Sugder Ludup, 26, is a musician, composer and part of the Tatar art collective ALIF – our partners in ”Remembering Futures” – a Connected Studio project that we carried out in 2021/2022. “Remembering Futures” began as research into Finnish and Tatar folklore, interlaced and rethought through dance and musical improvisations, storytelling and digital art. 

As part of the project we were asked to make a multimedia art advent calendar for the Finnish-Russian Society and share our improvisations with a performance at a book festival in the Centre of Contemporary Culture SMENA in Kazan. We’re thankful for the support of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. 

In this TaikaTalk, Sugder Ludup shares how folklore is enhanced by improvisation, choreography is inspired by musical experiments and the common ground that he finds between art and Shamanism. 

When and how did you choose music – particularly folk music – as your professional career?

I got involved in music after the 9th grade at school. I was receiving poor marks and didn’t really know what to do with myself. My Russian was so bad and I didn’t even feel the motivation and sense to carry on trying to learn it. So I turned to music! By 2017 I already lived in Kazan in Tatarstan, Russia, and badly missed my motherland, Tuva in southern Siberia. Then I decided to listen to Tuva folk songs, and was touched by the lyrics even more than by impressive throat singing. Music turned out to be a life-changing decision for me.

Indeed, ”Remembering Futures” sounded quite awesome and was most warmly received by the audiences. What of the diverse national musical instruments you play – igil (the so-called Tuvan violin), doshpuluur (Tuvan lute), chuur flute and jaw harp – was the first for you? Young people often start with a guitar, for example… Why did you choose folk instruments? 

It took a while to get to all of them. It all, however, started with a synthesizer. I was just fooling around with it (smiles) until in 2018 I didn’t touch my first national instrument – igil, the national violin of my father. I have played this instrument ever since… In 2019 I mastered my second instrument – the ”lute” doshpuluur, which became the main instrument I play. 

Was your father a professional musician or was music a family tradition?

He did play for audiences. My mother used to tell that when he was a young man people often cried good tears when listening to him sing (laughs). Unfortunately, I didn’t witness those times. But I do remember him singing everywhere and anytime – at home, in a car, etc. 

So, why doshpuluur? What was so special about it? 

It was easier than my father’s igil (laughs). That one was hard to feel and connect to, so I tried another string instrument, doshpuluur, and our relationship has been a happy one. The favourite thing about it is how it ”backs up” the vocals…

One of the big traits of Tuvan music – and basically much of all the international folk music – is its complexity. Very often it is not an easy entertainment, it doesn’t distract, but rather inspires to concentrate and think and feel deeper. At least that was the common impression from your music: it is very intense. Escaping simplicity and easiness, celebrating the depth – what is most challenging for you in Tuvan folk music and why did you choose to deal with these challenges?

The most challenging and desirable is going deep and full into the music, in spite of anything, especially the anxiety related to performing. Anxiety is always interfering and distracting… The vibe of my music is often based on the energies and vibes of the dance artists I improvise with. Building a connection with them is also one of the hardest challenges.

Do you happen to have a dream project? Have you thought of interlacing the sounds of Tuvan folk music with electronic sound – you did start with a synth after all?

I am about to record my first solo album. Not sure I want to use a synthesiser though – I wouldn’t want to lose the pure character of folk. Now I’m publically raising some funds. As to a big dream – I would want to be heard in other countries. Sounds simple, doesn’t it…

Well, you were heard with quite an admiration in Northern Finland, where you immediately got some loyal audience… Would you reveal anything about the upcoming album?

It will contain several traditional folk songs performed in a creative way, and several songs of my own, with the lyrics written by my father.  

So is your father a musician and also a poet?

Yes. He even is a part of Russia’s writers’ union, if I am not mistaken. He is also a Buddhist monk. His name is Roman Ludup. 

So music and poetry run in the family. Did you inherit Buddhism too?

I was a passionate buddhist and studied theosophy, preparing to become a Buddhist monk for good. At some point, however, I stepped back from the religion – to rediscover it in three years through Shamanism.

One of the central ideas of Buddhism and Shamanism is unity, inseparability. Goes in line with you playing all the major national instruments, using them all during one performance or improvisation session. You don’t choose something in particular, you work with sort of an indivisible soundscape, connecting the folk and the authorial, the lyrical and the social. Have you brought this from your religious practices or vice-versa, the music inspired your Shamanism?

