Throat singing sounds eerie and hypnotic at first. But, like Alan Lomax's field recordings of Delta Blues, its primitive honesty is immediately apparent.
The first time I heard Huun-Huur-Tu was in 1996. I was in St. Louis listening to KDHX-FM, the local community radio station, and I didn't even know what throat singing was. I remember being struck by the impassioned thrum of strings, the loping rhythms, and the guttural, chanting vocals. It was raw, like listening for the first time to Alan Lomax's field recordings of Delta Blues musicians. Tuvan throat singing sounds strange upon first listen. Eerie and hypnotic, the form combines deep, resonant vocal groans and chants with simultaneous, high-pitched whistles and string instruments that are bowed and plucked with a plaintive hum and wail. Throat singing is at once reminiscent of the tribal songs of the American Indians, the chants of Tibetans, and the war songs of the Maori. Indeed, for those from Tuva -- an area of rivers, forests, lakes and steppes north of Mongolia in the former lands of the Soviet Union -- throat singing is an important folk tradition, a repository in song of the tales of the life and lore of their land The Old Town's auditorium is one of the city's best rooms, big and high ceilinged, yet with a cozy feel and wonderful acoustics. The Tuvans took the stage in colorful, silken robes and tunics, bearing a small cache of handmade native instruments: the igil, a two-stringed creation with a pear shaped body, a long wooden neck, and a head adorned with the carved bust of a horse; the byzaanchi, a stringed instrument with a drum-like body and a longer, skinnier neck; the doshpuluur, also stringed but with a cigar box body and thicker, bass-like strings; and a big-framed bass drum. Other percussive instruments included horse hooves, bells, and a shaker made from the stretched skin of a bull's scrotum and filled with the knee bones of a sheep. Not a single electrified instrument was to be found. The only nod to modernity was the occasional use of a Western-style acoustic guitar. As a means of invocation, Huun-Huur-Tu opened their performance with a group vocal chant in a choral style. Each member of the quartet lent his voice in harmony to the deep, haunting rhythm. From the quiet and prayerful tone of the initial canto, the Tuvans pushed the rhythms like the galloping gait of a yellow trotter. Alexei Saryglar clapped horse hooves together and thundered a giddy-up beat on his drum, while Sayan Bapa, one of the founders of Huun-Huur-Tu, plucked and fingered the strings of the doshpuluur, driving the music's spirited cantor as Kaigal-ool Khovalyg sawed soft and somber cries on the igil. Atop the strum, pluck, thump, and bow was the signature Tuvan throat singing. There are two most obviously recognizable tones: the kargyraa, the deep resonant growl that sounds similar to the reverberations of a didgeridoo; and the sygyt, the higher pitched whir and whistle. From song to song, Huun-Huur-Tu employed both styles to thrilling effect. Though few, if any, of the audience members understood the language of Tuva, a message of the love of song and Tuvan life was understood. Huun-Huur-Tu's concerts combine the feel of a campfire sing-along, a folksy hootenanny, and a community story-time gathering. Much like the western balladry and poetry of the American cowboy, Huun-Huur-Tu's songs tell stories of the great outdoors, populated by tenth-century camel drivers and modern horse riders. The Tuvan cowboy tunes rode on bowed strings that cried with a wistful longing as the spirited voices traded back and forth. Huun-Huur-Tu's song structures, though anchored by the beat of the drum and thump of the bass-like doshpuluur, were made richer with the high, slow drag of the igil and the byzaanchi. Vocal patterns featured either the deep baritone bellow of a soloist or, more commonly, showcased the call and response of the quartet. Kaigal-ool's Howlin' Wolf style growl was answered by Alexei's higher-pitched, nasally moan. There was a song about Mongolia's forests where the quartet's members each played strings. The byzaanchi and two igils kept a fast, steady pace while Alexei bowed his igil in a slow, moody pattern and sang the lead vocal in a soaring, aching voice. If you focused your mind's eye, you could imagine the foggy mists of dawn's break. Similarly Huun-Huur-Tu captured the natural world in the epic song "Odugen Taiga," a humbling, disquieting gem that painted a vivid picture of the whispering winds of the coniferous forest in which rivers rush and the animals and birds play. The song was a mini-symphony orchestrated with horns blown to mimic the lowing of elk and yak and strings bent and sawn to mirror the cry of the forest. The drums cascaded and crashed like waterfalls, and each member's whistles, chirps, and caws fell in perfect imitation of the avian world. Beginning quietly, the song rose with the cacophony of the forest's awakening and slowly, softly descended with the last trills of night. With the audience's thunderous applause echoing, Huun-Huur-Tu quickly segued to the night's closer, "Ai Shuu Dekei-oo" a fast, frantic romp where echoing, gurgling voices galloped on clomping beats and strings hurried the rhythm with harried verve. Like so much of the night, these final songs created a mood, a feeling, an innate but palpable connection. Though the listener may have still been mystified by the complexities of throat singing, the magic was felt nonetheless. As Sayan Bapa has said in the past, "There's a kind of truth of feeling in Tuvan music that makes it easily accessible; there's a naturalness and sincerity that anyone can understand."