Deckle edge

Huun Huur Tu
by Chris Flisher © 1997 /
(first published February 1997 Worcester Phoenix)

Huun Huur Tu
There are few places on earth that remain as remote as the province of Tuva. Located deep in Central Asia, Tuva is a region of the Russian Federation that sits on the northern border of Mongolia, near China and remains, perhaps, one of the hardest places on earth to reach. This is not the sort of place you visit on a casual whim. Yet, the land is rich, the rivers are clean, and, the people, who are largely nomadic, live an existence that remains close to nature. Living off the land and reaping the rewards of a primitive life, the Tuvans exist in an environment that is unusually pristine and primitive by today’s standards. In a time when societies strive for modernization and all its amenities, the people of Tuva, by contrast, work hard towards preserving their special stature in the natural world.

No where is this sense of culture and love of nature better realized than in the music performed by Huun Huur Tu, the Throat Singers Of Tuva. Drawing from a universal love of the land, Huun Huur Tu perform music that is raw, emotive, and curiously appealing.

The songs dip in and out of the most basic of human emotions, some lighthearted, some somber, but always raw and engaging, always unique and unusual. Overall, they seem to capture man’s unique role in nature. Often characterized by deep, gnawing growls, droning, grunts, and buzzing, the music is built on a vocal technique that engages all of the vocal chord. And while the songs are primitive in structure, content, and sentiment, throat singing remains perhaps the most arresting aspect of Tuvan music.

“Most western singers use only the top portion of their vocal chords,” explains Ted Levin, professor of Ethno-musicology at Darmouth College and executive producer of Huun Huur Tu’s latest collection of songs, If I’d Been Born An Eagle (Shanachie). “Throat singing involves the entire vocal chord which extends deep into the chest. This methods allows you to flex the larynx and produce a very tense fundamental, which, through a manipulation of the vocal chord apparatus, is divided into a fundamental pitch and a particular harmonic pitch. The harmonic pitch and the fundamental pitch remain constant. What varies is the pitch of the frequency of the overtone, and that you do by slight changes in the lips, tongue or jaw. The result produces two notes held at the same time by one voice.”

Needless to say, throat singing is not for the novice. The coarse, almost choking yowl is novel, yet physically challenging and requires years of practice. Think of Bobby McFerrin or avant-garde impressionist, Meredith Monk for a vague image of the texture of throat music. The often jarring and strangely beautiful sounds the singers of Huun Huur Tu produce are based on a five-note pentatonic scale, common in the early music of China, the British Isles and parts of North and South America.

“The music has melodic simplicity that expresses the complex emotions of the people who sing it,” offers Levin, continuing, “But is similar to music found in Appalachian music and the music of Scotland and Native Americans. It’s a little bit like cowboy music almost, because the Tuvans sing of a love of the land and of loneliness and even whimsy and all of those characteristics are universal.”

If I’d Been Born An Eagle covers the full spectrum of what Huun Huur Tu do best. “Taraan-Taraam” begins with a bluesy, earthy line that contrasts fields of waving grain with the pining of a lonely lover. Elsewhere their songs engage in topics of daily life including “Don’t Frighten the Crane” or “Herder’s Conversation.” However, the majority of the songs address the Tuvans close relationship with nature. “Dadyr-Todur” sings of the sounds of a horse trotting and, not surprisingly, the music and rhythm reflect that plodding sound. “Daglarim” pays tribute to the beauty of the surrounding mountains.

Huun Huur Tu use the indigenous instruments of the area including the igil, a fiddle-like stringed instrument, the dochpuluur which resembles a banjo, and the xomus which sounds like a mouth harp or Jew’s harp. Together, the rudimentary instruments, the gnawing growls and the universal sentiments present a heady brew.

“For the Tuvans, music is not related to healing as most Americans think, concludes Levin. “It is simply an extension of natural communication, like dogs barking. It is a way of connecting themselves with nature and the spirits they believe live within it. Because their religion revolves around the old animistic rituals and the new beliefs in Buddhism, the Tuvans reflect a viewpoint that is similar to the native Americans, one of being with nature and at one with it. It is the very core of their expression of music, one that sort of transcends all belief systems at the same time. Really, there is a little of everyone in the music of Tuva.”

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge