(Clockwise from Top Left) Nachyn Choodu, Ayan Shirizhik, Ayan-ool Sam, and Bady-Dorzhu Ondar
(Photos by Daniel Ahrendt)
We have such popular saturation in Western music it’s easy to forget that other spheres exist. Large American audiences are reluctant to spend money on large American acts, let alone small traditional groups from the other side of the planet. Tuva’s Alash Ensemble are a very strong argument for North American audiences to take a chance. Composed of four of the best throat singers on earth with enough instrumental skill to put entire Western conservatories to shame, this group performed music the average Seattle concert goer has simply never heard. The contrast is glorious.
Mai-ool Sedip, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, and Ayan Shirizhik first toured the U.S in 2006 sponsored by the Open World Leadership program of the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since then, Sedip has left the group and has been replaced by Nachyn Choodu. All four are world class musicians, integrating western influences such as Sun Ra and Jimi Hendrix. The group records and tours with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones on a semi-regular basis, further testifying to the talent in each member.
Now comes the obvious question: Where the hell is Tuva? Well, I’m glad you asked. The republic of Tuva (sometimes spelled Tyva) sits between the southern edge of Serbia and the top of Mongolia. It shares many of the nomadic cultural tendencies of Mongolia, specifically a deep appreciation for horses and herding. Now a part of the Russia Federation, it’s understandable that most of the world is ignorant of the small country’s existence. A culture would be hard pressed to find better ambassadors than Alash Ensemble, who had the Triple Door audience entranced throughout their hour and a half set.
If you’re perplexed at what you just heard, don’t worry. Most people are perplexed when it comes to throat singing. The technique allows the vocalist to spread out their voice into two, three, occasionally four different overtone pitches that can be controlled while the lowest pitch continues on a drone. Each member illustrated this at various points throughout the performance, creating at least one crystal clear whistling melody independent of the fundamental pitch. For an in depth description of the tradition and the different styles of Tuvan throat singing, go to this page of the Alash Ensemble site. They have audio samples and everything. Also featured in the performance is a uniquely Tuvan instrument known as the igil, a bowed two stringed instrument similar to a cello.
Band manager and interpreter Sean Quirk made sure to share the general mood of the lyrical elements to the audience. The naturally atmospheric and pure tonal tendencies of the music would leave the meaning of each song hard to guess for a Western audience. We would all think they were about space and the universe or something equally vague and cosmic. Quirk made it clear that most of these songs were about “good horses and beautiful women”. After all it’s nomadic folk music. However, it’s almost completely alien to Western sensibility. The focus here is on the variation of tone, not chord structure or convoluted melody. The interplay of different throat singing styles, bowed and strummed instruments, and the large drum played by Shirizhik create breath taking textures all generated through acoustic means. That effects pedal you’ve always wanted? It’s not so much a pedal as it is a four man throat singing group from southern Russia.
As an individual who attends concerts very often, I can safely say this blew me away. You never hear anything like this in the states. Alash Ensemble utilizes a branch of musical skill the West doesn’t think about, and these are some of the finest proprietors of it. Be you a musician looking for some new creative input or a lover of music pure and simple, make sure to see them the next time they come through.