Alash ensemble exposes Lawrentians to the ancient Siberian art of throat singing

In the Western world, the Republic of Tuva is often best known (if it’s known at all) as a center for the art of throat singing. Tuva is a small state of the Russian Federation in southern Siberia that’s home to about 300,000 people, among them the members of Alash, a trio of master throat singers who performed in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel the evening of Saturday, Apr. 5 as part of the World Music Series.

They take their name from the Alash River in the northwestern region of Tuva. The Alash ensemble carries on the great tradition of Tuvan throat singing while also taking inspiration from Western musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Sun Ra. They play using traditional Tuvan instruments such as the “murgu”, a fipple overtone flute made from the Angelica plant, but they also incorporate guitar and the Russian “bayan” (accordion) into their performances.

During this concert, they played many folk songs, but they also added their own twists and compositions. They played songs such as “Odarladyp Semirtilli” (Let’s Fatten the Livestock), about celebrating the annual move to the summer camp in the mountains after the winter, where the air is cool and the animals can fatten for the coming winter, but they also played more modern songs.

“Oglumga” (For My Son) is a Tuvan rock song by the great Tuvan songwriter and performer Alexander Sarzhat-ool about passing on the traditions of music and culture from one generation to the next. The trio also played an original composition of their own called “Relax Jam,” a very relaxing song indeed, using guitar and Tuvan instruments.

Most Tuvan folk music seems programmatic, telling stories through words or the effects of the music. Stories from the music in this concert included: a nomadic summer camp full of deer, elk, and young men with incredible voices; the Revolt of the 60 Heroes against the Chinese in the nineteenth century; hunting calls made by blowing through tree bark; reindeer herding; a homeless orphan; and, of course, beautiful women and fast horses.

“Cherim Yrak, Churtum Yrak,” the song about the lonely orphan wondering where he can sleep to escape the brutal cold of a Siberian winter night, was particularly melancholy and pretty; although throat singing often sounds harsh in more raucous songs, at least to my ears, it can also sound otherworldly and pure, like birdsong.

I also especially loved the song “Kara-Kush” (The Blackbird), about a famous cutting horse from Chaghatai in Tangdy kozhuun (a Tuvan district) composed by his owner, a famous horseman and ancestor of Ayan Shirizhik, one of the members of Alash. The percussion and rhythm of the strings mimicked the hoofbeats of a horse, making the audience feel a bit as though they were riding atop The Blackbird, galloping across the steppes.

After this long winter, I wouldn’t much fancy journeying to Siberia. We were very lucky to receive a visit from such a renowned ensemble, to listen to their music and pretend, for a couple hours, that we had visited the vast beauty of the Tuvan landscape.