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Straight From the Throat
The Emotional Music Only a Tuvan Makes

The Washington Post
By Faith Quintavell
Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Imagine sitting in a dim concert hall when a dark-haired man with luminous brown eyes and a Fu Manchu mustache appears in the spotlight. He's dressed in an embroidered robe, a Byzantine-inspired hat and curly-toed boots. Upon opening his mouth, a guttural, droning vibrato emanates from some subterranean chamber in his chest -- a bit like Tom Waits croaking his lowest note.

Then, incongruously, impossibly, he manipulates his mouth, jaw and throat to ``simultaneously'' produce a flute-like sound, three or four octaves above the drone. He keeps producing both notes for nearly three minutes, even adding a mid-range tone on occasion -- a total of three harmonizing notes produced by one human voice.

Strange, huh? Yes, strangely beautiful -- and very real as performed by Huun-Huur-Tu, a group of five throat singers from Tuva -- a province in southern Russia that borders Mongolia.

Throat singing, or ``khoomei'' is an ancient folk art handed down for generations in Tuva. The region's 150,000 people-- less then one tenth the population of Philadelphia-- make up the only ethic group on Earth known to have developed a tradition of singing multiple notes at the same time.

Ancient people probably were inspired to these vocal gymnastics by the earthy pleasures and harsh rigors of nomadic life, said the singers' manager, Ted Levin, a musicologist at Dartmouth College and an expert on Tuvan throat singing. Men were required to spend long hours wandering the plains on horseback with only their animals for company. The highly personal songs they created were about nature, horses, love and loneliness.

From Oske Cherde (Foreign Land), for example: ``It's so far to the foreign land, it's so far. The women here are not like my wife. I miss my family, my wife.''

Women were excluded from throat singing since it was thought to cause infertility; with a change in values in modern times, that prohibition was dropped.

Today, most Tuvans still herd reindeer, sheep and goats, and this occupation continues to inspire some to sing using overtones. Take Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, leader of Huun-Huur-Tu, for instance. ``From about 2 or 3 years old, I participated in herding with my parents; this inspired my interest in throat singing,'' he said through an interpreter on the phone, from Seattle, a recent concert stop ``When I sing, I feel unity with nature.''

In fact, ``Huun-Huur-Tu'' means ``rays of light,'' and refers to the light that glances off the steppes of the group's homeland at sunrise and sunset. The name also implies the ``sonic rays'' the musicians consider their medium.

In the modern arrangements of ancient melodies, several men sing together. They are accompanied by traditional Tuvan instruments such as the byaanchi and the igil both fiddles topped by a carved horse head and made of wood, horsehide and horsehair; the homus, or jew's-harp; plus, various percussion instruments, including a rattle made of a sheep's ankle bones encased in a bull's testicles.

The group's performances include a shamanistic ritual --Tuvan religion was never completely converted to Buddhism and still retains many shamanistic aspects. There is also usually a Lamaist-Buddhist prayer adapted by Tuvans in the last few centuries from the ones sung by Tibetan monks, who originally were taught to throat sing by ancient Tuvans.

Huun-Huur-Tu's current CD, 60 Horses in My Herd, (Shanachie), includes Sygyt: Lament of the Igil, a haunting tune that conveys a folk tale about an evil feudal lord, his servant and a sacred horse. (Dartmouth's Levin reports that Tuvan listeners all know this story by heart and recognize the melody that always tells it. So song lyrics do not need to be literal, and are often changed.) Also on the album is Ching Soortukchulerining Yryzy (Song of the Caravan Drivers) dedicated to Frank Zappa, with whom they performed for the BBC a year before his death.

Although the average world-music enthusiast does not herd sheep or speak Tuvan, fans of Huun-Huur-Tu seem to intuit the universal emotions conveyed by the songs. ``The reception has been very warm,'' said Alexander Cheparulchin, the tour manager. Some spectators are listening with closed eyes and swaying. They're really enjoying it; it's sort of meditation for them.