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The Sheffield culture guide written by in-the-know locals

UDAGAN

Saydyy-Kuo and Oscar started talking about music in 2011, soon after the WOMAD festival, where Oscar saw Saydyy-Kuo perform with the group Ayarkhaan. They soon created the UDAGAN music project together, performing for the first time in 2015, in Istanbul. They married in 2016 and moved to Sheffield in 2019.

Udagan means She-Shaman in the Sakha language, originating from the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), north-east of Siberia. In Sakha culture, she-shamans are more powerful than their male counterparts. They heal, perform rituals and ceremonies, and represent the “universal human” who is talented in all aspects of life. When it comes to Saydyy-Kuo and Oscar’s UDAGAN, the concept represents universally creative humans.

At the heart and soul of UDAGAN’s sound is the khomus – the mouth harp native to the Sakha people. Saydyy-Kuo was gifted the instrument when she was one year old and started playing it when she was 14. She’s since won international competitions for khomusists, learned from world-renowned players and published her own book of techniques. The instrument became Saydyy-Kuo’s lifelong friend and talisman, and strongly influenced Oscar’s destiny in music and life.

UDAGAN combine contemporary technology, such as live coding, with indigenous folklore and shamanic culture from the Arctic North, resulting in otherworldly soundscapes and powerful performances capable of eliciting revelations.

Ahead of their performance at Sensoria Festival on 6 October 2021, we explored the UDAGAN universe with Saydyy-Kuo and Oscar.

How would you describe your work?
S: In Sakha, nine out of 10 people have a shaman in their family bloodline, and mine is no exception. I inherited it, and received an initiation before moving away from Russia. I worked towards helping and healing people, but now I practise shamanism through my art and music. Through music I deliver my thoughts, culture and shamanic/paganic ritual. The song Yhyakh, for instance, is a ritual song of a solstice celebration in Sakha. Another song, Ocean, was born after our move from Dublin to the UK. As I grew up mainly inland, travelling on the ocean was a hugely memorable experience and it was relatable as a metaphor. I also illustrate our cover art and recently started experimenting with animation and video. My work is a combination of art and music, taking roots from my indigenous background in the Republic of Sakha and from my life experience in other places such Ankara, Dublin and the UK. I’ve brought all my experiences with me into what I create today.

O: I started my music career as a session bass player (I have a master’s degree in bass playing so I always enjoy declaring myself a ‘bass master’) and I’ve played celtic/folk fingerpicked acoustic guitar for many years. The music I write comes from the ‘bottom up’ with a strong rhythmic drive. Throughout the lockdowns I taught myself to write for orchestra, so that’s the ‘instrument’ I’m primarily writing for now. I use the TidalCycles musical pattern framework (created by the Sheffield local Alex McLean) to allow myself to write and perform with an orchestra at the speed of my own thoughts! There’s a huge amount of experimentalism, music technology, audio synthesis and folk/cultural influence as well as a lifelong passion for music theory present too.

What inspires you?
S: Sakha folk songs are usually thematically about nature, forest, a change of season, love and adventure. I have been influenced by these songs and native throat singing techniques. My songs express my life experience and are very personal to me. For instance, for our song Snowflake I chose a memory from my childhood where it was freezing, reaching -56°C, and how today I appreciate that severe beauty from a distance. Inspiration also comes from visuals like pop art, comics and the traditional ornamentation style of Sakha. I’m a very visual person, so I visualise first and then jump to realise it – it could be a song or art, or both!

O: I listen to a lot of music, from the earliest recorded examples I can find up to today, and explore the cultural and social motivations behind the music of any given period. There’s a lot of inspiration to find on the way! Two of the orchestrations for our upcoming concert at Sensoria are influenced by Schubert and Stravinsky. I take a lot of influence from folk music alongside time and place, and in that field, the work of Jon Boden (another Sheffield resident) has been of particular inspiration to me over the last couple of years.

What are you working on at the moment?
S: We’re preparing for our upcoming concert at Sensoria festival. I have hand illustrated new pieces of art that are thematically connected to our new songs – they will be transformed into visual patterns that are algorithmically generated live on the stage. The original illustrations will be available to buy online from the day of the concert (6th October).

O: We want to present something new and very special for Sensoria, so we’ve been developing the music, concepts and technology. Our art always combines the ancient with the contemporary. We feel that the fusion of shamanic culture from Sakha, western musical influence and technologies from the 1800s to today, and the elements of visual presentation will weave a thread through the connected story of the human spirit.

What do you love about Sheffield?
S: I love how the city is very compact, where you can stroll to places in a few minutes. Mostly I have been enjoying the seasons, how it is gently warm in autumn and spring, with a gentle cooling breath coming in winter. The winter here is comparable with the beginning of autumn or last dates of spring in my homeland.

O: Through the lockdowns I almost daily listened to orchestra music and various audiobooks while strolling in and around the city centre. So I have philosophical thoughts and emotions that I experienced in that process attached to almost every corner, walkway and scenic spot in a 45-minute radius of the centre. When I walk in the city it all comes back with every step.

What would you change about the city?
S: I am looking forward to seeing all the under construction places coming to completion, it is going to be exciting!

O: I’d love to see the castle/park area developed at Castlegate – we live right by there so it’d be a lovely addition to our surroundings.

Saydyy-Kuo

Oscar

Follow Saydyy-Kuo and Oscar on Instagram.

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