The first week I was here, I visited the Khomus Museum with three of my new colleagues. Wikipedia tells me that the khomus is considered to be one of the oldest instruments in the world. Knock me over with a feather because I’d never encountered the khomus before I came to Yakutsk and, in fact, had never even heard of it by any of its other names, including the jaw harp or Jew’s harp. Apparently, it’s bigger worldwide than I imagined because there are concerts and festivals held in various places with surprising regularity. My colleague told me about one that she and a Yakutian contingent performed at in Hungary earlier this year and I have a student who missed a week of classes because she’s went to St. Petersburg to play khomus in a concert there.
While we were at the Khomus Museum, we happened to catch a two-minute demonstration of the someone playing the instrument. This was my very first experience hearing it. During the demo, my local colleague, who was acting as tour guide and who is a khomus player herself, suggested that I close my eyes when I listen to the khomus being played. That way, she said, I would experience the fullness of the instrument. I did and I got a small hint of what she meant during those few seconds.
So a few weeks ago when she issued a general invitation to a khomus concert, I jumped at the chance immediately. Somehow, the instrument had caught my imagination and I found myself vaguely fascinated by it. The small taste I had received at the museum left me eager to experience it properly. The concert took place just about three weeks ago on a Thursday night. The three of us – my local colleague, an international colleague and me – met at school and piled into her car and off we went to the museum, where the concert was held.
The crowd was small; there couldn’t have been more than fifty people there. There were ten or twelve performances in all and the concert lasted for less than two hours but it was one of the most fascinating non-spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. The museum’s director, who is my local colleague’s dad, had us sit in the front row. I think he wanted to ensure that we had an uninterrupted and unobstructed experience. She translated his instructions for us to close our eyes during the performances and sit with our legs and arms uncrossed and relaxed. I admit that I didn’t follow his advice for the first performance, which was by a group of thirteen teenagers. I was too busy taking pictures, looking at their traditional dress and trying to see how they work the instrument.
The second performer caught my interest immediately. She’s a skydiver who also plays khomus but it was the sound of a horse running that she made using her mouth and khomus that startled me. That’s how she started her performance. I uncrossed my legs, closed my eyes and relaxed and guys, I kid you not, as she played, a scene unfolded in my mind of day breaking over a wild, flower-strewn valley and a horse running across the field and neighing before stopping at a stream to drink. Then birds started chirping as the sun rose from behind the snow-capped mountains towering beyond the valley, and slowly spread its fingers of light across the valley floor, chasing away the darkness of the night. I could practically smell the dew on the grass and feel the sharp bite of the clean, clear, chilly air.
All of this unfolded in my mind as she played. I felt transported, like I was standing on the edge of that scene, far away from the museum and the city, watching it all unfold. My heart felt full by the time the last note resounded and as loudly as I cheered, I admit to being a little bit stunned as well. I hadn’t expected that type of experience. I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t that.
I enjoyed all of the other performances and in one way or another, I felt transported by most of them, but only one other came close to moving me in that way again. It was a group of four ladies and a young boy. Their first piece included one of the women and the boy playing their khomus while the other three women sang. They sang in the Sakha language so I had no idea what they were singing about, but again I closed my eyes and again I found myself in nature. I don’t remember now what the scene was but by that time I was sure that I’ll need to go outside of the city at some point and sit somewhere quiet out in nature and listen to the khomus being played. If experiencing it in a museum is so satisfying, can you imagine doing that while out in God’s creation? I mentioned this desire to my local colleague and she told me later that when she said this to her dad, his answer back to her was something to the effect that I understood the experience of the instrument deep down.
The other noteworthy performance of the night for me was a man who sang impromptu at the request of the museum director. Again, he sang in the Sakha language and again I had no idea what he was singing about but his voice beautiful and I had a sense that the song was saturated in love. Afterwards, my colleague told us that the song was about the love and appreciation of men for women, particularly staying with them in the cold of this region while they build a life.
Guys, that night I re-learned something that I haven’t appreciated in a very long time: that music is the expression of the soul and you don’t have to know a language in order to know what the music is saying. My other international colleague had exactly the same feedback after the concert; she too had felt transported by the music and was left deeply satisfied.
Back at home as I reflected on the experiences of the night, I really felt a deep sense of gratitude to God for this unexpected new avenue of pleasure. I’m looking forward to my next experience of it.