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Tunes Of War As Throat Singers
Go For the Jugular

Andrew Higgins in Kyzyl found little harmony among
some of Tuva's more arcane musicians

Never mind the guest appearances on television, the compact discs, the rave review in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the jam session in Hollywood with Frank Zappa (before he died), or the coast-to-coast US concert tour that Huun-Huur-Tuu has just completed.

You can tell that throat singing has hit the big time: they now quarrel like other stars. A backstage tantrum over T-shirts held up a concert for nearly an hour and after starting a 25-city tour with four members, the group, back in Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva, to prepare for their next trip abroad, is down to three.

``The bad side of all this,'' said Sayan Bapa, leather jacketed guitarist, doshpulur player and mean improviser with the bull's testicles rattle, ``is that after each tour, the band splits up.''

No longer the preserve of herdsmen, chanting shamans and reclusive Buddhist monks, throat-singing --- the fiendishly difficult practice of producing two and sometimes three distinct notes (a drone and eerie, melodic whistles) simultaneously --- has become big business.

And the squabbling of Huun-Huur-Tuu is nothing next to the broader battle for control of what is now just another arcane commodity up for grabs. Here in Tuva, across the Sayan Mountains from southern Siberia and on down the Yenisei River towards Mongolia, the carve-up of assets has taken an eccentric turn; the throat singers are at each others throats.

On one side loom bloated Soviet-era ensembles, masterful with the music but clumsy at playing the market; on the other, upstarts such as Huun-Huur-Tuu with managers in Moscow and recording contracts abroad.

Disdainful of both are purists such as Valentina Suzuki, local academic and author of a PhD thesis on throat singing, known in Tuva as ``khoomei'' and among Western musicologists as overtone, biophonic, triophonic or harmonic singing. Mrs Suzuki believes the craft, which turns the respiratory system into a human bagpipe, is best kept confined to solitary herders in the hills and family sing-songs in the yurt, the collapsible felt-covered homes of Tuva's nomadic population: ``It was never meant to be performance art.''

Throat-singing is no longer mere folk music. It is a potentially lucrative industry. While most folk music struggles to survive the onslaught of Western pop, throat-singing has not only held its own but won over some rock stars. As well as the late Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel is also said to be a fan. It is particularly big in California, home to the cult of Professor Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist, eccentric and obsessive enthusiast for all things Tuvan. It has a following in Britain too: ``The interest,'' claims Jill Purce, a Hampstead teacher of throat-singing, meditation and ancillary arts, ``is enormous''.

So is the rivalry for control of what is perhaps Tuva's greatest treasure. Oorzhak Sherig-ool, President of the Tuvan autonomous republic, a region of Russia with the same status as Chechnya, calls it the ``eighth wonder of the world". The instinct of Tuvan officials is to try and keep a firm grip on the throat-singers. ``They should be licensed,'' said President Oorzhak, who like countless other former apparatchiks, is now a born-again defender of pre-Bolshevik tradition. ``They should be tested so that only high quality groups, real professionals not weak performers, travel abroad.''

Alexander Cheparukhin, Moscow-based manager and tour organiser for Huun-Huur-Tuu, suspects less lofty motives: ``This is crazy. They just want to keep control of everything like before.'' Mrs Suzuki, the academic, is also sceptical: ``This is about money, not tradition.''

Along with ballet and other forms of culture judged worthy by the Communist Party, throat-singing enjoyed lavish state support during the Soviet era. What had been a mostly private affair became a mass activity. In 1934, the state recording company, Melodiya, issued the first set of throat-singing records; ethnographers and musicologists collected lyrics and melodies and set up archives systematising a previously oral tradition.

The state groomed promising stars, held talent-spotting competitions, funded a throat-singing Philharmonic in Kyzyl and organised concerts at home and abroad. In return, performers sprinkled paeans to nature with praise for the party.

The competition of upstart commercial groups has come as huge shock. They are the ones getting the trips abroad. They have also poached promising stars. Huun-Huur-Tuu's lead singer, Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, hailed as a ``super-star'', used to perform for the Tuvan Philharmonic. Also shattered is the old recording business. Melodiya, no longer interested in what from Moscow's perspective is an obscure ethnic art, has dropped throat-music from its catalogue. Western companies have signed up the new bands. Huun-Huur-Tuu has two compact discs out in the US.

The throat-singers' celebrity may be limited to university towns, fringe cafes and an odd-ball California organisation called Friends of Tuva, but it has stirred deep unease in Kyzyl.

The President of Tuva seems completely baffled by the mix of market forces and music. ``America does not send low quality goods to us. They don't supply the world with poor quality merchandise. The same holds for bad actors and singers. They do not let them out of the county. Why should we?'' He has clearly not been watching much MTV.

Return to Friends of Tuva Newsletter Number 12.