Tunes Of War As Throat Singers
Go For the Jugular
Andrew Higgins in Kyzyl found little harmony among
some of Tuva's more arcane
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
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
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
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
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.