There is land, and then there are landscapes. It is hard to imagine something as wild and ethereal as traditional Tuvan overtone or throat-singing evolving in 'green and pleasant' England. But at the heart of Asia it's a different story. These eerie vocal techniques which are most commonly found among Turkic peoples of Mongolia, Altay, Bashkiria, and other parts of the former Soviet Union, reach their apex of development and diversity particularly in the Republic of Tuva.
The area has a unique and ancient sonic culture based on a timbral rather than melodic or rhythmic appreciation of music, in which mimicry of the animate and inanimate sounds of nature plays a key role. For the herder-hunters who roamed this landscape -- and to some extent still do -- their music represents an intimate, spiritually motivated response to and interaction with the natural environment.
Only in the last decade or so have western audiences begun to hear this phenomenon, through the efforts of a handful of musicians and researchers who have adapted traditional vocal and instrumental techniques in the context of the modern 'song' -- a concept that is seriously challenged by many of the traditional forms, and which hardly conform to any of the western models of 'music'. If the linguisitic basis of overtone singing is important, it seems impossible to deny the importance of its roots in the environment. And Tuva is by all accounts especially blessed in a landscape of breathtaking variety and beauty.
"Oh, not only steppes but mountains, tundra, deserts, taiga, forests, waterfalls, lakes, salty lakes, and everything," says Albert Kuvezin, recalling his native land wistfully as he takes a break from recording in a Brixton studio with his group Yat Kha. When he first came to London in the early 90s, it was as part of the other most prominent Tuvan group, Huun Huur Tu.
While Yat Kha bring humour, an avant-garde punk sensibility and rock dynamics to their traditions, Huun Huur Tu's music is, in the live arena at least, all-acoustic, combining classical guitar with a variety of traditional bowed instruments such as the cello-like 2-stringed igil, the four-stringed byzaanchi and the 3-stringed doshpulur. For that rolling thunder effect, they use a shaman drum or tungur, with a xapchyk accessory, a dried bull's scrotum containing sheep kneebones. The singers often mimic the whinnying of horses and other animal sounds with their voices and instruments, from which they also draw overtones, especially with the khomuz, or 'temir khomuz', the Tuvan Jew's harp -- not to be confused with the large komuz played in Kyrgyzstan (see fR197).
But Huun Huur Tu's most startling overtones are vocal. All the various styles of throat singing are characterised by a fundamental drone and an accompanying harmonic (sometimes more than one), which is manipulated to create melodies that soar above the drone. The deepest is the groaning bass Kargyraa, similar to Tibetan Buddhist chanting (which Huun Huur Tu also perform at times.) The middle register style is khoomei, a word that is also a blanket term for all the styles of Tuvan throat-singing. Then there is sygyt, the highest whistling style. On occasion, they also perform two less common sub-styles of khoomei. These can be heard on the recent field-recording concept album which part of the group made recently in Tuva and nearby Sakha, Tuva, Among the Spirits; the ezengileer style mimics the sound of a rider's boots clicking in stirrups, and borbannadir evokes the flowing of water in a stream.
Along with an essay which considers whether T. Rex was a scavenger, a predator, or both, and a cheesy time-travel short story set in the Cretaceous, the September 1999 issue of Scientific American features an article on throat/overtone singing. Co-authored by musical ethnographer and long-term Huun Huur Tu associate Theodore Levin (who was a participant in the aforementioned recording project) and composer Michael Edgerton, it acknowledges that the process of generating these sounds is not fully understood. However, their research goes a long way towards explaining how nomadic herders developed 'reinforced' harmonics using their vocal folds and various parts of their vocal tracts. Rather than simply enriching the timbre of fundamental note, the harmonic produced is often louder than the drone, and thus heard as a distinct whistling sound, so that it carries a greater distance. Such techniques have been only recently adapted from the great outdoors to concert halls, with thrilling results.
During Huun Huur Tu's recent sold-out show at London's Royal Festival Hall, their Russian manager Alexander Cheparukhin came on stage to explain the origins of the songs, a mixture of original compositions and arrangements of traditional folklore tunes. He also did the talking for them in our interview the afternoon before the gig, as the band sat in a glazy-eyed jet lagged semi circle.
He is convinced of the role of nature in nurturing throat-singing.
