On Monday, Brooks-Rogers auditorium hosted Alash, a group of Tuvan throat singers. Throat singing is not a prominent practice on the American stage. It developed among the nomadic herdsmen of central Asia as a spiritual mimcry of the sounds of the natural world. The Alash ensemble’s website states “Singers use their voices to mimic and interact with the sounds of the natural world – whistling birds, bubbling streams, blowing wind or the deep growl of a camel.” The group of students and community members gathered for the performance were clearly uncertain of what to expect from the performance. The set-list for the evening contained memorable and indecipherable song names such as “Kozhamyktar” and “Odarladyp Semirtiili,” only heightening the nervous anticipation for the group’s performance.
A quick introduction by the manager, Sean Quirk, enlightened the audience on the details. Tuva was a region in Russia north of Mongolia to which they shared several customs, but were for the most part completely different. Quirk stated that throat singing was a tradition that was developed before the time of language, which left some wondering if the performance would technically qualify as singing or just primal growling.
The three members of Alash stepped out in traditional Tuvan dress of robes and hats. The band began singing, accompanied by a guitar-like instrument that produced a higher-pitched sound and a traditional bass drum.
About a minute into the song, one of the members began to “throat sing.” Through throat singing, the vocalists give off a bass note and simultaneously sing a whistle-like note. The crowd was quickly taken aback, as the performers melded six or seven notes together through their three mouths. Each throat singing section would vary, from the sound of the wind against the rocks, to helicopter propellers, to alien ray beams. Yet, for all of its oddities and foreignness, the group’s talent was hypnotizing.
Certain songs stuck out as the highlights of the evening. “Buura,” a war song about a fortress used in a war against China, featured the bass drum heavily. The drum was profoundly warlike, inspiring its listeners to take arms in defense of their respective causes. “Xoomei Solo” was a solo performance by a member of the group that can only be described as the Tuvan equivalent of Lynrd Skynrd jamming out “Free Bird” to a sold-out 50,000-person stadium.
It was hard to judge music that comes from a world so unlike our own. The group did admit that they adapted the music to make Western audiences more comfortable, making changes to their performances such as the addition of guitars. From reading the description of the songs, I could see clear parallels between American music industry and Tuvan themes.
Yet for all intensive purposes, the music was unlike anything that can be found in the American marketplace. The voices of some of the performers would not fit into the American model for commercial success. Their voices sounded guttural and scratchy but then would quickly change to whiny and high. Especially in “Bayan Solo,” which featured a Russian chromatic button accordion, the combination really took a strange turn. Accompanied by a polka-like beat, the singer belted out Tuvan words in a growly Tuvan way, but also let out a “bop-bop-bop” similar to what you would hear in an American doo-wop group.
The performance definitely qualified as an unusual musical experience. One cannot begin to understand the lyrics, the music or the singing in any way other than at face value. However, it is important to note that this kind of experience not only broadens your sense of art and culture, but also allows you to respect people wherever they come from, especially if they can hit three notes at the same time, while I can only manage one at best. These singers are genuinely talented. While their music may seem strange to the Western ear, there is no denying that they deserve to pursue a musical career in their chosen genre. It’s truly curious that we would rather listen to something completely ordinary and average than something so totally fresh and unique.