As a musician who has struggled with the existential dimensions of singing as much as with the technical, I have long been fond of saying that there is no truly natural way of singing – only those affectations that come more naturally than all the others. At the core of the crisis of singing style is the issue of identity and purpose: Who am I when I sing, and why am I singing this way? Why have I chosen the timbre, elocution and phrasing that I have? Mostly, we just do not know.
The answers we have often have to do with cultural inheritance and function. We sing with the elocution of our models, whether they be from another place and time or from the last Mumford & Sons record. Consider the case of Khomeei, or Tuvan throat singing, the otherworldly vocal technique that has haunted Western listeners for going on two decades because of a popular documentary and several fortuitous musical collaborations. Khomeei, it is posited, arose from the functional needs of Mongolian herders to be, well, heard over great open expanses. That it should now be considered the pinnacle of the exotic and esoteric reminds me of what T. S. Eliot said of the runes: that they were “very practical formulae designed to produce definite results, such as getting a cow out of a bog.”
Named for a river that runs through the northwestern region of Tuva, Alash is an ensemble comprised entirely of master Tuvan throat singers. The singers in Alash first learned the traditional technique from their families and later banded together under the name Changy-Xaya as students at Kyzyl Arts College. Rooted in tradition, Alash is unafraid of innovation and global fusion; in 2002, under the guidance of Kongar-ool Ondar (known to Western audiences for his role in the film Genghis Blues), Alash began to introduce guitar and the Russian bayan (accordion) into their arrangements, alongside their traditional Tuvan instruments.
A form of overtone singing in which individual vocalists produce multiple pitches simultaneously, Tuvan throat singing’s otherworldly tones have captivated listeners in the West for several decades. Genghis Blues (1999) as well as the efforts of such world-music fusionists as Béla Fleck have helped popularize the form and deliver its unmistakably haunting (and seemingly impossible) timbres to Western ears.
Alash will perform at the Rosendale Café on Friday, January 22 at 8 p.m. Admission costs $20. The Rosendale Café is located at 434 Main Street in Rosendale. For more information, visit www.rosendalecafe.com. For more on Alash, visit www.alashensemble.com.