Gordon Bok's collection of Kalmyk songs

Introduction by Chingis Azydov, © 2022

In late 2014, via the Canadian anthropologist Julia Schultz and her Buryad friend Budahanda Adams, we became acquainted with American folk singer Gordon Bok, who kindly shared his audio archive of Kalmyk songs and music with us. Bok expressed his wish that these recordings be made publicly available.

Gordon Bok, a folk musician and songwriter, met Kalmyk immigrants back in the 1960s in Philadelphia, where he occasionally worked during the winter. The Kalmyks invited him to be part of their band, which used to play Kalmyk music at holiday celebrations. During rehearsal meetings, Gordon made recordings on a magnetic audio tape recorder. Seeing his interest, Kalmyk friends shared their audio recordings of songs they had recorded of elder Kalmyks with him.

In 2011, at the annual New Jersey Folk Festival, Gordon Bok was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for his years of work collecting and preserving the folk music of American Kalmyks.


The collection's contents

The digital collection consists of 13 folders and includes 226 audio recordings representing home recordings of Kalmyk immigrants living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; recordings made by Bok before 1990; audio recordings that Bok made of vinyl records that were being played (and other analogue media) with samples of Mongolian and Kalmyk songs; and recordings made by Bok after 1990 (songs recorded from the second and third generations of immigrants; recordings from the 2011 Folk festival in New Jersey). There is also a brief description with the history of the collection in DOC format; one folder called "Catalogue Pages", containing a copy of the handwritten catalogue table "Khalmyk Music in America. Gordon Bok Collection" (spelling and punctuation Bok’s) in PDF format and several text files in DOC format. These additional text files include the CD numbers, titles of some songs and melodies, names of performers, and commentaries by Bok. There are also two more file folders related to the "Kalmyk Music in America. Book 1" project and a brochure with the lyrics and musical notations of 23 songs and melodies (from the Bok collection), along with an audio supplement. A copy of the article "Kalmyk Music: The Celebration of an Immigrant Culture" by Virginia Haupt (now Ginger Hildebrand) was also given to us as part of the collection.

Audio recordings from Bok's collection differ quite significantly in terms of sound quality. Early recordings (digital copies of original audio tapes) made from the 1950s to 1970s can be characterised as being of medium or fair quality. Recordings made between 2000 and 2011 have noticeably better sound.

Unfortunately, for the majority of the original audio recordings, the names of the song performers and information about their ethnic origin, the history and content of the songs was not recorded. Not all the names of song performers are listed in the handwritten collection catalogue. The catalogue was compiled decades later, by memory, and many of the voices remain unidentified. This circumstance significantly complicates and slows down our work on the publication of audio recordings, especially those of the ut dun long song genre. The performers of the long songs were from an older generation and passed away more than 20 to 30 years ago.

Despite all the difficulties, and due to the great help from representatives of the American Kalmyk diaspora, Alta and Udbala Burushkin, Sanji-Altan Kuldinov, Ben Moschkin and others, we managed to identify a few performers of the long songs.


Gordon Bok on his collection of Kalmyk music:

"In the 1960’s and 70’s I spent the winter months working in Philadelphia. During that time I spent a lot of time singing with Kalmyk friends and playing in their small “orchestra” for dance performances. In the course of this I made some amateur recordings, and Kalmyks and other people, seeing my interest, gave me some of their recordings. 

My collection included the following: Songs I had written down, words I or others had written out in rough phonetics, descriptions and translations of some songs, scraps of information, history, etc. and about seven hours of recorded music and spoken word.  Recordings include:

1) Song swaps in the homes of Kalmyks in Philadelphia and New Jersey; informal recording sessions with Sara and Nadja Stepkin and scraps of parties which include singing.  Scraps of at least one rehearsal of the Philadelphia Dance “Orchestra” (usually mandolins and guitar).  These were my own amateur home recordings, crudely done on indifferent machinery.

2) Copies onto tape of 78RPM records of music sent to American Kalmyks by relatives in Russia, etc. (They called them Soviet propaganda – Kalmyk tunes with new Soviet words – but they wanted them saved, so I saved them.)  Some good small ensemble tunes and songs, some with professional singers.

3) Un-translated conversations recorded at various dinner tables. 

4) The best recordings: someone at the Friends Neighborhood Guild in the 1950’s did musical interviews with Tasja Kutinov and Ivan Menuhin; clear, well-done recordings of two good singers with fiddle and mandolin interspersed or accompanying. These were given to me by the Guild. 

I gave the recordings to the Library of Congress when I left Philadelphia around 1975, for them to copy.  That was useful, as I lost the originals in my relocations over the years.

After I left Philadelphia, Virginia Haupt (now Hildebrand), a friend with whom I had shared some of this music, accessed the  tapes and took them back to some of the families to do an academic musical analysis, on my condition that everything she collected and wrote would go directly back to Sara Stepkin.  This she faithfully did, and provided us with copies of her work, which have been very valuable. She has continued to help with this work as she can, as the music is as dear to her as it is to me.

In 2001 the American Kalmyks invited my wife Carol and me to New Jersey, for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of their emigration to America. It was at this time I realized that, with the death of Nadja Stepkin, nobody had been keeping the traditional songs alive from the (mostly Busawa) community with whom I had made music in Philadelphia.  

I knew that at least a few folklorists, reporters and music students had come to the Kalmyk communities here and recorded their music and dances, but they have never made this available to the people themselves, and none of us know where to find any of it.

So, in 2001, I managed to retrieve a set of DATs of my recordings from the Library of Congress, and I had these made into CDs, and sent copies to Sara. We listened to them at the Khural (Buddhist Temple) in Philadelphia, but unfortunately, those recordings were all on one track, and not very useful.

In 2003, I had Maine Folklife Center clean these recordings up as best they could, and working with my catalog, make a second set of CD’s; these were marked so tunes and sections could be repeated. I catalogued these recordings as well as I could from memory, my notes, and the songs in my written collection.

There is some electronic glitching on them, but they’re workable. I have made copies of these recordings, the catalog and the written collection for any interested Kalmyk families. 

Since 2005, I have continued my visits whenever my tours took me through the Phila. /NJ area, recording, cataloging and getting translations when I could. I met with Gerel (Gail) Buruschkin whom I had met at the celebration in NJ, and recorded some songs she had learned from her mother and from my collection.

About this time I met Allison Budschalow, granddaughter of Nadja and her husband Gawril Budschalow.  Allison and I, with some advice and help from Virginia Hildebrand, conjured the idea of making a simple music book that Kalmyks in this country, or anyone else who spoke only US English, could use to access the collection.

About the time we were starting to put the book* together, Gerel introduced me to her brother Alta, who offered to be the repository for our endeavors and discoveries and a central clearing-house for communication and information".

From "History and Description of Gordon Bok Collection of Kalmyk Music", Gordon Bok, Camden ME, 1-26-2010. 

Kalmyk Music in America – Book One


Recordings of Kalmyk folks songs

Special thanks

We express our deep gratitude to Gordon Bok for his many years of work in preserving Kalmyk folk music and for his willingness to freely share the accumulated materials with everyone who is interested in Kalmyk folk  songs and history of Kalmyk emigrants.

Also, special thanks to Ben Mosсhkin, Alta and Udbala Burusсhkin, Sanji Altan Kuldinov and many others, for their invaluable assistance in the preparation of these publications.