Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Tuvan throat singing gives voice to a unique way of life

On Friday, Emory will host a free performance by the Alash Tuvan throat singers, masters of a unique musical tradition. The trio includes, from left: Ayan-ool Sam, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar and Ayan Shirizhik. 

By Carol Clark

The first time that Emory anthropologist Paul Hooper went to Tuva, in 2013, it didn’t take long to make friends – including members of the famed Tuvan throat-singing ensemble, Alash. The Anthropology department is hosting Alash in a free concert at the Emory Performing Arts Studio on Friday, January 29 at 7 pm.

Hooper had traveled to the small Republic of Tuva in Russia, on the southern edge of Siberia on the border of Mongolia, to research nomadic herding economics. “I drove in over the mountains and started meeting people pretty quickly,” he recalls.

Within a few days, he was invited to a local barbecue on the outskirts of the capital city of Kyzyl. He and other guests mingled by a yurt, in a high mountain landscape of pine and birch forests. “We ate some really delicious goat, roasted over an open fire,” Hooper says, “and washed it down with araga, the local wine, which is fermented cow’s milk that has been distilled into a clear liquid. Araga is also delicious – it tastes like saki with some parmesan cheese melted into it.”

But the best thing about the party was the entertainment by some of the fellow guests, the Alash throat singers. “I was awestruck, having just arrived a few days earlier and here I was meeting the country’s super stars,” Hooper says. “The Alash members perform internationally and they are like ambassadors to the outside world because they’ve traveled much more than most Tuvans.”

They played handmade instruments and emitted low, droning voices that vibrated into high-pitched, harmonic whistling. “It’s incredible because each singer can generate two or three harmonizing tones at once,” Hooper says. “When you have three guys who are doing this together, and they are all masters at it, they create a musical landscape that is almost extraterrestrial in terms of the sensation it gives you. There is nothing like sitting on a high mountain peak and getting to hear Tuvan throat singing.”

Tuva, tucked into the mountains, remained relatively isolated during the era of the Soviet Union. “It was a refuge for this form of folk music that developed separately from other musical traditions and has grown into a fine performance art,” Hooper says. “Throat singing is now Tuva’s biggest export, in a way."

Fans of “The Big Bang Theory” may be familiar with Tuvan throat singing since it’s a hobby of Sheldon Cooper. But Sheldon falls far short of the masters of the art, Alash.

Hooper hosted Alash for an Emory concert once before, during their 2014 U.S. tour, so Friday will be a return performance, and a reunion of friends.

“They’re wonderful guys, incredibly hospitable,” Hooper says of the trio. “They’ve each invited me to stay with their families in yurts in the countryside. I went to Tuva to learn about nomadic herding, but throat singing is such a beautiful, unique tradition, and Alash is so welcoming, that I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the musical side of the country as well.”

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