, who has been nicknamed "Buryat Stradivari," what he deserves. - Sergei Kez

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