Getting to Know Tuvan Throat Singing Masters Alash

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Alash are masters of Tuvan throat singing (xöömei), a remarkable technique for singing multiple pitches at the same time. What distinguishes this gifted trio from earlier generations of Tuvan throat singers is the subtle infusion of modern influences into their traditional music. One can find complex harmonies, western instruments, and contemporary song forms in Alash’s music, but its overall sound and spirit is decidedly Tuvan.

We spoke with Sean Quirk, the band's manager and interpreter, ahead of their show at The Cedar Cultural Center on April 17 about the power of throat singing, the evolution of the band, and the their exciting new collaborations. Read the full interview below and get tickets for the show here.

Can you describe what people are hearing when they listen to throat singers?

First of all, it’s important to understand that the music that Alash plays is not just throat singing. The term throat singing is a really difficult term and can be confusing for people. So when people are listening to Tuvan music, they are hearing not only this great music in general, but it includes these vocal techniques that do not exist anywhere else in the world. These are fascinating uses of the human voice that are both totally surprising to people and yet at the same time, surprisingly approachable. You hear amazing melodic ways that the timbre of the human voice can change along with the sound of wind or rumbling or water. So it’s a pretty amazingly deep experience.

How did you get started in throat singing?

It was 1999. I was in college in Minnesota at Macalester College. I was a music student. My roommate and I both came back from our study abroad our Junior year. He brought me a CD and said, “Hey I think you should check this out, you’d really like this. It’s these throat singers.” And when he put the album on, it wasn’t what I expected at all. It was really melodic and musical and stirring. There were really heart wrenching songs and “go out and get ‘em” songs. Some songs that are totally indescribable. And I was blown away by the musicality of it. I was blown away by the instruments. I thought there was like 10 guys in the band. Turned out it was four guys and really one of them does 85% of the singing. He’s just so versatile.

So the crazy thing was I got all into this music. I just really wanted to keep listening to it; I just really liked it. And I found out they had just been to The Cedar like 2 weeks before I first heard of them and I was devastated. This was back in the early days of the internet and there was not a whole lot of stuff out there. But I decided that I was going to do this. I just thought it would be so cool to produce that kind of music. I wanted to get more into it. That led to me getting really into it to the annoyance of my roommates, girlfriends, stuff like that, my mates in the jazz band at Mac.

Eventually I graduated from there, went to Chicago, started working as a bike messenger. That way I could practice doing vocal music unfettered out in the streets of Chicago and nobody would hear you; no one cared because it was so loud. That was about two years after I got out of college that I did that.

I was living real well, life was good. I was riding the bike. I was getting up early on weekends and selling bread. Everything was going well and one of my real close friends just died out of the blue that summer. At his funeral I met up with another friend who had just come back from Russia. He’d been on this exchange program in Russia and he was gonna go back there because he was getting a Fulbright grant. And he said, man you should get this grant, they would love that. The specific words he used, I’ll never forget them, were that they would “Eat that shit up.” He put the bug in my ear to apply for the Fulbright. I taught myself Russian, did all this stuff while I was riding my bike. I had to go out to New York and sing for them in the UN building; that was crazy. I went and it was like Jedi Council up there at the top of the UN building. It was the end of the day because our flight out of Chicago had been delayed by snow. I went in there and played and sang for them and they said, “Sounds good. Just make sure you pass your Russian exam, but you’re looking pretty good.” They didn’t openly say that, but you could tell they were pretty impressed.

So I did that; I hooked up with somebody from Tuva who became my teacher and kind of my Tuvan mom in later years. And I passed the Russian exam, my Russian tutor Anna was holding my hand the whole time, bless her heart. She will always remain in my pantheon of saintly people, the way she helped me out.

So I got the grant and when over there in October of 2003. I’ve been living there since. I got there and realized that learning Russian was useless because I had to speak Tuvan. So I learned Tuvan. I got into the orchestra as a student first, then kind of like their mascot, and then they let me play. The bands like Alash, we got to be friends very early. After I was there for about 3 years, the band got an invitation to go on an exchange program and they needed an interpreter and so the program people contacted me saying, “Hey we heard you speak Tuvan and English.” That was 2006. Alash had toured a few times before I got involved with them. They’d gone to some festivals here and there.

