Syudbabts can be translated as a 'hero song' or 'giant song' (syúdbye, 'giant'; Lehtisalo 1956, 456), reflecting the fabulous giant theme, well established in several narrative traditions and mythologies around the world. Lehtisalo (ibid., 456) hints interestingly at the (etymological) connection between the word syudbye ('giant', 'giant goblin', 'forest spirit') and syud 'whistling', but offers no explanation for this. Although the two terms have musical connotations, the assumption by an outsider to the culture of a stronger semantic connection is problematic, especially in light of the major significance of vocal music and sung text in Nenets musical culture.
The giant theme is presented in some of the oldest documented texts of syudbabtses (cf. Castrén-Lehtisalo 1940). However, already Castrén's text collections made among the Nenets as early as the 1840's testify that the giant theme was already becoming secondary and rarer at that time. Although the contents changed, the syudbabts preserved its name, probably due to the earlier popularity of the giant theme. (Kupriyanova 1965, 28) The giants are usually depicted as monstrous man-eaters, as embodiments of evil (see Tereshchenko 1990, 18), with which the hero is bound to confront in an unfair fight, but which he eventually wins by his bravery and wit.
Probably there has been a predominant "giant theme" in the oldest syudbabts, which has been replaced with the more general "hero theme" - as suggested by Kupriyanova and Tereshchenko. While the concept of a "giant" can also refer to the bravery of a (human) hero (syudbyadyo(s') 'to be self-reliant'; ibid. 18), it is plausible to suggest that the general hero theme has also been perennially central to the syudbabts.
There are similar narrative genres among the Eastern Samoyedic neighbours of the Nenets also. The Enets of the mouth of the river Yenisei have a corresponding genre called syudobichu (sudob'ichu 'Heldenlied'; Katzschmann-Pusztay 1978, 201). Unfortunately the Enets oral traditions are quite poorly documented and studied, so that there is only a mention of a kind of rough generic opposition among the Enets. The syudobichu, a "hero-song" has themes of wife-quest and tribal warfare, while dyurechu (dyorechu; 'messages') includes other types of tales, myths, historical beliefs, but also biographical themes. (cf. Dolgikh 1970, 136; Labanauskas 1992, 3) It is quite likely, however, that the organization of the song genres among the Enets is quite similar to that of the Nenets or the Taimyr Nganasan, who have also a similar narrative hero-genre called sitåbe (about the Nganasan songs and their genres, see Dobzhanskaya's (1995) recent study).
There are no definite distinctions between the Nenets various narrative song genres at the musical level. The generic differences are manifested mainly through the plot structure and the characteristics of story-telling. Thus, Nenets make more delicate distinctions within the prose narrative genres too (like wadako 'tale' or 'word utterance', lahanako 'fairy tale' or 'story') where the distinctive feature is usually the style of performance (Kupriyanova 1965, 20).
It is especially hard to reconstruct how the syudbabts sounded in the 19th century. Moreover, subsequently the epic subtypes have all somewhat merged with each other thematically and by their styles of performance. The clearest musical distinction, often mentioned (e.g. Lapsui 1993), is that syudbabts is sung throughout with one melody, whereas in the yárabts the melodies may change corresponding to the different actors in the song.
The narrative form in the syudbabts is closely related to fables. The actors in the story may have supernatural powers, they can transform themselves into animals, fly in clouds etc. The hero is referred to in the third person, which shifts the emphasis to the events of the story, and not to the individual as in yárabts. The scale of the events in the story is often drastically hyperbolized: the journey may last many years through several lands, the warriors may fight with each other ten years on the same battlefield, and so on.
One of the main characteristics in the storytelling - especially in syudbabts - the distinctive personified internal narrator, wada-syudbabts ('word-syudbabts') or minyeko ('undefinable character'; Laptander 1991; Puiko 1991; Tereshchenko 1990, 25; 117; 319), who defines the opening scene in the story through the mouth of the performer. Usually wada-syudbabts hovers freely over the tundra, and where something is going to happen, it zooms to the places of further action. (cf. Kupriyanova 1960, 130).