"My personal opinion is that Tuva for so many years was unspoilt by any industrial development. Most people were nomads, very close to nature and they think that the overtone approach is very close to nature, because in nature, you don't feel a lot of melodies, but you feel a lot of overtones. That's why this overtone understanding of music is very close to communication of human beings in nature. It's mostly not designed for performance... They enjoy doing this not only in their yurt (tent), but also in the open plain, surrounded by horses or sheep. They even have different styles for mountains or plains. They always take into account the resonance [of the] atmosphere. For instance, they have special songs they sing against the cliffs, which give them natural echo and kind of reverb. Also they can sing in caves, and match their singing with the wind."
Of the four band mmebers, Kaigal-ool Khovalyg and Anatoly Kuular both come from nomadic herding families, though Sayan Bapa and Alexei Saryglar had more urban backgrounds, and were drawn to the old ways for inspiration after training in classical music and jazz.
Though Huun Huur Tu's music might sound very 'folkloric,' it is not really reconstruction of traditional Tuval music, more of a reinvention, since it inclues a number of elements and combinations which were not used in the music of nomadic herders. The idea of combining throat singing with instrumental ensembles is novel, though Huun Huur Tu were not the first to do this. It's not clear exactly which instruments were in the past used to mimic the gaits of horses, though this has long been a part of both Tuvan and Mongolian music according to Ted Levin, who describes the band's music as 'eclectic.' In the sleevenote for their third Shanachie album If I'd Been Born An Eagle the band declare that they are... "trying to recover a sense of what might have been."
Aside from live collaborations and recordings with the Bulgarian choir Angelite, Huun Huur Tu's four Shanachie albums to date have all been in a traditional acoustic vein. At the time of our interview Alexander said that in a quest for 'new flavours', they were considering some radical collaborations, including trip-hop, house, and techno remixes. Negotiations were ongoing with the likes of Fun<da>mental's Aki Nawaz and Propa Ghandi, Hamburg-based commercial dance producers the Voelker Brothers and Scottish piper Martyn Bennet, who played on their most recent album, Where the Green Grass Grows.
A very important factor shaping contemporary Tuvan music was the existence of Soviet 'State Ensembles' through which many of the today's players passed. Before the break-up of the Soviet Union, Tuva was a Soviet Autonomous Republic. Each region had its own ensembles, under strict direction from centralised Soviet authority. In the case of Tuva, along with Siberia and the Northern part of the Soviet Union, this came from St. Petersburg. Folk tunes were collected, transcribed, and arranged for large ensembles, which incorporated local musicians from a variety of backgrounds. Though this resulted in a certain 'Sovietisation' of such musics (for example, the introduction of singing in harmony) and there was little or no artistic freedom for the players, it did provide them with employment, training to high standards, and opportunities to meet other musicians. Boris Salchak (of Shu De), Albert Kuvezin and Kaigal-ool Khovalyg were all involved in the Tuvan State ensemble Ayan.
Albert is philosophical about his experience in Ayan, but less so when talking of his time in Huun Huur Tu. Though he was one of the group's founding members, he had left by 1993 because of differences over how their music should be developed, professional jealousies and disagreements over money. By their second album he had disappeared from the credits.
"They didn't pay me for the first CD, not one cent," he says, also alleging that they have used lyrics by known contemporary Tuvan composers, crediting them only as 'traditional arrangements', as well as using arrangements of his without crediting him, on their second Shanachie album. Albert also claims that the use of acoustic guitar was initially his idea, a result of the fact that at the time he didn't play any traditional instruments -- something which is thankfully no longer the case, as demonstrated by his mastery of the beautiful Tuvan zither which his present band is named after.
Albert's choppy electric guitar naturally gives Yat Kha's music a far rockier ambience than Huun Huur Tu. The first Yat Kha album Anthropophagia, (1993), was an experimental electronic 'world beat' project involving only Albert and the Russian musician Ivan Sokolovski, but each subsequent recording has seen an expansion of the line-up, reflecting in the development of their sound.
For their 1995 follow-up Yenisei Punk (recently remastered and re-released) they were joined by part-time Mekon, Mustapha and Bloke Lu Edmonds, who has travelled widely with them and presently concentrates on their management. That job includes taking the whole group to the dentist upon their arrival in London for this summer's performances at WOMAD and the fRoots 20th anniversary party.
