Khomus through the Centuries: Modern Sounding of an Ancient Instrument
Erkin Alekseev
Ensemble led by Ivan Alekseev-Khomus Uybaan
Khomus has been and remains the fundamental instrument of musical intonation in the Yakut culture. However, with its primitively simple construction and vibrant sound possibilities, whose potential has not yet been fully disclosed, it is also a phenomenon of religious culture. The latter has received a new round of awareness and development in the new century and continues to evolve.
We can judge the existence of khomus among the Yakuts in the pre-revolutionary period by the few references in the works of early researchers such as R. Maak, A.F. Middendorf, I.A. Khudyakov, V.L. Seroshevsky and others. These mentions are limited to registering the presence of an instrument called khomus (khamys). Witnesses described wooden and bone plate-type khomuses to A.F.Middendorf and I.A.Khudyakov. However, by their visit, metal khomus with one reed, familiar to everybody in our days, displaced the other types in the Yakutia administrative division.

Archaeological materials are also scarce. We know of only two arc metal khomus. One was found in a burial in the Churapcha Ulus, the other in the Alazeisky Ostrog. The only known wooden khomus is kept in the collection of the Berlin Ethnological Museum. As for the bone khomus, the question still hangs in the air. Nevertheless, archaeologist Alexandra Prokopyeva, based on materials of the excavation of the Yakut settlement of the 18th century (carried out back in the 70-80s under the leadership of prominent archaeologist Alexey Gogolev), classified an object with an unknown meaning as a bone khomus, or rather its surviving half.
An old khomus with notches. From the collection of the Museum and Center of The Khomus of The People of The World
We also know very little about the diversity of the ancient repertoire. R.Mauk wrote that some Yakuts could "chant" on khomus the whole day. Having connected this fact with the known to us style 'syyya tardyy' (long-drawn game), the last carriers of which survived until the beginning of the 21st century (M. Badaeva, H. Taskina), we can assume that Maak observed a performer who played in this style. 'Siyya tardyy' draws the performer into a laid-back mood, which can lead one into a meditative trance when played for a lengthy period - this explains the duration of the performance. V. Seroshevsky noted that khomus is played mostly solo and is not accompanied by singing, but he heard one song with a khomus part between verses.

The Turkic roots of the Sakha people are not subject to criticism today: their language, material and spiritual culture are related to other Turkic-speaking peoples. One of the constants reproduced from nation to nation is the khomus. Its name has a common origin and similar pronunciation up to Turkmenistan: khomus (Sakha, Tuvinians), komus (Altai people), komuz (Kyrgyz), khomys (Khakas), kubyz (Tatars, Bashkirs), gopuz (Turkmens), shankobyz (Kazakh), chang-gopuz (Uzbeks). It is interesting to note that even among Afghans, this instrument is called chang. The word chang (chaҥ) is familiar to the Yakuts and means bronze.
Luka Turnin was the first Yakut to play the khomus outside his native Yakutia - in 1948 in Moscow

Vargan from excavations in Altai. Station of the Hunnic tribes (III-IV cc. A.D.). Photo by V. Borodovsky
The ancient Turks were skilful at iron production, so their mastership spread to many peoples who inherited their culture linguistically and culturally. It was the Sakha who largely contributed to the development of traditional metallurgy in Northeastern Siberia. Early researchers highly appreciated the craftsmanship of Yakut blacksmiths. There is no doubt that it was not difficult for them to make metal khomuses.

Besides a typical khomus with one tongue, there were some variants. According to recollections of custodians and experts of Yakut culture, we know about the relatively widespread dual-tongued khomus in Yakutia at the turn of the XIX-XX centuries. We know about "aaryktaakh khomus" (khomus with pendants-rattles) from memoirs of a famous folklore performer khomus player, Luka Nikolaevich Turnin. There is no other evidence of such khomus in other districts, from which we must conclude that this type of khomus had a local spread in the territory of the present Tatta district. We do not know the functional and contextual peculiarities of its use. However, the rattling pendants indicate belonging to sacral ceremonialism.
Aaryktaah khomus (khomus with pendants) by master Prokopy Bygynanov. From the collection of the Museum and Center of khomus of the peoples of the world
The earliest known experiments with repertoire diversity (which were not widely spread) were initiated at the beginning of the 20th century. These include the creative quest of Adam Skryabin, the first amateur composer among Yakuts, and later his khomus ensemble at the National Theater; the first amateur khomus ensemble at the Bailiff Club; theatrical performances with khomus by Nyiet Byraat, known from the memories of Sergey Zverev-Kyil Uol.

