SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Chyskyyrai: Vocal Evocations of Sakha-Yakutia, Siberia

Chyskyyrai, a female singer from the Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Siberia, creates evocative, passionate, powerful and dynamic music by employing a wide variety of traditional vocal techniques. Chyskyyrai is deeply rooted in tradition, embodying the Sakha character of a menerik woman, one possessed by the spirits. 

Her vocal style could be described as shamanic hysteria, drawing on oral epics, folk songs and animal imitation, creating highly emotional vocal episodes.

Here, Chyskyyrai sings solo, and, as part of a set if unique and equal collaborations, with London-based jazz specialist Z'EV (percussion), with the radical musicians Tim Hodgkinson (reeds/lap steel guitar) and Ken Hyder (percussion), and with Jon Dobie (sax, guitar), Theo Scipio (bass) and Asaf Sirkis (drums).


The Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, from where Chyskyyrai comes, is part of the Russian Federation. It is situated to the northeast of Siberia, its population of barely a million inhabiting a vast land of mountains and plateaus the size of India (and some 18% of the total Russian Federation land). Much of Sakha-Yakutia sits atop permafrost, with 40% of the territory being within the Arctic Circle. In the long winters, temperatures drop to -60 degrees, and the thick ice on rivers, particularly the main North-South thoroughfare, the Lena, becomes the surface of highways. A wide abundance of nature makes the most of short springs and summers; in summer the temperature can reach +40 degrees. 

The fragile ecosystem is particularly vulnerable to global warming, since permafrost, in places, begins only a metre or two below the surface. Permafrost has preserved ancient relics - mammoths are perhaps the best known - but it constantly moves, leading to fractures on the surface, the buckling of roads, and the need to build houses on stilts. Sakha-Yakutia is rich in raw materials, particularly diamonds and gold, but the mining industry has damaged large tracts of land, impoverishing biological diversity. Profits go largely to the Russian Federation rather than benefiting the local economy. The Sakha, then, today find themselves at the forefront of environmental battles, and are keen to preserve their traditional culture and to maintain the land with its rich ecological microsystem.

The Sakha (for which the name 'Yakut' is thought to be a Russian corruption) speak a Turkic language, but with strong Mongolian influence. They are thought to have migrated northwards from around Lake Baikal in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; legends talk of them having been driven out by the Buryats. They took with them animal husbandry, raising horses and cattle, that they adapted to life on the plains beside the rivers. In this, they contrasted the hunting and reindeer herding of the indigenous Even, Evenk and Yukagir who already lived on the land. The latter either were assimilated or retrenched into the uplands, while the Sakha adopted many of their ways. Sakha olonkho, oral epics, describe ancient leaders, military campaigns, and the conquering of clans. The first Russians arrived in the seventeenth century. Cossacks built a fort in 1632 on the banks of the Lena River that developed into todayís capital city of Yakutsk. The Sakha were gradually marginalised, and today make up just under 40% of the total population.


Chyskyyrai, whose real name is Valentina Romanova, was born and grew up in the village of Myndygai in Churapcha ulus (district). Being the fourth child in her family, little Valentina wrote poetry and scripts for plays with her sister Sasha that they staged in their home, performing for family, friends, and neighbours. The plays were based on episodes from village life, featuring the characters who lived around them, but also drew on Sakha mythology and folk tales. ]

After finishing high school, Valentina worked on a farm as a milkmaid, then cooked for a local canteen. She moved to the capital, Yakutsk, in 1993, to study performance in the well-known Platonov Folkloric Workshop, and began participating in the Sakha National Theatre. There she met with the celebrated Sakha female poet Korsunnakh, a meeting that led to the beginning of Chyskyyrai the performer.

Chyskyyrai is representative of a new generation of Sakha female singers. The art of her performance is inspired by her formative years, when she grew up surrounded by nature, and by the rich musical and storytelling heritage of the Sakha, as well as by modern theatrical and intellectual movements in the Republic of Yakutia. She performs a variety of traditional vocal techniques, in a manner that could be described as shamanic hysteria, drawing on oral epics, folk songs and animal imitation, creating highly emotional vocal episodes. Chyskyyrai is deeply rooted in tradition, embodying the Sakha character of a menerik woman, one possessed by the spirits. Indeed, her singing is passionate, extremely powerful, and full of dynamic contrasts. So, starting from a simple breath, her compositions can blow up in total psychedelic singing of a shaman.