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Central Asia: PIAC Participant Connoisseur Of Altaistic Culture

  • Beatrice Hogan

One of the participants at the Permanent International Altaistic Conference (PIAC) being held this week in Prague is Hungary's David Kara Somfai. Somfai is not only an accomplished photographer, but an accomplished throat singer as well. He speaks with RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan about the two pursuits and about his love for the cultures of Inner Asia.

Prague, 25 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In 1992, David Somfai made his first trip to Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China, where, traveling as a tourist with an English-speaking translator, he visited nomadic camps of "Uighurs " Turkic-speaking Muslims. From that moment on, he was hooked on Altaic culture.

(Altaic, or Altaistic, culture is an umbrella term referring to peoples and languages tracing their origins to the area around the Altai mountains, located where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet).

Somfai, then 23, decided to become a Turkologist and enrolled in the Turkic and Mongolian studies program at Eotvos Lorand University (ELTE) in Budapest. He is particularly interested in the oral literature of Altaic cultures, both folklore and folk music.

He has traveled to the region -- from former Soviet Central Asia to Chinese Mongolia and Siberia -- 15 times. He no longer needs an English translator because he has mastered 15 different Turkic and Mongolian dialects.

Photographs of his travels throughout the Altaic world are on display at RFE/RLs Prague headquarters for the conference. RFE/RL spoke to Sonfai about his experiences:

"My policy was always that I would speak to those people not in Russian, which is like a common language for them in the Russian empire in the former Soviet Union. But I always used the local dialects, Turkic dialects or Mongolian dialects. So in the last eight years, Ive been busy learning all these languages."

Somfai says he inherited his talent for languages from his maternal grandfather, who could speak 20 Finno-Ugric languages, of which Hungarian and Finnish are the most widely spoken. He says his photographic eye comes from his father, who gave Somfai a camera to record images from the remote world he was researching.

His pictures show Siberian women milking reindeers, nomadic campers sleeping on frosty pastures, and a spiritual rock formation resembling Stonehenge. The photos also show a row of six colorfully dressed Central Asian women whose songs he recorded during a recent trip. Somfai explains that every song has its special place in village life:

"Usually the people of the village they dont sing just for fun, you know. They dont sing when they drink or when they feel happy. Every song has its place or role in the society, so theres always some meaning why you have to sing, [and] what you have to sing."

He says for that reason women and men sing completely different songs. Women sing lullabies to children and mourning songs at funerals and when a child leaves home to marry. Men perform at festivals, during Muslim religious fasting, and while tending animals.

A desire to find the roots of the Altaic culture led Somfai to eastern Siberia, the place from which most of the other Turkic-speaking groups in Central Asia and beyond trace their descent. There he discovered a culture devoid of Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian influences, where shamanism still plays a fundamental role in the peoples lives.

His photographs show the important role that shamans play -- one purifies a car by beating a drum over it; a group of shamans dance in a circle to chase evil spirits away at a festival; another pours vodka on a wooden stake as a spiritual offering.

According to shaman beliefs, the world is divided into three realms -- upper, middle, and lower. Humans, who occupy the middle realm, are interconnected with the other two.

Throat singing is one way humans can access the other levels. Somfai, who has mastered this art form, explains that the three tones a throat singer uses -- high, medium, and low -- reflect the three levels of the universe. By vibrating the uvula, the cone-shaped tissue suspended above the back of the tongue, a throat singer mimics sounds in nature, such as wind blowing, water running down mountains, and the clapping stirrups of a horse rider.

Somfai says many Altaic cultures remain hidden. One reason is that they are often lumped together as "Tatar," the Russian word for Turkic speaker. The Tatars in Crimea, Kazan, and in other parts of the world may speak similar languages, says Somfai, but they represent different nations which, in fact, have little or nothing in common.

It is Somfais mission to illuminate the differences between these cultures as they evolve in the modern world.