Deep In the Heart of Tuva
by Jason Gross (March 1997)
Within a region of Siberia/Mongolian border that is called Tuva, there is more freezing weather than all of the Great Lakes region combined, surrounded by mountains and desert. This is a land where wrestling, games with sheep bones and carnivore appetites are a standard. In 1921, a group of herders created this country after Russians, Chinese, Turks, Huns, Mongols and other armies had over-run the land continuously. Many people outside of this region would probably have never heard of it if it weren't for a unique vocal group that started up there around 1992. It's very fitting that this was the same year that the land experienced a resurgence of national pride: the Tuvan flag and official seal were revived. This is also when Kaagal-ool Khovalyg, Sayan Bapa, Anatoli Kuular, and Alexai Sarytlar started Huun-Huur-Tu and brought the unique Tuvan 'throat-singing' (or höömeï, pronounced her-may) to the world.
In Western music, there have been a number of musical pioneers who explored the contours of the human voice. Meredith Monk, Leon Thomas, Diamanda Galas, Joan LaBarbara, and Bobby McFerrin have made careers out of finding out what vocal chords can reverberate into besides words. Even more so than gospel exhortations of soul singers who explore the human range of emotion, Tuvan singers have explored the extensive potentials of the voice itself in a long tradition. They cultivated this tradition as communication with themselves, the sprits and nature around them, which they also imitated with voices. This may not be so uncommon in a land where cloven animals have far out-numbered humans for years. In fact, the group has said 'it's impossible that people who spend so much time around horses- one of the most rhythmic animals alive- would not have absorbed their sense of rhythm.'
As 'world music' has become a fixture in the West for a number of years now, it should be noted that the Tuvan throat singing is not just an exotic novelty but a part of a rich tradition. Initially, when groups started forming in Tuva, like in many other Third World cultures, Western styles were being copied. Tuvan copies of Beatles appeared as well as dance music used with throat singing over it. Luckily, there are also earnest practitioners of this fine art abound in Tuva to carry on the tradition for real.
So, what exactly is 'throat singing' then? Basically, it involves overtones that are heard in new music, applied to voices. Höömeï is the name applied to it though it is really only one of three or four styles also including sygyt and kargyraa. You hear a deep humming groan, mixed with a high pitched whistling sound. To practice this art, it's recommended not only to carefully practice proper breathing/inhaling and diet (no cold food before trying to do it) but also to, in the words of champion singer Kongar-ool Ondar, "be in an very uplifted mood; your soul, your inner spiritual voice, must be strong." Sometimes, three voicings are heard in one person's singing. Usually, it's done acapella by a single voice (but with its multi-voicing style, a singer may sound like a whole group). Nothing else you've heard is like this. Even hearing this on CD is nothing like witnessing this in person, seeing a group of seated men in 'native garb' give forth with amazing sounds that dart and cut through the air, filling a whole concert hall with the sound of their voices.
Thanks to Huun-Huur-Tu, who have done a number of tours around the whole world now, this music is getting to be more and more well-known and popularized. The group itself has made appearance on MTV, the Arts and Entertainment network, record movie soundtracks and participated in a jam session at Frank Zappa's house. There are now throat singing workshops conducted around the world now as well as International throat singing competitions held back in Tuva. To put things in perspective, blues singer Paul Pena has brought the tradition full circle to American music, linking to Howlin' Wolf's guttural groans.
Though they claim that mix experimentation into their work, Huun-Huur-Tu remain true to their culture. They know their own history and use their voices/music to continue the link that they're a part of now. Their name literally means 'the light that breaks over the grass at the beginning or end of the day.' As percussionist Alexander Bapa explains 'our ensemble used the name because the light rays on the steppe remind us of the seperate lines of sound in throat singing.' They also speak of 'respect for ancestors' and 'naturalness and sincerety' when speaking about their music. This can be attributed to the Buddhist faith and shamanism that have existed side-by-side and have been a part of the land for centuries. Even their instruments are regional creations such as 'horsehead' fiddle (igil), conch shell, shaman rattles. All of their CD's are representative of this great music. The best introduction is probably the wonderful DEEP IN THE HEART OF TUVA CD/booklet (with its extensive notes and background on the country)- this is where you hear all manifestations of this music: not just the group itself but also young boys, old men, women and others all exhort in this tradition. The origin of this tradition spans back to the 1930s with transcriptions that have only been brought to light in the last decade. Even today, the group uncovers newly-found 'old' material from singers around Tuva.
What is new and experimental about Huun-Huur-Tu though is the whole concept of the band itself. When the Soviets ran the area, state-sponsored troops of singers/dancers were common and the only outlet for young, upcoming talent. After this era ended, many performers went out on their own to perform. Traditionally, throat singing is done by one person. The idea of a throat singing group with instruments is new in Tuva. Unfortunately, it's also meant (ironically) that Huun-Huur-Tu finds it much easier to perform in the West than in their own homeland. The endless bureaucracy and lack of appropriate concert spaces means that you will usually not find the group doing a show in Tuva. This doesn't mean that they pander to Western audiences at all but that their own country (or at least its government and promoters) aren't ready for such innovations yet.
The best that can be hoped for with what Westerners call 'world music' is that it becomes common and familiar enough that it is no longer 'foreign.' The tradition of höömeï is certainly firmly understood and practiced within Tuva and is anything but 'foreign' there. Thanks to Huun-Huur-Tu and other practitioners, it will also be something familiar, common and welcome around the West as well. Hopefully, this won't just mean 'legitimization' just because another hemisphere is able to appreciate it. It will truly be 'world music' as in music that is known and appreciated around the world.
Special thanks to Andrew Seidenfeld of No Problem Productions who provided assistance with this article.
60 HORSES IN MY HERD (SHANACHIE) 1993
ORPHAN'S LAMENT (SHANACHIE) 1994
IF I HAD BEEN BORN AN EAGLE (SHANACHIE) 1997
WITH THE BULGARIAN VOICES/ANGELITE
FLY, FLY MY SADNESS (SHANACHIE, originally released with JARO, Germany) 1996
DEEP IN THE HEART OF TUVA (ELLIPSIS ARTS) 1996
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