February 13, 2008

Alash: Throats of Glory

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Last Friday, the first day of the new month, three incredible Tuvan throat singers performed at Barnes Hall. Following a demonstration and informal concert the night before, the three young men of Alash performed a single breath-taking set, and at the end of just over an hour, left the astounded crowd staggering out the door.

The reason why the concert was so astounding is because the performers seemed to demonstrate superhuman powers using their vocal chords. Think of throat singing a little bit like a bagpipe: While the bagpipe player holds one low note on drone the entire song he can also float a melodic line over that drone.

By channeling the air flow from your airstream successfully to both a lower “chest” voice and a higher “head” voice it is possible for you to vocalize two crystal clear notes simultaneously. But it’s a possibility that’s only realized after years and years of constantly honing the technique. As Alash’s manager and close friend told us from the stage, “If you ask these young men how long they’ve been singing, they’ll tell you that they’ve been singing since they can remember.”

The technique is an ancient one. While Tuva, which sits near southern Siberia, has been part of Mongolian, Chinese, and most recently, Soviet empires, it’s also able to maintain its own unique heritage throughout. Alash performed all of its songs in Tuvan, one of the least spoken languages still thriving in the world.

The instrumentation is just as old as the culture itself. In fact, one mythical hero invented the two-stringed Igil, bowed with the hair of a horse, after receiving a vision of it in an epic dream. At the end of the neck sits a horse’s head to remind us of the horse in that hero’s dream.

Along with the Igil, Alash accompanied themselves with the Doshpuluur, basically a three-stringed banjo, and a giant kettle drum played lightly with leather-wrapped hand mallets. The combination of these three-instruments is the ideal arrangement of melody, accompaniment and rhythm.

With all three locked in, the vocal lines run through the music constantly; many times the songs delivered a steady stream of lyrics. While all of them were entirely incomprehensible, the road manager did us the pleasure of giving us all kinds of translations. At first he saiid most of the songs were about beautiful girls and good horses, when he elaborated on such a blunt statement with lines from the pieces, like: “I am a boy, song of man / I am like a bead in a beautiful woman’s hair.”

Not everything about Alash is ancient, though. Towards the end of a song, the manager announced a song about tractors, not women and horses, which was written as Communist propaganda custom made for the land of Tuva.

In addition, these musicians have expressed that music of the past decade has inspired them to include modern sounds in their repertoire. It is this effortless combination of age-old and modern day cultures that makes Alash such a phenomenon.