Huun Huur Tu has been around since the early 1990s, touring, recording, touring again, sitting in theatres on different continents, sitting in different sets of chairs in traditional costume, or sitting at home in the Tuvan capital Kyzyl, resting. The stage lights shine on the cheeks and eyes of the musicians and Sayan Bapa grips his igil fiddle by the neck. Kaigal-ool Khovalyg leads the singing. Once upon a time he was a shepherd. The weather in Kyzyl, as I write this, is minus one degree Farenheit and the traditional costume looks warm. Last year the four musicians collaborated with the US producer Carmen Rizzo on the electronic/acoustic Eternal, with its nature effects and spacious remixing, and when I picked up Ancestor’s Call I wondered if Eternal might have rubbed off on them. Would they have changed their style? Would they have brought in another Western collaborator?
The answer was no. Call is their usual acoustic traditional Tuvan. Members of the group have experimented in other ways with different ensembles, but this core gang of four is still harking back to the trads. The igil gallops, the flute hoots like a bird, the musical wind streams across the steppes, and there is throat singing of all kinds, the low drone-growl and the inhuman bifurcated whistle. There are fast, cocky songs, and one sad song called “Orphan’s Lament”, which is eight minutes and 47 seconds of the singer wishing he had been strangled at birth. “If I had died as a baby / I never would have suffered.” The song itself is beautiful, with the lead voice sounding as if the brain behind it has gone beyond hope, and the instruments layering together slowly, the strings gravely in pain, and the world so charged with despair that it seems to have come out the other side and become bouyant.
There are songs about horses, of course, because in Tuva there are always songs about horses, and there are songs about women, because Tuvan traditional music with instruments and throat singing is a masculine affair, and it seems that men will sing about women, and there are songs about horses and women, usually together in the same verse.
On the head of my fast-legged one
The bridle rings, shyngyr shyngyr.
Most of all I think of you, my beloved
And my heart beats, shymir shymir.
or, in the original
Chugen sugluur shyngyr shyngyr
Chyden artyk saryym saktyr
Chyldy chyreem shimir shimir
And then a hitching growl. The words are less neat than this when I hear them over headphones but the shyngyr shyngyr refrain, which is repeated later, comes through with the immediacy of all really useful refrains, like la la la, or hey nonny no, or Dammit Janet, a place in the song where every listener’s brain can think, “I know what’s happening now”—a sort of staging post, or landscape feature. If I transliterated it myself then the word would look like this: shoongah, shoongah.
They’ve recorded “Orphan’s Lament” before—it was the title song on their second album, and on Eternal it turned up remixed as “Orphaned Child”. This album’s “Saryglarlar” appeared on Eternal too, as “Saryglarlar Maidens”. The seventh track on Ancestors Call was the title song on their first album, and other names are familiar, “Odugen Taiga”, “Eerbek Aksy”. I was disappointed by Call at first, because I had been looking forward to a changed band, but listening to the album again I don’t think this disappointment was justified. The songs are richer, thicker, this new “Orphan’s Lament” seems darker and deeper, the singing less callow. Over the years they’ve grown increasingly professional and ambitious without letting themselves become over-arranged, over-mainstreamed, or stiff—all problems that have affected the Soviet folk ensembles that used to fill the role that Huun Huur Tu fills now. (If you listen to field recordings of this music you hear single men singing, not groups—the idea of a group is an artificial overlay.)
These Tuvans don’t have the hungry energy that might characterise a younger ensemble, but there’s a compensating denseness, and fluid flair, a maturity—in fact maturity is probably the best way to describe Ancestors Call in a single word—this album is a grand showcasing of the band’s maturity.