Alash Ensemble, masters of Tuvan throat singing—a remarkable technique for singing multiple pitches at the same time—and traditional Tuvan instruments, infuse their songs with western elements, creating their own unique style that is fresh and new, yet true to their Tuvan musical heritage.
THE TINY REPUBLIC OF TUVA is a giant when it comes to mastery of the human voice. The ancient tradition of throat singing (xöömei in Tuvan) developed among the nomadic herdsmen of Central Asia people who lived in yurts, rode horses, raised yaks, sheep and camels, and had a close spiritual relationship with nature. Passed down through the generations but largely unheard by the outside world, xöömei is now the subject of international fascination and has become Tuva’s best known export. Tuva sits at the southern edge of Siberia, with Mongolia to its south.
The Tuvan way of making music is based on appreciation of complex sounds with multiple layers or textures. Tuvan throat singers can produce two or three, sometimes even four pitches simultaneously. The effect has been compared to that of a bagpipe. The singer starts with a low drone. Then, by subtle manipulations of his vocal tract and keen listening, he breaks up the sound, amplifying one or more overtones enough so that they can be heard as additional pitches while the drone continues at a lower volume. Despite what the term might suggest, throat singing does not strain the singer's throat. To the Tuvan ear, a perfectly pure tone is not as interesting as a sound which contains hums, buzzes, or extra pitches that coexist with the main note being sung. Tuvan instruments are designed and played to produce such multi-textured sounds as well.
Throat singing traditionally was done outdoors, and only recently was brought into the concert hall. Singers use their voices to mimic and interact with the sounds of the natural world — whistling birds, bubbling streams, howling wolves and blowing wind. Throat singing is most commonly done by men. Although custom and superstition have discouraged women from throat singing, recently this taboo is breaking down, and there are now excellent female throat singers too.
In Tuvan songs, the complex textures of xöömei often alternate with a simpler melodic use of the voice. Just as western cowboys play guitar or banjo, Tuvan cowboys often accompany themselves with stringed instruments, either plucked or bowed. Many songs are performed to the rhythms of horses trotting or cantering across the open land, and instruments often are decorated with carved horses' heads.
The ensemble is named for the Alash River, which runs through the northwestern region of Tuva. The Alash River has also inspired a couple of Tuvan songs which carry its name.
All members of Alash were trained in traditional Tuvan music since childhood, first learning from their families, and later becoming students of master throat singers. In 1999, as students at Kyzyl Arts College, they formed a group called Changy-Xaya. They practiced in the damp college basement on Kochetovo Street, and soon became the resident traditional ensemble on campus. At the same time they learned about western music, practiced on hybrid Tuvan-European instruments, and listened to new trends coming out of America. Under the guidance of Kongar-ool Ondar (best known to western audiences for his role in the film Genghis Blues), they began to forge a new musical identity. They introduced the guitar and sometimes even the Russian bayan (accordion) into their arrangements, alongside their traditional Tuvan instruments. They experimented with new harmonies and song structures. The effect is an intriguing mixture of old and new.
The musicians are inspired by the music of their grandparents, great-grandparents, and the great musicians of Tuva and Central Asia. At the same time they are influenced by such western artists as Sun Ra and Jimi Hendrix. Yet the Alash musicians never sacrifice the integrity of their heritage in an effort to make their music more hip for an American audience. Rather they look for contemporary ideas that mesh well with the sound and feel of traditional Tuvan music.
Members of Alash enjoy working across musical genres. They have collaborated with such diverse groups as the innovative jazz ensemble Sun Ra Arkestra, the bluegrass/fusion/jazz band Béla Fleck and Flecktones, and the classical Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's Student Producers Program. They are guest artists on the Grammy-winning holiday CD "Jingle All the Way" by Béla Fleck and Flecktones.
Both the Alash Ensemble and individual members have consistently won top honors in throat singing competitions. The ensemble was awarded first prize in Tuva's International Xöömei Symposium competition in 2004. At the Fifth International Xöömei Symposium in 2008, three Alash musicians swept the top prizes for individual throat singing, and the fourth took top honors for his duet performance with his wife. In 2007, Alash member Bady-Dorzhu Ondar was named People's Xöömeizhi of the Republic of Tuva, the youngest person ever to receive this prestigious award. In 2009, Alash member Ayan Shirizhik was named a Merited Artist of Tuva. Even Alash's American manager, Sean Quirk, was named a Merited Artist of Tuva for his contribution to Tuvan culture. In addition, Quirk and all Alash members play in the Tuvan National Orchestra, which has won both first prize and grand prize in the All-Russia National Orchestra and Ensemble Competition.
Alash in America: Alash's inaugural U.S. tour was sponsored in 2006 by the Open World Leadership program of the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since then, they have returned to tour extensively, playing to enthusiastic audiences and presenting workshops to eager students of all ages. The Washington Post described their music as "utterly stunning," quipping that after the performance "audience members picked their jaws up off the floor."