Discussing the characteristics of syudbabts with the Nenets, there was an occasion when a young reindeer herder in Polar Ural thought for a while and then responded: "Well, syudbabts... it is a minyeko... While the hinabts and syo are sung and transferred among the name of the singers, the main acting entity in the performance of the syudbabts is the mineko" (Laptander 1991).
Also the Northern Komi, the so-called Izhma Komi, living adjacent to the Nenets and having been mixing with the Nenets ethnically, have a similarly functioning agent in their narrative songs. The Izhma Komi describe this agent either as a "proverb" (pöslevitsa; Russ. poslovitsa), as an "original singer" (körenney s'ilis'; Russ. korennoy 'original'), or as an "original teller" (köryenney moydis'). The Komi singer may say, that "it is the köryenney s'ilis', who is telling, not me". Also the Southern Khanty have narratives with similar internal narrators, called as "the person from the song or tale". (Mikushev 1987, 20)
The Nenets wada-syudbabts helps and guides the hero. When the story is over and the events completed, there is no further need for the wada-syudbabts, and the story can be properly concluded (Kupriyanova 1965, 38). Wada-syudbabts acts in some tales too. It is possible that this kind of personified entity may have played a more important role in the Nenets tradition in general (ibid., 39). It may even have had some kind of mythical meaning (ibid., 131).
The first example is the beginning of a syudbabts about the adventures of syudbya-father and his sons.
The note transcriptions enclosed here are structural and paradigmatic. They are structural in the sense that the purpose here is only to show the main features of the melodic lines. The stylistic details (e.g., details in rhythm or pitch) are not shown here. It is paradigmatic in the sense that the bar lines correspond to the borders of the text lines, and the corresponding melodic lines (or motives) are placed vertically, so that the recurring melodic motives and lines corresponding each other can be seen more clearly. The different melodic lines are labelled with capital letters (A,B,...), and the order of the rest of the lines in the song is shown in the end of transcription. If there is a notable rising of the basic pitch, it is shown in the beginning of the transcription, where the pitch name in quotation marks refer to the pitch in the transcription, and after that is shown the original basic pitch (continuum). I have usually not included a time signature in these transcriptions. The musical metre is shown only in the paradigmatic layout of the transcription (see the metric analysis in closer detail in: Niemi 1997b).
Example 1. (301Kb, 27 sec.) Syudbabts (a fragment from the beginning).
Performed by Maria Lapsui, in Nyda, Ob Gulf, 1978.
Recording, transcription of the text, its translation into Russian and commentary by Anastasia Lapsui.1
Further transcription, translation into English and transcription of the singing by J. Niemi.
[Syudàbya we]2sako ngey The old syudbya
yihinyanda masyi nge... ngey: thinks to himself:
- Syi"iw(àn) syudàbyarka ngey - My seven syudbya-sons,
syenado" yunggunyu nge...e-ngey. your footsteps are not heard (for a long time)?
(he-e ma) Manyabe(ng) kehemda ngey His stone-idol,
hehemda nekalnga nge... e-ngey. his idol he grabbed.
The old syudbya asks his stone idol, the hehe, where are his seven sons. If his axe attaches to the idol, he can't get an answer. He asks, whether Ngesomutaki (an evil spirit, monster) killed his sons. The hehe is silent. No answer. He then tries asking, whether it was malevolent Siwanayaraha. Again no answer. Then he asks, whether it was Ngewasyadeyta. Now the idol jumps up into the air and hits the syudbya to his forehead so strong, that he falls to the ground. Now he got the answer, and the story continues from here...
1There are not much Nenets songs recorded. The biggest collections are in personal archives of the individuals, the Nenets, local and foreign researchers and enthusiasts, but also the local radios (in Nar'yan-Mar, Salekhard and Dudinka) have interesting collections. There are also few published records including Nenets songs: Syoyotey Yamal, Melodiya S90 27639 003; Pod polyarnoy zvezdoy: traditsionnïy i sovremennïy nenetskiy i pechorskiy fol'klor, Melodiya M90 48949 008; Samodeyatel'noye iskusstvo narodnostey Severa, Melodiya S90 19759 007; Muzïka severnogo siyan'ya, Melodiya S90 30129 001.
2The first words were left out from the recording.