The fundamental changes began with the rise of stage and performing arts (since the 20s of the 20th century). The culture of stage folklore began to form with the arrival of the first cultural and educational institutions. It all started as fragments and short pieces of folklore. Nevertheless, with the evolution of performing arts, stage folklore was developing too: there were some stage pieces based purely on folklore material, moreover, in the ideological context of the new Soviet government. The stage dictates specific requirements for performers: performance time is limited, forcing the performer to think out and prepare the performance beforehand; performers and spectators are separated by distance and have their spacing; performers are under the constant attention of spectators, and with the rise of sound equipment, more questions on how to work with it arose as well. Traditionally, khomus is a purely individual instrument, and the traditional manner of playing syyia tardy is aimed at the performer himself rather than listeners. Undoubtedly, talented cultural figures were "trendsetters" on the stage, such as Ustin Nohsorov and Sergey Zverev-Kyil Uola. One of the outstanding khomus players was Luka Turnin, whose recorded compositions are a bright symbiosis of traditional motifs and the author's creativity.

Adam Scriabin made the first attempts to include khomus in orchestral music. Unfortunately, in his short life, he did not have time to realize all of his plans. The most famous works by Grant Grigoryan feature khomus. Combining an overtone instrument with symphonic music poses specific difficulties. The khomus has only one fundamental tone, which is usually tuned randomly by its master's ears. The sound changes by varying overtones, which fundamentally distinguishes it from other instruments. After Grigoryan, a whole galaxy of composers wrote music pieces featuring khomus. However, all of them limited khomus pieces to rhythmic play or small off-melodic insertions.

Another stage in the development of khomus music falls on the activity of "Algys" ensemble (led by Ivan Alekseev-Khomus Uybaan) since 60s. Student ensemble, which existed on the basis of Yakutsk State University, brought a new breath in khomus music, where the emphasis was on the improvisational style and some competition between soloists. This contributed that traditional khomus playing techniques were enriched with new ones within the ensemble: "tabygyr" - fractional sound (I. Alekseev), "tarbakh araas okhsuulara" - various finger claps (S. Shishigin, A. Pakhomov), "keҕe" - cuckoo (A. Pakhomov), and techniques "iliinen araas osuular" - various hand claps - and "tylinan tardyy" - playing with the help of language, introduced by Fedora Gogoleva, who was not a member of the ensemble. During this period, an improvisational style develops, which pursues the goal - creation of a complete musical form using specific sound possibilities of khomus.
Ensemble led by Ivan Alekseev-Khomus Uybaan
The above-mentioned double-tongued and aaryktaakh khomus (with pendants) show that Yakut blacksmiths tried to change the construction of khomus already in the 19th century. During the Soviet period, masters intensified their innovative search. We know much experimental khomus kept in the collection of the Museum and Centre of khomus of the peoples of the world. Among them are a khomus with a ring, a khomus with three tongues, a khomus with a cone-shaped body, a khomus with a clamping mechanism that changes the basic tone, an electronic khomus, the one with an electromagnetic coil and many others.

The external aesthetics of the instrument also underwent qualitative changes. If in ancient samples we can observe simple geometric decor in form of notches on the ring, rods and housing of khomus only seldom, modern masters use the whole arsenal of decorating techniques: polishing, engraving, embossing, etching, soldering of additional parts and many more.

The first master who paid special attention to the aesthetics of khomus was Nikolai Burtsev. He used chrome-plating and nickel-plating to cover the surface of khomus, invented the system of fastening of reed with three legs, started placing decorative elements inside the ring and made cases in the form of boxes lined with velvet inside. The humus was transformed for the first time in its role from an instrument of popular culture into a status trophy.

Another master who worked about the same time as Burtsev was Ivan Zakharov-Kylyady Uus. As a hereditary blacksmith, he mastered the technique of jewellery making, which he partly brought to khomus making. He did not make his khomuses by forging, but used the brass castings techniques. His khomuses were decorated with silver plates in the form of different bas-reliefs: portraits of famous personalities, images of important places and dates and more.

