[25 August 2009]
“Officially, there is no such place as Siberia,” Ian Frazier writes in his two-part feature,
“Travels in Siberia” in recent issues of the New Yorker, “No political or territorial entity has Siberia as its name. In atlases, the word ‘Siberia’ hovers across the northern third of Asia unconnected to any place in particular, as if designating a zone or a condition; it seems to show through like a watermark on a page.”
Frazier’s lively article goes on to discuss Russia’s political positioning of this massive landmass, utilizing this cold and gray swath of disparate cities and tribes to its advantage throughout history. And yet its mystery remains intact, sitting atop half the world amidst its tundra and gray clouds.
Siberia appears to be an anomaly even to those in Russia and Asia, perhaps to its own residents. This land is known as the birthplace of shamanism (at least in name; the word “sham-án” is derived from the Evenk), further feeding the enigmatic stereotypes with images of animal skinned drums, giant headdresses, and medicine men blowing snuff through long tubes into villagers’ noses to ward off evil spirits.
The power tool of the shaman is the drum; of equal importance is the voice, which has given the Tuvan practice of throat singing a unique place in our understanding of shamanism, not to mention Siberia. Granted, you won’t read or hear much about throat singers in mainstream media. If not for that slivery overtone, the untrained ear might index it alongside the yodeling habits of surrounding countries.
Its spiritual significance is odd to Western sensibilities, too, given that the style of producing two sounds from one voice was most likely developed as a game, or a competition, among women while men were hunting. Anyone who has ever experienced it live, though, instantly recognizes the hypnotic power of these tones, and taking the leap of faith to spirituality does not require a far jump.
I remember my first time experiencing it, probably seven years ago in a yoga studio after an event. I was talking with friends, there were some dozen people left in the room, when a talented local musician, Akim Funk Buddha, started to throat sing. Everyone was immediately silenced. You couldn’t talk; that tone overtook any other.
At first I believed someone to have pulled out a Tibetan singing bowl; a rougher, almost digeridoo-like tone emerged from beneath this haunting, tranquil undertone. Even as I watched him doing it, I could not fathom that one person was making both sounds simultaneously.
Funny thing is, I had heard this music before, most notably by the Tuvan group Huun Huur Tu. I suppose on record I had just thought it to be two or more people producing the polyphonic spree. In headphones, the depth and layers are never properly represented. This is why I was so happy when producer Carmen Rizzo took a crack at Huun Huur Tu’s latest, Eternal, which has been released with both of their names in the credit. In Europe, its out on GreenWave Music, but in North America, Rizzo has released the album on his own Electrofone Records.
Huun Huur Tu was founded in 1992, quickly garnering respect for its modern interpretation of the region’s folk music. The member’s version of ‘modern’, though, was rooted in their culture’s history: the tungur, the shaman’s drum; the two-stringed bowed lute, igil; the fretless goat skin lute, doshpuluur—these are among their instruments. While they may have amplified them, you were still getting real deal Siberian sounds.
Over time the group evolved, performing with Ry Cooder, the Kronos Quartet, and Frank Zappa, all global explorers, yet known names nonetheless. One of the group’s co-founders, Albert Kuvezin, left in the late ‘90s to form Yat-kha, which fed his need for more rock in the folk. In 2006, Kuvezin released one of the most peculiar and amazing albums possibly ever recorded, Re-covers, which includes his Tuvan takes of “Inna Gadda Da Vida”, “When the Levee Breaks”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and “Black Magic Woman”. When he tackles Bob Marley’s “Exodus”, you know you’re involved in something you’ve never before imagined.
Fellow Tuvan Sainkho Namtchylak has also made a name for herself, experimenting with avant garde jazz and quirky electronica, as well as standing in with Mongolian orchestras. Sometimes her music is darkly textured and beautiful; others, it sounds like Yoko Ono being murdered in a low-grade horror movie. Tanya Tagaq also shrieks, but she has made much more (relatively) accessible music, collaborating with Björk on her album and tour for her a cappella outing, Medúlla, as well as Mike Patton on her latest, Auk/Blood.
On that particular cover she kind of looks like Björk, a pixie in a winter forest, and the strangeness of the music matches: chants, squeals, violins, and aural gymnastics spread over 53-minutes. I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing—the album is worthwhile due to its inventiveness alone.
Back to the topic at hand: Huun Huur Tu and Carmen Rizzo’s Eternal. Originally executive producers Vladimir Oboronko and Mark Governor approached Rizzo to mix it after recording in Berkeley. His credits include Seal, Paul Okenfold, and Jem, as well as global acts like Inbar Bakal, Niyaz, and Lal Meri, so Governor thought him the man for the job.
“They figured ‘This is great, let’s have Carmen mix it’,” Rizzo told me from his Los Angeles studio. “I said I was very honored, but in my opinion it needed a lot more than mixing. They were surprised. I’m always the first person to say if I’m the wrong person to do something. But they allowed me to redo songs. That was a big liberty that they took. I took baby steps at first.”
Rizzo was adamant that they needed a new album, one that represented the future of Tuvan music, not its folk-infused past. They had that down by this point. The world music market knows this band well, and will support them. That’s a small crowd, however, and Rizzo was convinced he could help them “attract the yoga crowd, the Whole Foods crowd, the KCRW and NPR crowds. What I did not want to do was a remix record. It would have been too easy to pick apart what they did and make some sort of coffee table remix album. That would have been disrespectful. I really wanted it to become collaborative. It naturally evolved to that.”
Eternal sounds completely natural, which is a far cry from the “nightmare” Rizzo started with. The band did not use a click track; as any producer knows, trying to doctor songs recorded without one can result in hours of hair-pulling tediousness and demanding a very close attention to detail. Rizzo persevered, and the results point to an absolutely beautiful recording presenting Siberian folk music in an entirely new light.
While Rizzo probably disappointed some by not using too many songs with too much throat singing, it’s obvious he has taken Tuva into new territory with technology. Planning a tour that begins in late August in Russia and visits America in September, he is facing an even bigger technical and aesthetic challenge. Given the re-creation he’s accomplished with Eternal, there is little doubt this new collaboration is certain to be a success, for they have already made one of the most groundbreaking records the world will see in 2009.