Khomeei, or Tuvan throat singing, is a specialized vocal technique that has haunted Western listeners for several decades because of a popular documentary film and several fortuitous musical collaborations. As magical as it sounds to Western ears, 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. Elliot 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 unmistakable (and seemingly impossible) timbres to Western ears.
Alash returns to the Rosendale Café on Saturday, October 14 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.