Without any doubt my music was informed both by the Buddhist and Shaman tradition. Those allusions, marked by the spirit of inseparability, emerge especially when improvising with the dancers on stage… 

As to the folk storytelling elements – they are mainly inspired by the motherland, by relatives, by your dear piece of homeland, about your dear horse and livestock you used to care for, the household… Much more seldom about love, by the way, but this topic does exist there too (smiles)

My father’s lyrics were often sad. One of my favourites of them is the one he wrote when his last living parent died: ”I see my mother’s yurt in every yurt I see afar. I see my father in every old man riding a horse”…

No wonder your father’s lyrics made one want to cry…

Yes (laughs)

The research of death and mortality also connects the topics of folk and folk-based song writing with ones of Buddhism and Shamanism. Do you like to explore death in your musical experiments?

I’m rather interested in life – through researching artistically the relationship with the motherland and the family. And to sing about the households (laughs). I don’t like to think of life and death concepts much. One should live while alive, I guess.

Do you combine music making with your Shaman practices?

Naturally. Not in all the songs, of course, but in many – mainly I use certain Shaman intonations. They are individual for every shaman, but there are common repetitive elements, certain musical phrases as we call them. The other common thing is throat singing and onomatopoeia – as a rule, mimicking the birds’ sounds (Sugder makes sounds of several forest birds just with his voice – TaikaTalk).  

Seems like you really don’t need a synth in the end – you might make all the sounds with your voice (both laugh). Would it be right to say that a Shaman heals people through music…

That’s how I feel. 

…Or rather music heals people through the Shaman?

That would be even more precise (laughs)! I came to music at a very difficult time of my life. 2017 was hard, my moral spirit was, to put it shortly, weird – I was actually depressed. So much was happening and the tension was escalating. When I reached the peak – or my limit – I started to sing. I noticed I felt much better after singing. And so said the others who listened – the music heals everybody. 

What do you think is the core difference between a Shaman and a folk performer?

My perspective of Shamanism slightly differs from the traditional one: I believe that any person can occur to be a Shaman. Even an occasional thief who approached you with a knife out there on a street – he is sort of a Shaman with a minus sign, because he is able to lead a person to a certain state of consciousness. Sometimes it is bad, sometimes it is good. Same goes with music: if a performer is apt to put a listener to a certain state of mind and soul, I definitely see him as sort of a Shaman.

In other words, a performer who becomes more than he is, connects to something bigger than himself, turns into a Shaman. In the English speaking community the attitudes to the word ”Shaman” are controversial. Many see it misused and exploited.

Oh yes it is (laughs)!

What just made you laugh is seen by many as a speculation on small nations’ culture. The white privilege of those who often build their careers on expropriating elements of the Shaman culture without respecting the context seems to some overwhelmingly cynical. How do you read the word ”Shaman”? What is the way to use it so that there is no vibe of misuse and speculation? What would be a politically correct approach to Shaman(ism)?

Long ago passed those times when I’d still be surprised by speculations on the Shaman culture. How could one call a Shaman anybody who just produces simple sounds (I do my best to choose words here) and have nothing to do with the cultural legacy? – I was wondering emotionally. I was amazed how people were falling for this fake.

I was brought up in an environment full of real Shamans. I know for sure that in most cases mass culture promotes fake Shamanism – it is not enough to just mumble while kicking the tambourine, you know. I remember how one lady from the audience came to me after a show on tour and asked whether I was a Shaman. No, I said. ”You, the real Shamans, would never call yourselves ones,” – she answered.

What would you tell to the exploiters of the Shaman culture who build their careers on that?

I would tell them to learn the culture for real, if they have already started using the word. Make it instead of fake it. 

When people discover that you are not just a musician, but also a Shaman, what is the most common thing they ask you?

The most common request is to hold a ritual of purification. I seldom say no. 

Do you get a feeling that you take the ”pollution” inside during those rituals? Some performers and musicians feel they have to filter the negative energy as they open up and take it all in during a performance… How do you purify your own spirit then?

This is exactly how I feel. Every performance is an intense energy exchange. How do I save myself? I then sing by myself – just stay on my own, and thus stay myself. Singing alone helps a lot.

