In the days before Netflix, I was browsing through the DVD rentals at the local Hasting’s and came across a movie called Genghis Blues. The premise the documentary seemed peculiar: a blind, obscure blues musician, who taught himself a unique singing technique from central Asia, participates in a competition in Tuva, the homeland of the style. As innocuous as it seemed on the back of the box, the reality of the story itself ended up being far too bizarre for anyone to have made up. This movie changed my life in some ways, pushing my passing interest in ethnomusicology into a course of study. If you know me at all, I have at least suggested that you watch the movie, perhaps by forcible coercion.
The singing style that takes center stage in Genghis Blues is known in the West as “throatsinging,” sometimes known as “harmonic singing.” From an empirical standpoint, throatsingers isolate certain harmonics that are present in the human voice, creating the illusion that multiple notes are being sung by a single performer. Here’s a primo introduction by one of the stars of Genghis Blues, Kongar-Ol Ondar.
What a personality. I love that part when he makes that “I know…..cool, right?” gesture with his hands (:47) right before he revs it up.
This style of singing grows from the nomadic Tuvan worldview, in which all things are animated by a guardian spirit. For example, when a Tuvan herdsman bounces his voice off of a cliff and listens to the echo, the rock is considered to be an active participant in the exchange. It is actually singing with the singer, and the interaction is meant as a communication. Keep in mind, though, that here Kongar-Ol Ondar is just performing on American TV because it’s the cool thing to do – its probably a stretch to suppose that he’s having a spiritual experience on David Letterman. It is possible, however, that he is creating an auditory “sketch” of a physical place that he has been for the audience, the true meaning of which can only be gleaned by having an intimate knowledge of that place or by actually being there.
Tuvan throatsinging is fascinating when it is mediated, but it is a whole different ball game when there are actual people moving the air molecules around you. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to see the Tuvan ensemble Alash at the Crow Collection of Asian Art while they were on tour. Although I had been a fan of throatsinging for many years by the time I saw them, the live performance was nothing short of phenomenal. Singing notwithstanding, I was also particularly fascinated by the way that they played their instruments. It seemed that their interest was often not in specific pitches, but rather in the sounds that we, as Western listeners, would consider scratchy string noise.
Of course, I immediately bought their album to try and keep this performance alive in my memory, which, although still visceral, seems pretty distant now almost three years later. My interest in throatsinging has been recently reinvigorated, though, by the excellent ethnography of Tuvan music Where Rivers and Mountains Sing by Theodore Levin. Thus, Alash found its way back into my CD player last week, and I still find it to be an outstanding and entertaining example of the style. Definitely worth getting into.
Alash self-promote as a “traditional” Tuvan ensemble, but I also think it is interesting to consider what that means in the ever-shrinking post-2000 world. Undoubtedly, the main reservoir from which they construct their repertoire comes from Tuvan “folk” music. One of my favorite tracks, however, Bady-Dorzhu's Bayam, features accordion prominently, which really should be no surprise considering Tuva’s history with Soviet Russia. It is also not uncommon to see classical-style guitars in their set, and never mind the fact that this soloistic music of the nomads is rendered as an ensemble style by Alash. The exotic nature of the throatsinging style brushes over these subtle culture crossings. Reciprocally, none of these aspects of Alash’s identity really threaten to overtake their “Tuvanness” in any way. You want Tuvan music, Alash is a pretty good bet.