Yat Kha now includes percussionist Zhenya Tkach'v, who plays a large kengyrgy drum (borrowed from the Lamaist Bong Po religion) and Alexei Saaia, who contributes electric bass and saws away at the cello-like two-stringed morinhur in a juddering style that hints at his classical training. The most recent addition is Aldyn-ool Sevek, affectionately referred to by Albert as 'Golden Boy'. For their latest and widely acclaimed album Dalai Beldiri, on Paddy Moloney's excellent Wicklow label, Aldyn-ool performed all three main styles of overtone singing. The poor dental health which had resulted from reliance on the abysmal services available in Tuva almost prevented him from singing on the new recordings they made on that same trip.
Albert's distinctive ultra-low growling vocals might at first seem to resemble the deepest throat-singing style kargyraa, but are in fact based on an almost extinct style of singing called kanzat. While kargyraa singers embellish a constant note with harmonics that sketch the melody, Albert sings whole melodies with his deep bass notes in a manner that is unique.
He certainly puts his extraordinary technique to great comic effect when addressing the audience in almost sub-sonic tones, a wicked grin pasted across his face. A real highlight of their recent sets was the song Camel Rock, which has so far confounded attempts to record it. However, with any luck their most recent London sessions in October will bear fruit. There are plans for the release of a remixed version of Dyngyldai (which could be translated as something like Irish lilting), scheduled to appear on a Wicklow compilation in the new year, plus a few other sound and riff-based surprises, Lu promises cryptically.
On the eve of a short tour of Germany in the same month, Dalai Beldiri received the prestigious Deutschen Schallplatten Kritik Prize, to add to their accolades. So Yat Kha seems to be overtaking rivals Huun Huur Tu in popularity after a long time in their shadow.
But there is another very important figure in contemporary Tuvan music who remains in the wilderness, relatively speaking. Alexander 'Sasha' Bapa -- the brother of Sayan -- was with Huun Huur Tu for their first two Shanachie albums, and according to Albert, was the driving creative force behind them.
"He was a kind of producer and manager of the band and actually... in the beginning he spent his own money to create projects... he was the founder of Huun Huur Tu," declares Albert, explaining that Sasha, like him, had to leave. "The problem was, I think, he tried to keep all the control and influence of the band, and of course, nobody likes this. But at the same time, all the ideas and all the financial support was from him. He found money for travel, for example we came to England on his own money. For maybe three years while the band was growing slowly, he paid all musicians like a kind of salary. He bought all instruments, all costumes."
Financial help also came from Boris Salchak, who was even involved in some early Huun Huur Tu concerts, though he soon withdrew. He found the Tuvan folklore content too heavy, having had a status in Tuvan akin to that of a pop star, after achieving fame with covers of songs by The Bee Gees and other Western and Russian artists.
"There was big struggle. But it was maybe ten years before Huun Huur Tu that the idea of Huun Huur Tu was born by him [Sasha]. Because at that time, nobody, even Kaigal-ool hiimself had thought of it, they just performed whatever the director or conductor said. Myself also, I was interested only for rock music at that time, but then he pushed me to study kargyraa singing and also he helped me with some Tuvan music, some cassettes, like moral support, it's very important, moral support."
As is often the case with folkloric traditions, throat-singing in Tuva was not until recently considered anything particularly special at home, and had been largely ignored. Albert claims Sasha was the first to conceive the idea of combining throat-singing with stringed and percussion instruments in an ensemble.
I put this to Ted Levin in an e-mail correspondence later, and he contradicts what Albert says, pointing out that the State-sponsored ensembles like Sayan and Ayan did just this, albeit "in a much clunkier way, i.e. instead of four musician, they had fifteen, plus dancers. Around the end of the 1980s, Zoya Kyrgyz, the Tuvan musicologist put together the Tuva Ensemble under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Culture..."
He considers that 14-member group to be "a kind of in-between step between the big Soviet ensembles and groups like Huun Huur Tu" and also pointed out the existence of Amirak, the trio of musicians he recorded in 1987 for the Smithsonian Folkways label, which can be heard on the resulting CD Tuva: Voices From the Centre of Asia. This band combined throat-singing styles with doshpulur and khomuz. He does at least credit Sasha with some of the innovations in percussion.
Whatever the objective truth, it's clear that Sasha Bapa played a crucial pioneering role in the development of contemporary Tuvan music. In fact he continues to do so through his Pure Nature Music company.
