Beginning to Sing...
and Eat Han!
I got up from writing my last e-mail last week and immediately realized how insufficient it was. There have been too many stories to tell them all in any reasonable length of time, so I'll give up trying. Instead, I'll only try to tackle one subject in each of my messages, saving us all time and frustration.
This week, the subject is xoomei and the process of learning how to throatsing. At Oberlin I played around with the idea of xoomei and had some success in singing overtones. It was about three minutes into my first lesson that I realized that most of what I had been doing was wrong. As I said before, my teacher is Fedor Tau, a goofy old man with an incredible voice. For my first few weeks of lessons, we worked on sygyt, the most well known style of Tuvan throatsinging. The version of sygyt that I knew when I came here was what Peter Blasser once called "Kermit the Frog" singing --- a pinched-off fundamental augmented by overtones made solely in the mouth. Tau told me that the overtones had to come from farther down and must be higher in pitch. Soon I learned how to pinch off the top of my larynx, creating a "whistle-hole" that made much higher overtones. Still not good enough. Since then, I've learned that you can't get a throatsinger to tell you where the overtones come from simply because, when you sing, you can't tell how in the world you're making the sounds that are coming out of your mouth. I know only that when I flex my abs, press my tongue against the roof of my mouth, think about sucking my sternum into my backbone, and blow like mad, somehow the combination of these factors makes some pretty incredible sounds. The funnest part is being able to feel the entire length of your tongue and becoming aware of parts of your face and neck that didn't seem to exist before. Now we are working on borbangnadyr, which is something akin to singing "oooom, oooom, oooom," while simultaneously whistling through your nose. I am beginning to think that the origin of xoomei was a group of very bored adolescent herders who sat around behind the yurt making the most ridiculous noises they could.
Usually I pay Tau after each lesson, but occasionally he has me accompany him to the store, where I buy things that he needs, the cost of which is made up in future lessons. So far I have bought him a watch, a doorbell, and an entire batch of han --- Tuvan blood sausage. It was last Sunday morning when we went to the market for the han, and Tau assured me we would eat it before my afternoon lesson. Sure enough, when I came to his house at four, he sat me down and his wife presented me with the entire boiled intestinal track of a sheep and encouraged me to eat up. I began with the small intestine, which looked far less harmful than the large. You see, when a Tuvan makes han, he fills the large intestine with all the little bits of the sheep that can't go anywhere else (a bit like "the nasty" that goes into Scottish haggis, without the benefit of oats) while the small intestine is filled only with blood. So I dragged the small intestine -- essentially a gut-wrapped scab an inch in diameter and 3 feet long -- onto the board in front of me and took a bite. While it wasn't easy to eat, with enough bread and salt I was able to ignore the flavor.
Meanwhile, Tau's wife was cutting the large intestine into bite-size pieces for me. On Tau's encouragement, I took a piece and made the mistake of looking at it before putting it into my mouth. If I was able to ignore the flavor and former function of the small intestine, with this the "plug your nose and swallow" technique was completely out of the question. After trying to gag down a piece of the large intestine, I had to sneak it out of my mouth and hold it on my lap until the meal was over, at which time I had nowhere to put it but in my back pocket. Never before have I been so thankful for a bowl of noodles as I was for the one I was given after the han. As per throatsinging tradition, my singing that afternoon was some of the best it's ever been. On the way home, I dug the mangled piece of intestine out of my pocket and left it for the dogs. There must be easier ways to improve one's singing.
On Tuesday I went rafting with Arthur, who has become one of my main contacts. Sitting in his raft on the Pii-Xem, we floated beneath some glorious cliffs just as the sun was beginning to set on the other side of the valley. Arthur shouted and was answered by a single echo that was so clear that it sounded as if someone was standing on the cliff shouting at us. I broke into kargyraa, which also echoed off of the cliffs back across the water. "Kargyraa is the sound of rock. . ." As I learn Tuvan throatsinging, I am also beginning to learn its relationship to the incredibly beautiful land of Tuva and the role that it plays in Tuvan culture. Unfortunately, as more of the Tuvan population becomes settled and gives up their traditional nomadic lifestyle, the reasons for singing xoomei are also being forgotten. Today xoomei is more of a novelty, an opportunity for entrepreneurial young Tuvans to make money from curious tourists. Singers like Tau, who have known the nomadic lifestyle and who understand the pastoral origins of xoomei are few and are generally very old (Tau turned 72 yesterday). While I do not promote the blind preservation of "traditional" song without consideration for modern influences, it has become apparent to me that people are finding reasons for throatsinging these days not out of an inherent love for the art, but out of its incredible marketability. Xoomei as the "voice of the land" is not the xoomei that most people know today.
More stories as they come. All's well in Kyzyl. Mornings are beginning to get chilly.