Modern masters have advanced greatly in the surface aesthetics of the khomus. Different materials and techniques are applied: precious and semiprecious stones and metals, horse and bear hair; complicated techniques are used in decorating ring pads and cases. Some khomuses become a work of jewellery art. A striking example is the "Algys" khomus by master Nikolai Potapov-Dabayar Uus. Its body is forged of steel by Damascus technology, the ring-ring handle is made of silver, the ring's lining is of gold, and the Old Turkic rune "algys" is set on it with sixteen diamonds on a white gold plate. The case is also made of silver, decorated with a carved openwork pattern, with a gold overlay with the image of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) coat of arms, and with pendants of bear hair.
Khomus "Algys". From the funds of the Museum and Center of khomus of the peoples of the world

Nyurgun Bootur, Tuyaaryma Kuo and Khotoy Ayyy, the horse of the bogatyr by Eduard Tarabukin. From the funds of the Museum and the Center for Khomus of the Peoples of the World
The real masterpieces of arts and crafts such as composite works are being created. For example, the work "Serghe" by Ivan Kolodeznikov-Urun Uus is remarkable for its conciseness. Three khomus-horses, tied to serghe-horse stalls. In shamanic culture, khomus was often perceived as a horse for travelling to invisible worlds. The composition consists of a wooden stand with three covers for khomus in the form of serghe united by a traditional Yakut hedge - kuruo (yak. kurүo). In front of the horse stalls, there are three khomuses with brass plates in horsecloth-chapparah, decorated with a carved openwork pattern.
Set of khomus "Serghe" by master Ivan Kolodeznikov-Urun Uus. From the collection of the Museum and the Center of khomus of the peoples of the world
Eduard Tarabukin works are distinguished by their recognizable style, which can be defined as 'lyrical'. There is a series of works where the cases are made in the shape of characters from the Yakut epos "Nyurgun Bootur Streltsy". Here is the heavenly bogatyr himself with a palm and a shield; here is his faithful friend and helper, the excellent horse, the beautiful Tuyaaryma Kuo, and the eagle deity Hotoi Ayyy. Сases are carved from walnut and decorated with inlaid steel or silver wire. Each case is skillfully made, and at first glance, it is impossible to tell how it opens.

A wedge of cranes made of silver circles the globe, topped with a khomus, depicting an old master - a composition by Roman Gotovtsev-Myndyr Uus, dedicated to his teacher, the legendary master Semyon Gogolev-Amynnky Uus.
Nyurgun Bootur, Tuyaaryma Kuo and Khotoy Ayyy, the horse of the bogatyr by Eduard Tarabukin. From the funds of the Museum and the Center for Khomus of the Peoples of the World
Composition "The Globe" by master Roman Gotovtsev-Myndyr Uus. From the collection of the Museum and the Center of khomus of the peoples of the world
Vital to observe the works of Innokenty Gotovtsev-Khosun Uus, who withdrew the traditional technology since the 70s of the XX century and began making khomuses by a milling machine, cutting forms from steel bars. This way initiated a flight of imagination. His compositions include khomuses like real characters. People lead a round dance-osuokhai around the serghe, two white cranes-kytalyk fly out of their native nest, a Yakut girl Abakayada holds a baby, and behind her is Semyon Dezhnev, preparing to go further north to explore new lands for the Russian state.

The work "Space khomus" is fascinating: a pyramid of shungite is set on a stand of birch bark, the number "2035" is inscribed in copper, and next to it, there is a khomus with a humanoid face, and on the backside - a shiny flying saucer. The composition is based on a dream he had, in which he saw that humanity would make contact with an extraterrestrial civilization in 2035.
"Osuokhai", "Native Nest", "Abakayada", "Space Khomus", "Ozerko", "Yamshik", "Bird Dispute" by master Innokenty Gotovtsev-Khosuun Uus. From the funds of the Museum and Center for khomus of the peoples of the world
The basis for a new stage in the Yakut khomus music was laid by Pyotr Ogotoyev. In the 80s, he was the first to introduce the vocal imitation of birds in the khomus playing connected with the tradition of shamanism. This trend was picked up by Herman and Klavdia Khatylaev, and Albina Degtyareva. They enriched the spectrum of vocal imitations - "horse neighs", "cry of cranes", "cry of a raven".

