Reindeer Breath and Birdsong: Snow Raven at Yale

Shwetant Kumar

“The Earth has its own rhythms: it’s almost as if we’re inside a song, and we’re a bass line or a drum or a voice,” says Snow Raven (SUOR), a performer and entrepreneur from the indigenous shamanic Sakha community from Arctic Siberia. Her audience listens, enraptured, as she refers to the now-thawing Siberian permafrost as the Sakha “refrigerator,” and recreates the sonic environment of the physical world she grew up in using Ableton Live. The spiritual component of her work could be described as neoshamanism, which she defines as: “Ta-da! Lots of cables!”

Snow Raven’s music consists of Sakha singing, performances on a jaw harp (“an extension of my body”) and Sakha shaman drum, imitations of animal and bird noises, and what she calls the “Arctic beatbox”: rhythmic patterns based on those of reindeer breath. She spends the last forty-five minutes of her solo concert teaching the audience the latter two, resulting in what can only be described as spontaneous ASMR. (You haven’t lived until you’ve heard an auditorium full of people imitating the cry of the Puerto Rican coqui.)

An audience member brings up the seeming contradiction between Snow Raven’s environment-conscious traditions and her technological interests. Her reply? “I believe technology is neutral and comes from the web of life. All technology is in nature—all we do is download it.” Besides, “traditions were innovations before other traditions; you have to surrender to impermanence.”

Snow Raven’s many talents have taken her from America’s Got Talent to Sundance Film Festival, from Burning Man to—now—Yale. Among her plans is an app that creates environmental awareness through the cultural practices of indigenous communities, while benefiting those communities through monetizing their arts via such incentives as cryptocurrency.

“Yale can be very siloed, but at least nine different programs and departments have collaborated on today’s events,” moderator and event organizer Collin Edouard (Ph.D. student in Music/Ethnomusicology) beams. Inspired by “Dr. Jacob Olupona’s advocacy of indigenous hermeneutics, with an emphasis on the forms and practices of indigenous peoples,” Edouard worked to create environments that showcased Snow Raven’s conviction that people and technology alike are connected to what she calls the ‘Web of Life.’

The final, perhaps most crucial factor in the event’s success is the audience’s enthusiastic reception—proof of Snow Raven’s parting words: “Musical language is primal: it comes before the [spoken and written] human languages. It’s a very powerful means of communication, a way of bringing people back to life. With music, you are your own best healer and teacher.”

Photographs by Liah Sinq.

Shwetant Kumar is a Ph.D. student in Music/Ethnomusicology. His research examines the relationships between literature, theatre, cinema, music technology, socioeconomics, humor, and offensiveness.