- Nation: Nenets
By Tamara Kula
Photos courtesy of Asya Malysheva
Despite his current home-base in Moscow as just one of its 12 million people, Khadry Okotetto's nomadic roots are still very much alive within him. Only now, instead of following reindeer herds with his Nenets family members on the Yamal Peninsula, he makes pit stops around the world. Cultural festivals - where he performs traditional Arctic songs and dances – draw him from place to place, whetting his appetite for more rather than sating it.
In the Nenets language, Khadry means “eternal blizzard.” He finds this fitting: “I end up all over, in unexpected places. I love freedom. I love to travel. I love to do what I like.”
Okotetto was born on the tundra in 1992, without so much as a village to list on his records. In fact, his papers originally cited his address as “Tundra Street.” The first seven years of his life were spent entirely on the frozen plain, speaking only Nenets and traveling with his mother Engavna Yaungad Nengatzeky, his father Khavo'le Khanyakovich Okotetto, and more brothers than can be counted on one hand.
Starting first grade at Syo-Yakhinskoi boarding school brought stark changes – life away from his parents, and his first introduction to Russian, which he now speaks fluently.
Living and Learning
Okotetto's background is impressively varied for his age. After finishing school, Okotetto moved to Salekhard to study banking at Yamal Multidisciplinary College, a memory that now makes him laugh. Quickly realizing that finance was not the path for him, he left college to work in journalism, allowing him to focus on issues he cared about. He hosted a televised author program in both Russian and Nenets languages, ran a live radio program in the Nenets language, and worked as a correspondent for the regional government media to discuss social issues.
His influence has even extended to film. He was invited to be a cultural consultant on Byeli Yagel (White Lichen). Most of the costumes worn by the actors were made by Okotetto's own hands. The film, which debuted in 2014, portrays themes of cultural collisions, heartbreak and love, and the value of tradition.
Jack of All Trades
Okotetto describes himself as knowing a little bit of everything in performance art: dancing, singing, playing the mouth harp and percussion, making tambourines, and creating costumes. “It was my dream to learn to dance in school,” he said, first learning in Salekhard.
He began voice lessons in 2010, and his perseverance has paid off. He performs epic-style traditional Nenets songs, but he doesn't limit himself to Nenets traditions only. He enjoys the different styles of song and dance of a variety of northern peoples such as Chukchi and more, and often performs in international groups. “Every culture has its style, its mannerisms,” he said. Folklore comes alive through these dances, as performers become characters recreating favorite legends.
In addition to playing drums and other percussion instruments, Okotetto makes and sells his own native style drums. He fashions the frame from wood, the covering from the skin of reindeer, goat, or mountain sheep. Similarly, he often makes his own costumes, with both traditional and modern designs. He even has his own chum , which he brought with him to Moscow when he moved from Salekhard. “I consider it like my dacha,” he said with a smile, referring to a country home to retreat to for vacation.
Okotetto's passion for sharing his cherished traditions is evident. He is involved in a variety of projects, performances, and master classes. One project - “Moscow: Northern Camp” - focuses on traditional stories and children's games. Not only do his programs delight adults and children alike, but they have also won him awards at Moscow's “Treasure of the North” festival. Okotetto leads master classes in traditional dancing, costume-making, amulet carving, singing, and playing the drum or mouth harp. The audience's enthusiasm for these traditional activities is heartwarming. Dancing classes are popular for all ages; his youngest participant was just nine months old. As far as the Nenets culture itself is concerned, Okotetto is optimistic because of the strength of the Nenets language. The majority of Nenets people speak their native language, even many who now live in cities. “It has become popular to speak Nenets in the city,” he said.
In addition, he has recently opened his own studio in Moscow called Khadry Okotetto's Studio for Northern Dance. His skill at choreography is evident here too, as he draws on traditional movements and adds his own flare. For him, performing is a constant process of learning and improving. “We learn from each other” he says - whether in the studio, or during festivals where he connects with other performers of different cultures.
The Spirit of a Nomad
Though he hasn't been back to his home tundra in quite some time, Okotetto keeps in contact with his family – that is, when there is a decent cell phone connection. Meanwhile, he enjoys being in control of his own destiny. That, in essence, is the meaning of a nomad. “He is a universal person, absolutely self-sufficient,” Okotetto said. “He can cook, build furniture, work with animals. That is a nomad.”