When I asked Sasha (also by e-mail) for an account of his experiences in Huun Huur Tu, he bluntly stated "I don't want to write about Huun Huur Tu". In relation to Albert's words, he simply claims that he was "one of the first" who conceived Tuvan folk music "in the system of show business."
He's understandably bitter about missing out on the success that eventually accrued to Huun Huur Tu, but is as enterprising as ever in his efforts to promote the work of the younger generations of folk musicians from Tuva, neighbouring Altay and Khakasia, and even far-flung Kamchatka.
Sasha had an urban childhood, but spent his summers in villages, where his passion for traditional Tuvan music was obviously first ignited. His chequered musical career initially included stints in jazz and rock bands influenced by everything from Deep Purple to Boney M. And he was also in the State ensemble Ayan, where he met Kaigal-ool Khovalyg and Albert Kuvezin.
"This ensemble was a laboratory for the musicians," he confirms, remembering those days of discovery, and the excitement of working with the old-timers who were living vessels of the ancient arts as a "beautiful time." He regrets not having had a good enough musical education, adding that he cannot prove which arrangements of Huun Huur Tu's were his, since he was unable to write them down.
Sasha founded the Tuvan four-piece Chirgilchin, whose first album appeared on Shanachie in 1996. As his website www.purenaturemusic.com details, they are all in their twenties and have just released their second LP, Aryskan's Wind, which combines several throat-singing styles with many traditional instruments.
Other bands in the Pure Nature Music stable with recent releases include Khakas band Sabjilar, who showcase local throat-singing styles and their 'national instrument', the chathan, the Altay three-piece Aiaiym, and most unusually, a new group called Arjaan ('curative spring"), who are breaking new ground as an all-woman ensemble of Tuvan throat-singers. With the exception of the Sainkho Namchylak, who has become known outside Tuva, female throat-singers were very rare in Tuva until recently, since it was considered improper, indecent, or even likely to damage their fertility, according to traditional beliefs. Other styles of singing were permitted though, and some shamen are women.
Sasha shares with Albert an enthusiasm for the young hopefuls rediscovering their roots, but this is tempered by the passing of the older generation, of whom only a few remain. Albert estimates there are perhaps only five singers who still sing in the old way, like Aldyn-ool Sevek and Kaigal-ool Khovaleg. The ravages of alcohol (a national scourge) are partly responsible for taking away the likes of Oleg Kuular, former singer with Shu-De, and Gennady Tumat, perhaps the most revered throat-singer of the century.
Albert is particularly concerned that Tuvan youth are exposed to a narrow and trashy spectrum of musical influence from the outside world, due to continuing isolation and poverty.
"They don't know what happens with music worldwide. Still they think Iron Maiden is very fresh and new..." he says. There is some awareness of the likes of grunge, techno and rap, which is reflected in cassettes by local bands, though drum & bass is yet to make an impact.
Commercialisation has naturally accompanied the raised profile of throat-singing, as Sasha observes: "I know that many go in Tuva, then begin to learn (teach) others. In one year they become professors. It is sad."
One happier result of recent events is the increasing number of experimental collaborations between Tuvan artists and foreign musicians (e.g. Vershki Da Koreshki, see fRoots #9). Two examples from this past year include Naked Spirit, a joint album by Sainkho Namchylak and Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan, and Shaman, an exhilarating project by Boris Salchak and Swiss-based Irish jazz guitarist Christy Doran, with additional percussion from the ubiquitous Airto Moreira. Even during the interview with Albert and Lu, one such collaborator drops by. Scottish jazz muso Ken Hyder has teamed up with ex-Henry Cow member Tim Hodgkinson and kargyraa singer Gendo Chamziren for an anarchic avant-garde 'power music' soundfest they are calling K-Space.
Ken is particularly intrigued by how far off the mark western musicians have often been when trying to come to an understanding of Tuvan music. He illustrates his point with shamanic drumming, which does not follow any regular metre, often speeding up and slowing down apparently at random. "How you play varies according to what's going on inside... like an electrocardiogram. It's not for the audience, or to communicate with them," he explains.
"There's this real heavy free-form improv. undercurrent to Tuvan stuff, 'cos it's how Tuva is," adds Lu with characteristic intensity. "When I went ther and came back, I suddenly realised how regulated our world is and how much that's reflected in our music... that kind of total natural free bit, no straight lines... all that mucky stuff, the dirt, the fuzzy edges... I just see that in Gendos, and the way Albert plays. When are people going to wake up that there is something going on there?"