Remarkable 'throat-singing' evokes natural sounds of Central Asia

January 21, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Of all the things the human voice can do, few seem quite as incredible as the ability to sing two notes at once.

It isn't just the physical challenge posed by such a feat, though it is an amazing stunt. No, what really floors people about biphonic singing is its sound -- a low, guttural drone grounding bright, ghostly harmonics.

Huun-Huur-Tu, a quartet from the tiny Central Asian country of Tuva on the Mongolian border, specializes in that sound. They call it khoomei, or "throat singing," and it's one of the most basic elements of their musical vocabulary.

How did they discover this sound? Ted Levin, an ethnomusicologist at Dartmouth who has made field recordings of Tuvan folk music for the Smithsonian (and who helped produce Huun-Huur-Tu's album, "60 Horses in My Herd"), says that the sound of khoomei reflects the solitude of Tuvan life.

"It's not a culture in which communal activities play an important role," he says. "The traditional lifestyle is based on herding, and herding is very much a solo activity. Thus, Tuvans spend a tremendous amount of time on their own, and the music that they've developed reflects that.

"It's not a music that expresses a sense of community and dialogue between people. It's more a music that emphasizes a dialogue between humankind and the natural world and the supernatural world. Thus it emphasizes solo singing, and it is, for Tuvans, deeply onomatopoeic. It imitates the sounds that are part of their sound world, and it in a sense responds to those sounds."

It's easy to hear what Levin means. One style of khoomei, called sigit or "whistle," recalls the eerie howl of wind across a high plain; another type, dubbed ezengileer or "stirrup," features a pulsating rhythm that evokes the sound of a cantering horse.

"It's extraordinarily subtle," he says. "It's music that seems naturally to grow out of that kind of environment. What you have there is the wind, the rain, the water rushing through the streams, the sounds of animals, and this music grew up to reflect that sound world. That's the way they hear it."

Levin adds that there's also a spiritual element to the music, in that khoomei singing produces a feeling that the Tuvans have described to him as a sort of "spontaneous ecstasy."

"For them, the singing grows out of a need to respond to a feeling of heightened emotion -- of almost ecstasy, of being touched by something in their environment," he says. "It's creating a kind of meaningful response to that state, but not in a self-conscious, new age way. It's very unself-conscious. I think it's something that's so natural, they're almost not aware of it."

Tuvan folk music may have its roots in solitude, but Levin says the members of Huun-Huur-Tu enjoy performing for concert audiences.

"I think they're very touched by the response," he says. "I sort of narrate during the concerts, which they feel helps to get across what they're doing, because it's not completely evident from the music itself what the meaning is. The [lyrics] are obviously not evident, and that for them is important. They want people to know what the songs are about."

Besides, the members of Huun-Huur-Tu are professional musicians. "They became professional musicians during Soviet times," Levin says. "There were no professional musicians in Tuva before. This was a folk tradition, and people just did it. They were herders."

But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Tuvan autonomy, those state-supported ensembles fell into disrepute, leaving the musicians in the lurch. "No one in Tuva has any money to pay professional musicians now," says Levin. "Performing here is frankly an economic necessity. So this group is probably better known in America than it is in Tuva, because there's simply no venues there for them."

To hear excerpts from Huun-Huur-Tu's album "60 Horses in My Herd," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, 836-5028 in Harford County, 848-0338 in Carroll County), and punch in 6118 after you hear the greeting.


When: Sunday, Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Smithsonian Institution, Carmichael Auditorium

Call: (202) 357-3030

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