Hearts in Their Throats

Arts Extra - Newsweek

Hearts in Their Throats

Throat Singing: Tuva's Superstar Discusses his Music

Tuva's throat-singing musicians have hit the United States. A talk with the country's superstar.

Imagine a human bagpipe—a person who could sing a sustained low note while humming an eerie, whistlelike melody. For good measure, toss in a thrumming rhythm similar to that of a jaw harp, but produced vocally—by the same person, at the same time. It sounds impossible, but such a style of singing exists. It's called throat singing, or overtone singing, and it's reached its highest state of refinement in the tiny Central Asian republic of Tuva, situated between Mongolia and Siberia (and now part of the Russian Federation). In Tuva, there is not just one style of throat singing but many, each with a distinct set of sounds that is at once primal and curiously modern—evoking everything from the Aboriginal didgeridoo to Jamaican dancehall music.

The most celebrated practitioner of this ancient art today is Kongar-ol Ondar, 43—a singer, teacher and former member of the Tuvan Parliament. He first attracted international attention when he toured the United States, Europe and Asia with the Tuva Ensemble in the early 1990s. Since then, he has recorded a dozen albums, such as "Echoes of Tuva" and "Back Tuva Future," with the likes of the late rock legend Frank Zappa, the classical Kronos Quartet and jazz-bluegrass star Béla Fleck, who dubbed Ondar the "Groovin' Tuvan." A documentary, "Genghis Blues," about Ondar's collaboration with American blues musician Paul Pena was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000. Ondar came to the Oscars ceremony and even appeared on the David Letterman show.

Ondar manages to prove that throat singing is far more than a party trick; it can actually be high-quality music. On tour in the U.S., he picked up the nickname "K.O."—not only for his initials, but also his ability to knock people out with his songs. Soundman Bob Russo recalls Ondar's concert with Fleck in 2000. "I had such high expectations that I was sure I would be disappointed by the performance," he says. "Instead I had to peel myself off the walls."

Ondar is currently touring the United States with a group of young Tuvan throat singers called Alash, for which is he artistic director. (Brought here under the Open World Leaders program of the Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Arts, the group will be in the country through the end of March.) The ensemble is among the first of a new, postcommunist generation of Tuvan musicians who are bringing unprecedented sophistication to traditional Tuvan music. The group has been drawing overflow crowds at universities, community arts centers and churches. Less than halfway into its tour, Alash had already sold out of its CDs.

Through interpreters Konstantin Molotilov and Sean Quirk, Ondar spoke at Wesleyan University in Connecticut with NEWSWEEK's Anne Underwood. Highlights:

On the origins of throat singing: "Our ancestors were nomadic herders and lived so close to the land, they began to mimic the sounds of nature in their song—birds, water, animals. Each style of Tuvan throat singing imitates a different animal or sound. The highest-pitched style is called sygyt , which means whistle. It is like the trilling of birds, such as the nightingale. Xöömei imitates the lowing of cattle, particularly bulls. It is a very strong sound with a lot of strong chords in it. It can produce three and even four notes. Kargyraa , which produces the lowest sound, represents the biggest of our animals, the yak.

"Each of these styles has three or four substyles. A rhythmic embellishment called borbangnadyr can be used with any of them. It's [a sort of vibrato] like a stream running down hill, rippling over pebbles. Ezengileer is a pulsating effect, like the gallop of a horse, with the sound of the whip knocking against metal stirrups."

On learning throat singing: "It's my grandparents' fault. I learned from my great-uncle and my grandfathers, who were herdsmen and lived in yurts [Mongolian-style tents]. I would spend the summer with them. When I heard them singing, I knew that I had to learn how to do this myself. Our grandparents' generation knew the traditional ways more than our parents, who grew up during the period of Soviet repression.

"People always ask how throat singing is done. The traditional Tuvan answer is that it comes from the whole body and soul. The more technical answer is that it uses parts of the throat other than the vocal cords. For example, the [buzzing drone of] kargyraa uses the so-called false folds, the extra flaps of skin that aren't normally used in speech, but protect the vocal cords. The whistle of sygyt is produced more at the back of the mouth. The key is to isolate overtones. There are always many overtones in human speech and singing, but we are able to isolate just a few, so you can hear them separately.

"We will make two CDs while we are here—a concert recording of Alash and a CD explaining these techniques."

On women in Tuvan music: "I learned Tuvan folk songs from my grandmothers, who would sing in the early morning while they milked the cows. It was supposedly good for the cows. The singing calmed the animals, and you got more milk from them.

"But as for throat singing, this was traditionally forbidden to women. The belief was that it would make women barren, and bad things would happen to their male relatives. Now we have a democracy, and women are doing throat singing. Tuva even had a female freestyle wrestler representing Russia in the Olympics."

On working with Western artists: "During our U.S. tour in January and February 1993, Frank Zappa heard our music. He began telling other musicians about us, and they began inviting us to their houses to play with them—people like the Chieftains, Ry Cooder and Micky Hart of the Grateful Dead. We didn't know they were famous. Frank Zappa also mentioned us in newspaper and magazine articles, and people began saying, 'If Frank Zappa knows these guys, they must be good.' Frank Zappa made two recordings of our music in his home studio and then overdubbed himself improvising with our music. The same recording process happened with others like Béla Fleck and the Kronos Quartet.

"But listening to these musicians made me aware that I had no formal musical education. That's why I put my performing career on hold and began teaching a course in traditional Tuvan music at the Republic School of the Arts in Kyzyl [Tuva's capital]. Students there study Western classical music and theory, including rhythm, staff notation, harmony and solfège. In addition, in my classes, they can learn throat singing and Tuvan instruments. Using their formal training, they are able to make sophisticated arrangements of traditional Tuvan music and bring their performance to a higher standard than ever before in our traditional music."

On Alash: "They are all very young—22 to 24 years old—Mai-ol Sedip, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ol Sam and Ayan Shirizhik. But they are taking the music to new levels. Even people who are very familiar with Tuvan music are amazed by them. They have found songs where knowledge of complex rhythms and Western harmonies mesh well with the traditional sound and feel of Tuvan music. Their influences include not only traditional Tuvan musicians like the group Huun-Huur-Tu, but also Sun Ra and Jimi Hendrix. In 2003 they won first prize at the foremost competition for throat singing.

"But despite all these influences on their work, what Alash performs is still Tuvan music. They sing traditional Tuvan songs and play traditional Tuvan instruments, such as the igil and doshpuluur [two stringed instruments]. They even play some wind instruments that are seldom played by Tuvans, such as the murgu, shoor and limpi. They perform in our native dress and wear their hair in the traditional style, with a braid.

"We are trying something new with this tour: Sean Quirk [a Fulbright scholar living in Tuva] and I are onstage with Alash, acting as a sort of tour guide through the sound-world of Tuva."

On his homeland: "We think our ancestors were the wisest in the world because they chose to live in Tuva, which is the geographical center of Asia. We have the purest water, the cleanest air, the most beautiful mountains. To get some idea of what it's like, you could read 'Tuva or Bust!' by Ralph Leighton. But best is to come visit and see for yourself."