In traditional Tuvan culture, making music is more than just a frolic; it’s a way to connect with nature. Tuvans simulated the sounds of nature with overtone singing for hundreds, if not thousands of years, at least until the Soviets moved and forbade the practice. The Soviets eventually re-allowed it, but with strong State influence that all but required Europeanization of the music. Since the USSR collapsed in the early ’90s Tuvan musicians have became free to make music as they wish and share it with the world.
Only a couple decades later everyone loves Tuvan throat singing! Well, almost everyone, from Sun Ra’s Arkestra to American blues singer Paul Pena. In the documentary Genghis Blues, Pena travels to Tuva at the invitation of throat singing master Kongol-ool Ondar, to compete in the 1995 throat singing competition. How did he do? If you want to know, see the film. (If you want to know and you’re lazy, read this plot summary.) See Pena on YouTube at the throat singing competition. Sadly, Pena passed away in 2005. As a bonus, see Ondar and Pena in a this East-meets-West performance on Youtube. (The story of the making of Genghis Blues is interesting too.)
In class we sing the praises of:
Alash Ensemble. Under the guidance of Ondar, members of Alash, which formed in 1999 Kyzyl Arts College, has forged Tuvan traditional music with Western instruments and song structures, have began touring internationally in 2006 and have since between global singing ambassadors.
— Huun Huur Tu: “Ancestors.” Formed in 1992 in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, Huun Huur Tu’s was not only a ground-breaking Tuvan cultural statement of several former Soviet folk singers but also the first Tuvan throat singing band. Check out their 2006 show at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
— Yat-Kha: “In a Gadda Da-Vida”. Seriously! Feeling restricted by the traditional Tuvan-ness of Huun Huur Tu, Albert Kuvezin branched out from the ensemble he co-founded to form self-described “Tuvan throat singing punk band” Yat-Kha. In 2005 Yat-Kha released, “Re-Covers,” an album of rock covers sung Tuvan-style. Watch Yat-Kha on YouTube performing “In a Gadda Da-Vida,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Black Magic Woman.” “Re-Covers” surely compares to ’50s heart-throb Paul Anka’s “Rock Swings” as one of the most wonderfully weird cover albums of recent years. (Anka’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is awe-inspiring.)