Tuva 'throat-singing' is finding a wider audience

CD REVIEWS

January 28, 1999|By J.D. Considine

Various

Tuva, Among the Spirits (Smithsonian Folkways 40452)

Huun Huur Tu, Where Young Grass Grows (Shanachie 66018)

Ondar, Back Tuva Future (Warner Bros. 47131)

Unless you're an expert in Asian geography, odds are that if you see the word ``Tuva'' in a music review, you'll assume the writer merely made a mistake typing ``tuba.'' But Tuva is, in actuality, a former Soviet state between Siberia and Mongolia, and its indigenous folk music has lately become all the rage among world music buffs.

Why? In part because Tuvan folk music possesses a unique and otherworldly beauty, but mostly because of xoomei, or the Tuvan art of ``throat singing.''

``Throat singing'' is a practice that enables a singer to produce two or more tones simultaneously. It starts with a deep, guttural drone (think Popeye swallowing his spinach) that provides the fundamental drone; the second is a shifting series of high harmonics (think wind whistling through a car window) that provides the melody. Occasionally, there's even a third rhythmic part (think tuneful gulping) in between the two extremes.

Although the style is not unique to Tuva - Tibetan and Inuit singers also practice throat singing - singers there have brought an unusual degree of virtuosity to the practice. Furthermore, the style suits a variety of aesthetics, from the austere animism of traditional Tuvan life to the pop progressivism of Nashville's Music Row.

If it's the unvarnished version you want, start with ``Tuva, Among the Spirits.'' Recorded in the field by Ted Levin and Joel Gordon, it presents Tuvan music in its original context, as an art directly influenced by its environment. In ``Borbangnadyr With Stream Water,'' singer Anatoli Kulaar draws from the rhythm and harmony he hears in a babbling brook, while ``Xoomei on Horseback'' - recorded while Kulaar and Kaigal-ool Khovalyg were actually riding - shows how the galloping cadences of Tuvan music come directly from the culture's reliance on horses.

``Tuva, Among the Spirits'' may be the next best thing to being there, but its airy, atmospheric sound may prove too documentary for some. If so, Huun Huur Tu is probably a better bet. This quartet, which includes both Kulaar and Khovalyg, offers its share of xoomei-in-the-raw, including two sessions on horseback. But it puts most of its throat singing in the context of folk songs, making the strange sounds a bit easier to absorb.

But if you want to hear throat singing without learning to appreciate the subtleties of Tuvan folk music, Kongar-ol Ondar is your man. Perhaps the closest thing xoomei has to a major star, Ondar has been known internationally since the early '90s and has recorded with Frank Zappa, the Kronos Quartet, Mickey Hart and Ry Cooder.

``Back Tuva Future'' finds Ondar in Nashville, working with a crew including Willie Nelson, Randy Scruggs, Victor Wooton and the late Richard Feynman (who was sampled onto the album). Musically, it's a mish-mash, drawing on everything from Tuvan folk to bluegrass to funk, but it works amazingly well, as Ondar's growling xoomei perfectly matches the thumping bass in ``Tuva Groove,'' while Nelson's mournful vocal nicely complements Ondar's lonesome sound on ``Where Has My Country Gone.''

``Tuva, Among the Spirits'': ****

Huun Huur Tu: ***1/2

Ondar: ****

- J.D. Considine

Soundtracks

'Varsity Blues'

Music From and Inspired By the Motion Picture (Hollywood 62177)

Hard rock (and its punk-based equivalents) is noisy, aggressive and unsubtle - the sound of young men feeling their oats, and feeling them loudly. Yet beneath all that bluster, there often beats a surprisingly sensitive heart. That dynamic is at the heart of ``Varsity Blues: Music From and Inspired By the Motion Picture.'' Sure, the album is full of testosteronal intensity, from the thumping drive and swirling guitars of the Foo Fighters' ``My Hero'' to the giddy gallop of the Van Halen classic ``Hot for Teacher.''

At the same time, there's something mildly subversive in the messages within all this fist-pumping rock. It isn't just the sarcasm of Green Day's ``Nice Guys Finish Last,'' either, as Monster Magnet cuts to the hedonistic heart of the MC5's rebellious oldie, ``Kick Out the Jams.'' ***

- J.D. Considine

'Playing by Heart'

Music From the Motion Picture (Capitol 97991)

Sometimes, a soundtrack album is like a great mix tape, finding a common thread in a dozen or so diverse songs. Unfortunately, the soundtrack album for ``Playing by Heart'' operates at the other end of the spectrum, offering a variety of cool tunes but being utterly unable to make cogent connections between them. So we bounce from sound to sound, style to style, like tourists on some whirlwind vacation, being given just enough time to soak up a little cool jazz from Chet Baker with the Charlie Haden Quartet West before we're back on the bus and enveloped in Morcheeba's throbbing, reggae-fueled ``Friction.''

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