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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

White Crow: Drummer, Fighter and Shaman

MTAmacker instructing a student at his White Crow tai chi studio in Moscow. He has taught the Chinese martial art since 1968.
Musician, martial arts master and shaman -- Robert Amacker is a man of many talents.

Known as the White Crow, he runs a tai chi studio in Moscow and plays drums regularly at a Moscow nightclub.

Amacker's activities in Moscow are interrupted by trips to Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva republic in Siberia, where the registered shaman is said to heal locals with the help of his buben drum.

Born in Texas in 1944, he took up drumming as a toddler. "My mother says I would beat on the bars of my crib to the music she used to play to us," he said. "My favorite was Wagner's 'The Ride of the Valkyries.'"

Amacker went on to study with distinguished musicians in San Francisco and New York, learning rock, jazz, Latin, African and Indian drums.

"Robert is a very professional drummer," said Marianna Volkova, a classical violinist from the Academy of Music and Theater in Hannover, Germany, who has performed with Amacker.

"He plays on a virtuoso level in many styles, although our improvisations often center around Oriental motifs," she said.

Amacker first came to Russia for a six-week tour in 1996. Although he was reluctant at first, he said that being paid to play in Russia sounded like a good deal.

"After about 12 days, I fell in love with this place. I've often been told that my personality is too strong. Here, I sensed an incredible intensity and mystery," Amacker said. "Later, somebody discovered that I teach tai chi ch'uan, a traditional Chinese martial art, and I was invited to come back."

Amacker has taught tai chi since 1968, mostly while living in San Francisco, having studied martial arts since the age of 11. He received a black belt in karate before discovering tai chi at the age of 21. "If you've ever studied martial arts, tai chi is the greatest presence you could possibly get," he said.

Tai chi is said to combine three classical elements of Chinese thought: philosophy, medicine and art. "I see it as quoting philosophical truth while beating the hell out of people," Amacker chuckled.

"In tai chi ch'uan, you act out philosophical principles in the actual responses of your body: What you practice affects your mind," he continued in a more serious tone.

"Some people stop short, understanding this martial art as metaphor. But I tell my students to go beyond the metaphor: Everything it offers really exists."

Amacker founded his school -- also called the White Crow, or Belaya Vorona, which can also be translated as "a unique person" in Russian -- in 1996. He said his students are highly motivated.

The classes are open to men and women of all ages, but most of his students are in their 20s and 30s, he said, adding that two of them often assist in teaching.

"Robert's uniqueness is in being able to teach tai chi as an art, preserving its complexity but without mystification," said Yury Borovsky, who has studied martial arts since 1985 and tai chi since 1991. "There is a lack of competent teachers."

Amacker said he cannot be called either a martial artist or a musician because for him the two are inseparable; he explained that the discipline of the martial artist helps channel the creative energy of the musician.

For MT

Amacker playing the buben accompanied by other shamans at a performance in Tuva.
"All the wisest people I know have told me that if I had done one without the other, I would have killed myself a long time ago," he said with a smile.

Amacker plays at the Yamskoye Pole club, where he often accompanies Tuvan musicians on his buben, a drum that is used in shamanic rituals and is said to have healing powers, although he took it up solely as a musical instrument. Amacker has recorded an album with Andrei Mongush, a famous Tuvan throat singer and instrumentalist.

In 1999, I-Churek, a well-known shaman, invited Amacker to visit the republic, which historians call the native land of shamanism, where locals believe everything in nature possesses a spirit.

Amacker was persuaded by locals that he possesses healing powers, which according to local beliefs are inherent in a person.

"Shamans are born, not made. A shaman is not an avatar, an achiever. The reality of a shaman is more pathological," Amacker said. "It's a condition you cannot get away from. Being a shaman is extremely hard work. Most are trying to get away from it."

He was given a robe and and informed about his office hours at the shaman clinic.

Shamans were persecuted during Soviet times, but the official status of the religion was restored in 1993. Shamans are certified, card-carrying members of a union. "But shamans are the most unofficial, unhierarchical people I've ever seen," Amacker said.

Vera Sazhena, a shaman and musician who performs with Amacker during his concerts, said there are about 100 shamans in the republic.

"In Tuva, they ask Robert to heal people," she said. "Probably because he has been doing music and martial arts for such a long time, people there sense that he has a healing energy."

When Amacker travels to Tuva, he works in a room at the Tos-Deer, or Nine Heavens, clinic, which is also known as the Russian Central Religious Organization of Tuvan Shamans. He treats his patients, who can often be seen lining up outside, by drumming, speaking, laying his hands on their bodies and other rituals.

"The bottom line of shamanism is you either heal or you don't," Amacker said, adding that his own chronic backache was cured by a shaman. "People associate shamanism with something esoteric, but it is a completely pragmatic thing.

"Real shamans don't think their personality is a part of the job description and never argue about methods. If you can heal people standing on your head and playing a violin, you are a real shaman."