[3 January 2008]
Tuvan singers came into vogue somewhere around the early 1990s and never fully went out of it. Every time our attention seems to be fading they pop up again, either in the form of Albert Kuvezin of Yat-Kha putting out another disc of churning kanzat kargyraa growl-rock or in a more traditional shape, as they have here in Melodii Tuvi. Melodii is a compilation of singing and instruments recorded in Tuva during the 1960s. It features seven different throat-singers, covering ground from the deep toad-burp of the kargyraa to the high sygyt whistle that sounds like wind draining through a forest of tall trees. It even extends to the bong and buzz of the khomus mouth harp, an everyday instrument but one that I love to hear.
The liner notes direct most of their attention towards Oorjak Hunashtaar-ool, a well-recognised throat singer who died in 1993 of a cold he caught while hunting. Part of their apparent interest might simply come down to the fact that someone has written a handy Oorjak biography from which the writer can crib, but on the whole it is honestly earned. Hunashtaar-ool’s tone is well expressed and ravishingly clear. Listen to his long notes on “Bayan-kol” and the idea that this singing is quasi-shamanistic, representing water and wind and other clear, natural, flowing sounds, makes absolute sense. Not even metaphysical or spiritual or ethnomusicological sense, just sense. Well, you think, of course it represents a natural flow. Of course it does. What else could it possibly be? He injects his khoomei with little buzzing flecked notes that flick quickly in and out. The enunciation is beautiful. There’s nothing elaborate in what he does, it’s all about purity and power.
The rest of the singers are so different that they turn this album into a lesson in contrasts, a remedial class for anyone who thought that all throat singing sounds the same. Kara-sal Ak-ool on “U Miloy Sergi” sings from a thick, heavy base note that gives his high whistle a startling sharpness. Sat Mantsakay throws out his sygyt in a series of blunt-ended blasts, clipping each one off neatly at the end like a businessman snapping his briefcase shut on a satisfying deal. Right! he seems to be saying to you. We’ve finished that part! Move along! Next!
The album ends with a more conventional piece of folk singing accompanied by a pair of chatagan zithers.
Throat singing comes across as a bravura form of performance—the whistling, the growling, the shamanic weirdness—but this album is soberly arranged and presented, as it must have been when the Russians released it in 1969. Assembled for your edification it yields delights. Useful illustrations are provided in the booklet. Some of the triangular and diamond-shaped stamps that earned Tuva a reputation among collectors appear in a photograph inside the tray. It’s a beautiful package and a beautiful album. My one regret is that I’ve already finalised my list of top ten albums for 2007. If I hadn’t, this would be on it.