If we speak globally, – quite a dark era we’re currently living in now – what would the most demanded purifying ritual be from? The one not for a person, but for the whole humanity?

I used to be upset by the anger in people. I have encountered people filled with this anger, I was threatened with a knife. And with a pistol…

Very sorry that you had to go through this. 

(Laughs) Well, such people exist. What could one do about it? We can’t purify society from that, it is a part of humanity which will always be there I’m afraid.

Are you sure there is no purifying ritual for that?

I don’t think so, only creating borders by trying to avoid such people and conflicts. Sometimes I want to leave my country… But much comes down to just money…

You speak about leaving, yet at the same time you are committed to building a community through teaching throat singing. How long did you have to study before you started to teach? How many sounds do you produce simultaneously when you sing like that? Does it hurt? 

Six years, and I still study myself. The pain occurs if you sing in a wrong way. And it is always painful in the beginning of the way. The major thing is to keep moving forward once you chose it. Throat singing is sometimes compared to a callus. The more often you sing, the quicker this first pain fades away. The callus like hump meanwhile is forming on your throat…

Basically during the throat singing you produce two sounds simultaneously, sometimes even three. The amount of single, mono, sounds is endless. Technically it is achieved through the so-called false ligaments – everybody has those. The real ligaments are the ones we use during regular sound communication. The false ones are the ones producing the throat singing. 

Does throat singing fancy sounds over words? 

It is of course more of a sound art than singing. There are very few words indeed, especially acapella, without the instruments on the back. 

Quite often everything connected to classical and folk music – folk music has often been affected by the hierarchical strict tradition of classical music – has been under pressure of strict concepts both in performing and perceiving contexts. In ”Remembering Futures” you were using old folk instruments, breaking this tradition, improvising freely and deeply with contemporary dance artists, creating completely new meanings and energies. Improvisation is seen by many as an engine of contemporary art, which is freeing itself from predictable and common, encouraging more experiments and artistic discoveries. How do you feel in this context – as an outsider or a part of a growing community of interdisciplinary improvisors?

Improvisation today is the main nourishment for contemporary music and art in general in my perspective. Of course, I feel like an outsider (laughs)

It was hard to learn to improvise after the classical education. We were taught to strictly follow the notes and follow the dynamics. I have always been craving to add something personal, however – it just seemed beautiful to me. The frames suggested by the system of classical education put me in a corner.  Only when I started improvising I finally started to feel the free spirit of creation. 

What helped to free yourself from the classical – often totalitarian – paradigm?

Shamanism did. Building the confidence that you can do anything. It especially works well when jamming with other musicians. You just agree on doing completely anything that comes to your mind and if something doesn’t sound too good you don’t concentrate on that, but rather keep searching for sounds and listening to your own thoughts. Acceptance and freedom. Doesn’t work for all musicians. Some start to teach yourself what is right, not giving a chance to feel what’s ”right” for you. Then an artist might limit his self expression and clamp tighter. To put it shortly, improvisation is about re-becoming a kid and doing everything that comes to your head. Make soft noises, tap the instrument gently, tickle the strings with your nails, and so on…

How did the dance improvisations by artists you collaborated with inform your musical improvisations?

The dancers of Tatar art collective Alif – we have known each other for a long while. Thanks to this we improvised together alongside each other, sort of uniting our freedoms. We feel each other. This helps us all feel the audience. The improvisations with them helped me overcome my limitations.

Remembering Futures – performance at SMENA – February 2022

What brought you from Tuva to Kazan in the first place?

I ended up in Kazan because I was advised to do so by my teachers in the art college I studied in. 

I went to Kazan to enter the conservatory – there is a rich tradition of good music education in Kazan. In the mid 20th century Aleksi Chyrgal-ool, a famous Tuvan composer, studied there. My teacher turned out to be a classmate of this composer. He accepted me as a student and went with me through all the school years. I ended up as his last student. Last year I graduated, and he finished his teaching career. 

What would you tell yourself as a young chap from the 9th grade – Sugder who just started music? 

I’m careful with advice – everything could go differently, and I don’t want that. I think little Sugder is on the right track (laughs)

You can hear some of Sugder’s incredible music on his Instagram and YouTube

Sugder Ludup was talking with Lölä Vlasenko

Remembering Futures was made possible by support from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and Dance Info Finland.

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