Singing from the throat

It’s always an unforgettable experience when you get to see a performance by someone who has mastered their craft.

It’s always an unforgettable experience when you get to see a performance by someone who has mastered their craft. The best singers give us chills when we hear them. The best artists make us think. The best architects cause us to see a space in a new way. If you want the chance to hear a group that has become masters in their incredibly small field, then you need to head to the Alberta Rose Theater on Tuesday, April 26 for the one-night performance by the Tuvan throat-singing band Alash Ensemble.

If you have never heard or heard about Tuvan throat singers, don’t be surprised. It’s a unique style of music that is mastered by the male shepherds (though taboos centering around women’s ability to throat sing are lifting) of the small country of Tuva in southern Siberia. It began as an ancient pastime for the nomadic herdsmen, as a way to symbolize their close relationship with nature. These men would sometimes venture far into the surrounding mountains looking for the perfect area to hone their musical talent, because at its heart, Tuvan throat singing is about mimicking the sounds that can be heard regularly in the natural world. Only since the late ’80s, when an American ethnomusicologist traveled to Tuva and experienced the amazing sound of the throat singers, did it begin to gain world renown. The Alash Ensemble is one of only four groups that regularly tour in Europe and the U.S.

Throat singing is most often said to be akin to sounding like a human bagpipe. Throat singers have cultivated the unique ability to simultaneously sing notes in two, three and sometimes as many as four different pitches. The result is a rich layering of tones, which when combined with modern instruments like guitars and accordions as well as multi-textural traditional instruments, create traditional Tuvan music with a little modern influence. Because these men are masters of their art, their songs, despite the fact they are not sung in English, effectively communicate the messages and emotions behind them and stay true to the original Tuvan goal of mimicking and harmonizing with nature.

Named for the Alash River that runs through their home region in Tuva, Alash Ensemble is comprised of four musicians who began their training in throat singing as children. First taught by family members and later by other Tuvan singers who were considered masters, they met and formed their group in 1999 at Kyzyl Arts College. Together, they have mastered the five most prominent styles of throat singing: Sygyt, a higher-pitched style which evokes gentle summer breezes and the singing of birds; Xöömei, which has an airy whistle over-top of a middle-range pitch, creating a sound like wind swirling amongst rocks; Kargyraa, a sound like howling winds; Borbangnadyr, which embellishes the previously mentioned styles with trilling and rapidly changing harmonics to mimic a babbling brook; and Ezenggileer, a style that adds a pulsing rhythm to the three main techniques to sound like horseback riding.

These song styles are accompanied by the wide variety of instruments that are also played by the quartet. Their instruments include traditional flutes and drums, along with string instruments that vary greatly in sound. Some are simple, with only a few strings and a sound like a cello or banjo, and others are made of 16 strings and provide a complex mix of harmonies to the men’s voices.

As mentioned, the show at Alberta Rose is a one-night stop for Alash Ensemble, as they continue on their current U.S. tour. If you want the chance to get chills from experiencing these amazing masters of music, head on down. ?