"Like the sun’s rays through the clouds..."
Summer 2018 Newsletter on the Tuvan audio project

"The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps."
Prov 16:9

As Ulyana Mongush talked about her work, she was wearing a sunny, bright yellow Tuvan-style dress. It was a dismal, grey Moscow day, so I couldn’t but cheer up as I looked at such beauty, and it turned out that her choice of clothes was not accidental: “In Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva, we have very hot summers and very cold winters. In winter we heat furnaces with coal day and night, since the central heating doesn’t help much. The whole city is filled with terrible black smog. It’s unreasonable to wear anything white, since by evening your clothes will be black with soot. But I'm a teacher, and I see my task as inspiring my students. So in winter I go to work wearing something bright on purpose, in spite of the soot. So I’ve brought you a ray of sunshine as well.”

Ulyana has a doctorate in music theory and teaches at the Kyzyl College of Arts. She belongs to a people that maintains a very strong connection with their ethnic traditions even till now, in the 21st century. “All Tuvans have some experience of living in yurts,” she recalls, “and even those of us who live settled lives in towns and villages have visited our nomadic relatives in their yurts at summer time, even if this was only in our childhood”. Meanwhile, Ulyana’s European academic background had become a decisive factor in forming her tastes and lifestyle, and for a long time she didn’t have any room in her heart for her traditional culture. “I despised folk music,” she confesses, “and was addicted to European music. When I would hear the sound of the Tuvan jaw harp, I would feel uncomfortable.” Besides this, the Tuvans are traditionally Buddhists, while Ulyana decided to follow Christ. In the 1990s, when the work on translating the Bible into Tuvan was still in progress, she started helping in the IBT project during field-testing as one of the first readers, who gave their comments on the translation. The world of her present life never intersected the world of her childhood and traditional culture, their orbits never touched, and nothing predicted that the time would come when in her own work and in her own heart the Bible and Tuvan culture would meet.

In 2006 Ulyana was working in the Tuvan Research Center, and was tasked with writing a monograph about the soloist of a Tuvan ethnomusic group. “This was like asking a person who had never held any construction tools in his hands to build a house. – Here’s a saw, here’s an ax for you – now go and build. But I couldn’t! I consulted many different specialists, I visited writers and editors, but my mind remained arid... Finally I came to the singer’s native village – once, twice, and for a third time. And it was there that all of a sudden I remembered another Tuvan language, I remembered myself in a yurt as a child... I started crying. It was as if a veil fell off my eyes, and my inner self opened towards traditional Tuvan music. My book about this musician was released in 2008, and in 2010 it was translated into Russian. Now we want to translate it into English, too. This musician became like a brother to me, since at that very time I lost my own brother. He deeply appreciated how I put my whole soul into the book about his music, and when the idea arose to make a musical arrangement for the audio recording of biblical texts in Tuvan, his group, Khun Khurtu, readily agreed! In Tuvan “khun” means sun, and “khurtu” refers to a propeller. This refers to a light effect similar to a propeller, when the sun’s rays shine through the gaps in the clouds. This is a purely natural effect, and it is very beautiful. The group has given this name to their musical trend, having in mind that the Tuvan throat singing will spread all over the world like the sun’s rays shine through the clouds”.

The musicians recorded 13 tracks that lasted for about 40 minutes. First, Ulyana tried putting this music as ongoing background sound for the biblical text, but she soon received feedback that the music distracted listeners from the text of the psalms. As a result, it was decided to insert short excerpts of music before and after every psalm. Each psalm thus became framed by traditional melodies chosen in accordance with the biblical themes and images, like with the sun’s rays. Happily, it turned out that the recorded music fragments would also fit into several other audio books of the Old Testament, and the audio recording of the entire Tuvan OT became Ulyana’s next assignment in the IBT project. She was appointed the project’s coordinator, and once again her best human and Christian considerations seemed to be confronted with God’s own plans. This is her further story:

 “From the very beginning I saw my task as finding readers among believers. This was also IBT’s idea. But there are not that many Tuvans who are capable of fluent and correct reading in the Tuvan language, and of course it was hardly possible that enough of them would be found in the rather small group of Tuvan Christians... Many people who were eager to serve the Lord tried reading dramatically, but they didn’t quite reach the needed level of quality. It was like a personal tragedy for me to refuse all these people with willing hearts, but I was compelled to make the very hard decision to seek further readers among professionals. I started looking for readers among students of my Music College. I needed certain voice timbres with a deep chest tone, which is not as annoying as listening to high-pitched voices. It turned out that the best vocal timbres belonged to Tuvan khoomei masters – throat singers.”

What an amazing coincidence, if we remember the “Solar Propeller” and the daring dream of its creators that the Tuvan art of throat singing should spread all over the world, like the sun’s rays through the clouds. Is this not also the way that the biblical message spreads throughout the world?.. Their high art proved to be indirectly helpful for the biblical message to be embodied in audio form.

Ulyana continued: “My former student, who is now graduating from a university in Buryatia, was tested as a reader and was approved of even though he is not a Christian believer. This young man was so interested – he set his heart upon this work. At once he shared in the social media, “Look at what I’m doing!” He was appointed to read Ecclesiastes, and I was scared. Is it possible, I thought, for this young lad, talented though he was, to read Ecclesiastes meaningfully?! For this particular book I had planned to invite a respectable teacher of the Tuvan language, but his voice did not fit, while my student enjoyed reading Ecclesiastes wholeheartedly. In the hottest days of the Tuvan summer we worked together, and then he returned to his university and continued audio recording from there. Thanks to his acquaintance with this book through reading it, he started behaving more deliberately in his life and communication. I think the Holy Spirit will open something important to him through this reading... It’s now evident to me that he was chosen to read Ecclesiastes quite providentially. And after this book he will continue with the Minor Prophets.”

We see how in the Tuvan OT audio-recording project the biblical message started intertwining with the world for which it was meant: in order to be embodied in the traditional culture it required the involvement of Tuvan non-Christians who are experts in expressing their traditional art forms. From its very beginning, the Bible could not be limited to the boundaries of the Tuvan Christian subculture. It became a seed that is bound to test all sorts of soils. In the Tuvan project, where the full Bible had already been around for seven years, the Word of God clearly started finding its own ways of reaching out – like the rays of the sun through the clouds.

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