Dec 09, 2010

Tuva: Throat Singers Export Traditional Music Culture

The Tuvan musicians ‘Alash Ensemble’ have been invited to support famous banjo player Fleck at a concert in California. The throat-singers, whose music has been described as ‘eye-opening’, welcomed the opportunity spread to Tuvan culture.

Below is an article published by

World-renowned banjo player Béla Fleck has performed in Chico countless times. This year, with his Flecktones in tow, Fleck’s special seasonal performance at Laxson Auditorium in support of his 2009 Grammy-winning pop-instrumental album, Jingle All The Way, will feature an exotic international flair, thanks to the throat-singing Alash Ensemble.

Drawing on the traditions of the Central Asian republic of Tuva (located within a mountainous area of Siberian Russia, north of Mongolia), this foursome’s trademark is its simultaneous two- to four-pitch throat-singing. The sounds run the gamut from haunting, almost other-worldly vocal soundscapes to contemporary, interpretive jazz jams utilizing instruments such as the two-string, cello-like igil; the three-stringed, banjo-reminiscent chanzy and doshpuluur and flute-like murgu and shoor.

Each member of the group has been singing since childhood, according to Sean Quirk, the band’s manager and interpreter.

“Tuvan people believe that all things in nature have attendant master-spirits, and they enjoy music and throat singing, so there is a spiritual element,” he said. “But it is a part of our folk music and oftentimes is used just as you would use another instrument.”

Conducting a pre-show interview with the group proved to be a logistical test, and not just due to language challenges. In advance of the current tour, late November found the Alash Ensemble leaving home, traveling 2,000 miles to Moscow to get visas, taking a flight to Los Angeles, and then journeying on a 1,500-mile drive to Canada to meet up with Fleck and the Flecktones for a kick-off show 30 November in Calgary.

Alash’s relationship with Fleck goes back to the 1990s, and the group’s Kongar-ool Ondar performed on Fleck’s 2000 project, Live at the Quick.

“When we came to the U.S. on our second tour we contacted [Fleck and his band] just to get to know them, invite them to a concert, have an ice cream cone, whatever,” said Quirk via e-mail. “Béla asked for our CD and then after hearing it invited us to come down to Nashville and record on the Christmas album that they happened to be recording that summer.”

Alash will accompany Fleck and the Flecktones on several numbers, some from the Christmas album and some not, as well as perform its own Tuvan set in the middle of the show.

“Tuvan music is best known for throat singing or xoomei - the ability to produce multiple pitches simultaneously and harmoniously by a single singer,” Quirk explained. “This sounds esoteric at first, but people find that when combined with the unique and ancient Tuvan instruments it produces a world of sound that is unbelievable, eye-opening, and extremely pleasing to all types of audiences. People think it’s about esoteric stuff, but it’s our folk music. And in addition to the deeper songs there’s a lot of songs about horses and beautiful women.”

In high demand, members of Alash spend about four months per year touring in various countries and constantly perform in Tuva as members of the national orchestra and in collaborations with other musician friends. Alash players live in the Tuvan capital city of Kyzyl, though they often spend periods of time at friends’ and relatives’ herding camps.

Regarding Western music and influences that might seep into their world, Quirk, who said its people are not oppressed and are free to perform music and speak their minds politically, noted that “you’d be surprised how much Western music has made it to Tuva … tapes, friends that have traveled, radio - all kinds of sources.”

When traveling the world, Alash brings no political message, but its members do delight in turning the world onto a little bit of their culture.

“The most important thing is that people enjoy the show,” Quirk wrote, “but we also view our music as a way of educating people about our culture and making a name in the world for our small-numbered people. That’s why we often go to schools as a part of our work—to expose all generations to our music and culture.”