A new step in contemporary khomus music started with the creative activity of the ethnic band "Ayarkhaan" with a lead singer Albina Degtyareva at the beginning of the 2000s. For the first time, khomus compositions acquired complete thematic integrity. They turned to the hitherto unusual themes: "Dedication to the Patron of Horses Dyösyöy Ayyy", "Dedication to the Patron of Blacksmiths Kudai Bakhsy", "The Legend of the Creation of the Middle World" and others. "Ayarkhaan" interjects other genres of Yakut folklore into their khomus compositions: chabyrҕakh, chants-toyuk, and khabarҕa yryata throat singing. At the same time, the tempo rhythm was accelerated and brought closer to the modern sound, which, according to many critics, began to resemble electronic music. Electronic music itself entered their repertoire in the following period of their work.
Yuliana Krivoshapkina-Dyurujeenė
Today, the "Ayarkhaan" performing style is a full-fledged school with many followers, among which there are both amateurs and professionals worldwide. The style is ahead of its creator - in some regions of Russia, it is recognized as exclusively native.

The majority of modern Yakut khomus players can be referred to as the followers of the Ayarkhaan school. The band included Yuliana Krivoshapkina-Dyuruyene, Olena Podluzhnaya-Uutai, already famous teachers and artists Varvara Stepanova-Archyna and Veronika Lytkina, and also younger singers Alisa Dolgunova, Saidiko Saus (Fedorova), Arthur Semenov-Ton Sakha, Aisen Ammosov, known far outside the country today. Nowadays, each of them is an independent solo artist.

In many regards, the development of stage culture in khomus music is connected to the "Ayarkhaan". Earlier, the performers limited the visual component to the costume selection; now, the costumes are more stylized, bright and picturesque, and play an essential and complementary role in conveying meaning. There was a real revolution in stage costumes. In the 90s, the Soviet legacy was still omnipresent, but at the same time, a bright recognizable style of the famous Yakut fashion designer Avgustina Filippova was born. Her influence can still be felt today. In the nineties and noughties, costumes of colourful iridescent fabrics, richly embroidered with beads and rhinestones, usually embodying some part of Yakut culture, prevailed on stage. Today stage fashion reminds Brazilian carnivals while the quality and style are not inferior to the shows of the best fashion houses.
"Ayarkhaan" in modern outfits
The culture of performing arts is embodied in a new way. The artist is equated to the actor on stage: every movement, wave of the hand, choreographic elements are staged and rehearsed in advance. An important role was played by "kynattaakh khomus" (encouraging khomus), invented by Albina Degtyareva together with masters German Burtsev-Kerman Uus and Ivan Kolodeznikov-Urun Uus. The essence of this khomus is that it allows you to fix it in the performer's mouth only with your teeth, without using your hands; this opened up new opportunities to perform a peculiar hand dance while playing. New hand movements were added into khomus performance by Fedora Gogoleva and Alexander Pakhomov back in Soviet times. In addition to the traditional back and forth movements on the reed with the index finger, there were movements with the palm and its edge and each hand's finger in turn. Yuliana Krivoshapkina-Dyurujeenė also contributed to this trend. The immeasurable plasticity of her hands gives a real sense of flight on stage. Today, many young performers find their "signature" movements.
A scene from a clip by Yuliana Krivoshapkina-Dyurujeenė
Khomus has undergone a whole series of changes over the past century. It would be impossible without the close connection of performers with blacksmiths. During the Soviet period (some to this day), many masters made attempts to make innovations in the design of khomus to improve its sound, increase the range of tonality. But time has shown that the instrument's traditional form, literally tested by centuries, is universal and remains relevant. Changes are qualitative: during this century, the size of the instrument has slightly increased, the body became more massive, and the reed became more resilient, which affected the richness and length of the sound.

Modern performers continue searching for a new musical embodiment of khomus, aiming at new experiments with other instruments and genres of music. Yakut musicologist and composer Mark Zhirkov proposed a more complicated way of developing khomus. He proposed changing the khomus' design to tune it more precisely so that it would be possible to create ensembles where each soloist would be responsible for their single tones. Such an ensemble would be a single live instrument with a conductor as the leading performer. However, the author of the article sees an even more exciting and promising option. Today's masters have learned to tune traditional khomuses, which creates endless possibilities for choosing instruments tuned to each other and within a specific tone. A band with such a set of khomuses could create and perform more complicated pieces that have not existed until now.