On a frozen expanse of the Chulym river in central Siberia, Otyken performs their latest song “Storm”. It’s an upbeat, electronic-backed effort replete with throat-singing, traditional instruments, and wild singing and chanting. The group is mainly composed of Chulym indigenous Siberians named after the river that runs through the Russian taiga, or subarctic forest. Produced by Andrey Medonos, the track features electric guitar synths, a bowed instrument with an animal skull at its base, and big drums with nature scenes burned into their skin.
“We organized Otyken to preserve our Chulym folklore,” Azyan the singer says in an interview. She grew up in a village with about 200 people and her dad was a fisherman. “We danced to songs my father played on the bayan (a chromatic button accordion). We’d also sit and sing while he played.”
The group sings in Russian, Khakas, and Chulym. But the aborigine Chulyms’ ancient language is nearly extinct, with fewer than 10 fluent speakers still alive. They were known to have adapted to some of the harshest living conditions known to mankind and are kin to native populations in Alaska, sharing some of the same vocabulary including names for ancient places, animals, and plants. Today, they keep bees and harvest honey. Some say they’re the ancestors of Japanese Ainu and indigenous peoples of North America, others say they come from an ancient Turkic tribe.
Before she joined Otyken, Azyan knew of them from word of mouth. But she didn’t want to “sing ethnic music” and turned down their first invitation to join the group. “I didn’t attach much value to the taiga as a kid,” she explains of her journey. “But when I left home, the distance brought it to light. I can talk to the trees and they answer me without words. It’s something living, spiritual, connected with your inner self.” Eventually she came to her senses and now says she belongs with them. “I’m so fond of singing when the wind is blowing and the river is murmuring. I merge with the landscape and am inspired by the changing wind. Nature is an orchestra and you adjust yourself to it, as if entering it. I tune myself to it and borrow its rhythm.”