Asian singing group brings unique sound to America
Albert Kuvezin sings in one of the world’s most unusual styles, but says he enjoys the music that is more common in the United States.
Like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, for example.
‘Janis Joplin is my favorite singer,’ Kuvezin says from the central Asian Republic of Tuva (pronounced Tu-VA), a former Soviet state. ‘I like to listen to her and Jimi Hendrix. Back when Russia was in control, it was not allowed. It was forbidden.’
But he and his group, Yat-Kha, will not be doing their version of ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’ On Thursday, they will be doing their own specialty, Tuvan throat-singing.
The centuries-old vocal style is built around a singer’s production of multiple notes, basically a melody and a drone that makes the voice sound something like a human bagpipe. It is a sound that is not far from that of a Tibetan Buddhist chant.
‘It’s not something where there are scholarships for study,’ says native Tuvan Kuvezin, who has been singing in this style for about 10 years. ‘Now, there are some classes in universities, but it’s more something you learn from your uncle or some other singer.’
He and the group will be here to perform during a screening of a newly restored version of V.I. Pudovkin’s film, ‘Storm Over Asia.’ The film, originally titled ‘Heir to Genghis Khan,’ debuted in 1928 and is a rallying cry for revolt in central Asia.
As uncommon as that film may be, it might be overshadowed by the work of Yat-Kha.
‘In my country, throat-singing is sort of a main faith of Tuvan culture,’ he says. ‘Sometimes, there is almost too much respect for people who do it well. And there aren’t many. Those people are always touring.’
Throat-singing – called khoomei in Tuva – is a form of singing that, at first examination, appears to be physically impossible.
Obviously, it isn’t, but its demands are many. Khoomei analysts Dan Bennett and Michael Emory spend pages on the Friends of Tuva (www.fotuva.org) Web site trying to break down the action in an understandable way.
‘They can show you exercises,’ Kuvezin says, ‘but you really need to have someone show it to you.’
Basically, the technique centers on separating the muscles of the larynx and the opening flaps of the throat from the workings of the mouth.
The droning sound – like the one produced by the flow of air through a bagpipe – comes from the throat while the melody is produced by the mouth.
That also produces a sound that is filled with curious blends of harmonics in a form that makes one voice sound like at least two.
Researchers such as the Scientific American’s Theodore C. Levin and Michael E. Edgerton say the roots of the singing are unknown, but suggest early khoomei singers sometimes were trying to imitate the sounds of animals.
Kuvezin agrees, adding that there are many ‘natural’ sounds in throat-singing, such as those that also are mimics of wind and water.
He got into the style 10 years ago when he wanted to use some of that sound in a rock band. But he found he was the only one who could create those tones, so he started working hard at it.
Yat-Kha’s work shows some of the rock influences Kuvezin picked up in his non- khoomei work. The quintet – which will have only four members here – uses electric bass and drums and has a sound that isn’t always pure, he admits.
That might be one of the reasons the Tuvan singing is better known in America than it was a decade ago, he says.
‘At one time, it was fairly confusing to listeners,’ he says of the reaction in this country. ‘But this generation is more open than others. I don’t know, maybe they have heard some music from other composers that makes them understand it.’
He says there even have been Americans who have come to Tuva to study throat-singing from the masters. Some even have been good, he says, particularly ‘one boy, a farm boy, from Minnesota.’
He and Yat-Kha are on a one-month tour of the United States, but this is after they spend four months touring Europe, where throat-singing is a little more accepted.
‘Many folk festivals in Europe have throat-singing,’ he says. ‘I guess they know it just because it is a bit closer.’
Bob Karlovits can be reached at (412) 320-7852 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
Things you probably didn’t know about the Republic of Tuva:
Source: The Friends of Tuva from Belvedere, Calif.