Hun-Huur-Tu, the throat singers of Tuva, have been darlings of the World Music scene (and Public Radio) for some years now. I had my first chance to see them live and up close last Friday at Satalla, a new, modest-sized NYC venue specializing in World Music.
Seeing and hearing music live is almost always a more holistic and profound experience than listening to recordings, and it’s especially so with the Tuvan throat singers. Their unusual technique and unique vocal sounds are so captivatingly different from everything one is used to that, detached from the presence of the musicians, they can seem to Westerners almost abstracted from common humanity.
The throat singing or “khoomei” style of Tuva (a part of Siberia) consists of producing a deep tone in such a way as to create one or two substantial harmonics. The first harmonic is a humming sound in the midrange, and on top is a loud whistling tone that the singer raises and lowers to create a weird sort of melody by varying the embouchure.
In person, the music is as warmly human as any folk style, and it’s not all khoomei. The four men have six or seven very distinct singing voices among them. Accompanying themselves on plucked and bowed stringed instruments, percussion, and jaw harps, they emulate biological rhythms in song: heartbeats, breathing, a brain drifting in dreamland, and not least (for a nomadic people), a horse’s trot. The songs are about romantic love, love of place, and (not least) horses, with moods that range from lyrical and thoughful to joyful, humorous and danceable.
Because the melodies that aren’t throat-sung stick pretty much to the five-note pentatonic scale, they are reminiscent of the stereotypical “Oriental” music that any young piano student can emulate by improvising a melody on the black keys. But that’s no limitation – in fact I didn’t even take note of it until nearly the end of the set, so absorbed was I by the variety and warm spirituality of the music, and by its similarities – throat singing aside – to folk musics that are more familiar to me. On one number, the group’s spokesman (the one who shyly introduced the songs) exchanged his indigenous stringed instrument for a Western classical guitar, and the song he used it on, if fitted with English lyrics, could almost have come right out of “O Brother Where Out Thou.”
My recommendation: see Huun-Huur-Tu live if you ever have the chance. (A bottle of red wine goes nicely.)