- Nation: Sakha
By Tamara Kula
If you thought that the ancient traditions of the Sakha people could not be reconciled with today's popular culture, you have not met Zarina Kopyrina. From her tiny village in the Sakha Republic, she has traveled to several continents, absorbing new perspectives but ever guided by an unfailing passion for her ancestors' spiritual beliefs. Thus she has created a unique harmony between the old and the new, from the traditional deerskin tambourines and mouth harps to the latest in electronic drums and special effects. Drawing from her kaleidoscope of interactions, she blends those that speak to her to create a voice in the world that is truly her own.
Zarina was born in 1989 in Ous-Kuelya – population 150 – in the Siberian tundra. Growing up with her mother, three sisters and her grandparents, she was introduced to the magic of music and sound at a young age. “My grandmother taught me how to sing, especially traditional songs, more like Sakha folklore,” she said. She also spent considerable amount of time in nature, meditating in the forest and going for long walks. Mimicry of nature is significant for her people. “I can sing; I can imitate bird songs,” she said. As the oldest daughter, she naturally accepted a leadership role among her sisters. “From my childhood, I always feel that I have a very big responsibility to show them the world.”
Education and Training
Kopyrina has never taken formal music lessons. After finishing school, she studied world economy – and perfected her English – at the university in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic. During her studies, she came to the conclusion that she needed more than education in the formal sense. “It's a system, and it makes you to be the same,” she said. “I understood that, and that's why I started to be very active. I was busy with political movements.”
For one so young, Zarina has had extensive travel opportunities, from Africa to Argentina for shaman performances, from Warsaw to Miami for appearances on Russian reality TV shows “X-Factor” and “American Fiancé.” In another venture, she spent three years performing in France, at the invitation of La Maison Européenne d'Imagination. Her fascination with travel began with Austria. A trip to Vienna as a prize for winning a beauty and talent pageant first opened her eyes to a completely different ways of life. “It was the first time I saw how other people live, and after that, I was crazy about traveling.” During university, she participated in a six-month internship in Finland to study the Saami culture. There, playing with a Saami shaman inspired her to take up a drum of her own people, a Sakha traditional drum.
Shamanism and Neoshamanism
Playing an instrument so closely tied to the powerful Shamans carries a daunting amount of responsibility. “At first I was scared to play,” Zarina said. “It's really sacral. To be a shaman – it's not work; it's a way of living. It's a mission.” A true shaman, in her view, is someone with a finger on the pulse of nature, living in the forest, possessing supernatural abilities such as hypnosis, healing and the ability to fall into trances. The title of shaman is not for her to claim, she said with assurance. Instead, she aligns herself with neoshamanism, a contemporary form of spirituality for people who live in cities, including musicians, painters, writers and more. These people don't have the full set of qualities of a shaman – yet they possess some of these aspects. “They get some signals from the universe, and they transfer information through themselves,” she explained.
A defining moment for Kopyrina's life was meeting the Evenki shaman Savey from Neryungri, one of the most powerful of the Sakha people. Through him, she received the assurance she needed to play with confidence. “I asked him to give me permission from the spirits, and after this ritual I felt really free. I finally took my drum and was playing and singing.” Though he has since left this world, Kopyrina still feels a bond with him. “I feel that he's alive.”
Finding a Voice
Through all of her experiences, she has discovered more and more about the road she aims to follow. There have turning points on her path, for example, realizing that she no longer aspires to a high-pressure job in international relations. After her decision to become an artist, another learning experience was her year and a half in Warsaw during which she worked with a producer on modern music. “My inner voice told me: it's not yours,” she said. Now living in the dynamic city of Moscow, she supports herself with her entrepreneurial skills, well-honed from her university days of running a laundromat out of her dorm and later distributing sandwiches to supermarkets. She runs hostels, but that still leaves her plenty of time to focus on her singing. For the past six months, she has been working on her second album with Andreas Jones, a talented drummer and composer from Sochi. Aiming to reach their goal of interaction between traditional and modern styles, they are preparing a unique program with electric drums, laser lights, meditation – and themes at the heart of the Sakha people. Kopyrina knows she can connect with modern youth. “Electronic music is very adaptive to young people,” she said. In this way, she will use the stage to bring attention to the issues facing her people. Describing her album as “god-whispers,” she explained that each of the nine gods in the Upper World has a mission. “They will tell, through me, about actual problems, globalization problems.” Take, for example, the god Djehegei, responsible for cattle. Zarina will use this track to raise concern about the care of domestic animals. The future – the realm of Bilge Khaan – is another topic wide open with possibilities. The goddess Ajyyhyt concerns herself with demography, allowing Kopyrina to express the interconnectedness of the planet's population. Aan Alakhchyn Khotun, the spirit of nature, is the perfect platform for the pressing ecological issues facing the Arctic and indeed the planet, including climate change, the struggle for resources, and environmental dis-balance.
Zarina Kopyrina's travels and cultural interactions, from shamans to musicians to TV stars, have given her a unique window into other societies, but more than that, into herself. Her passion for modern music is palpable, and at the same time, she takes great pride in her origins. She is grateful for her connection with nature, provided by the Sakha tundra: “I'm a lucky girl that I was born in Yakutia.”