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The Tuvan National Orchestra

Then starting from that exchange program called Open World, sponsored by the Library of Congress, we’ve just been touring a lot. This is probably our third or fourth time at The Cedar. Coming back there the first time was a really meaningful thing. Going back to Macalester, going back to The Cedar, going back to those places in St. Paul and Minneapolis is a nice sort of closing of one loop and opening of another.

Alash’s influences go beyond throat singers. How does modern music influence the sound of Alash?

Honestly, what Alash is playing is modern music. It’s their modern, organic expression of the music of Tuva that has come down to them from their ancestors. It has these really old roots, but it also reflects who they are as far as musicians and people, growing up in this sort of multicultural way. They’re Tuvans by culture, but then there’s a whole layer of Russian influence over that. At Alash’s show, you’ll see them playing the guitar and the accordion, which are instruments that come in from Russian influence. What Alash is trying to do is they want to keep it organic, they want to keep it natural. I feel like everything they present is traditional music in that it’s rooted in tradition, even though they’re composing new stuff. At the same time, it’s traditional music in a way you wouldn’t have heard it before. Playing with the Flecktones for three years taught them a lot about interacting with each other and taking solos and improvising and stuff like that.

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Alash performing with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

They’ve existed for almost 20 years as a band. In that way, they’ve grown and changed a little bit, but they never really have lost their core. They’re building on what bands like Huun-Huur-Tu did. People think Huun-Huur-Tu is this super traditional Tuvan music. Even the way they play as a quartet and their style for arranging for Tuvan music–that was a totally new thing in its time. One of the instruments, the Doshpuluur, the plucked instrument, the way the guy from that band played the instrument was like the Earl Scruggs moment for this instrument. Nobody had played like that before and now everybody plays like that. All those elements combine to make it really approachable for people. A lot of people find themselves really moved and affected. Right now they’re at a really high level in terms of the execution of what they’re doing. The happy and the fast songs are quite uplifting and the long and intense, meditative songs are long and intense and meditative. People have a really emotional reaction to the music and that’s sort of independent of what they’re background is.

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Groundbreaking Tuvan group Huun-Huur-Tu

All members of the group are a part of the Tuvan national orchestra. Does that work affect what you do in Alash?

Not really. There’s one piece that Alash uses sometimes in educational settings. That comes from the repertoire of the orchestra. The orchestra didn’t start until four years after Alash did. Even though everyone in the band is in the orchestra, they bring stuff they’ve devoloped from being in a band to the orchestra. One day I’d love to get the orchestra out there and have people see a concert of theirs because it’s something else. It’s like Alash times eight. Half men and half women. All the dudes are up there performing the Tuvan vocal music and that’s pretty intense. I played in the orchestra for a long time. I don’t anymore, but being a part of that and singing together with all those people had some intense energy.

It’s probably informed them in some way in the sense that they’ve had to learn how to play together with a large number of other musicians. That’s always been kind of the problem of Tuvan music is that, because of the sound aesthetic and conception of the music itself, it can be a really hard thing to try to get eight of the same instrument exactly in the same tune.

How has the instrumentation of Alash evolved with the band?

Within the history of the band itself they’re definitely incorporating the guitar more than they have before. They started bringing in some traditional Tuvan flutes. There was a couple traditional Tuvan flutes that they always played called the limbi and the murgu. But they’re not really playing the limbi that much anymore. They’ve brought in these other flutes called the shoor, which are really old school, traditional flutes that are just kind of being brought back into the folk music genre within the last ten years or so. The accordion is a part of the mix and that’s new. In a way, the style with the accordion has been around long enough that it’s basically now also a form of traditional Tuvan music.They use the jaw harp more. With the small amount of instruments they’re using, we’re pretty light on the airplane. It’s pretty nice.

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Ayan Shirizhik plays the murgu

Alash is pretty amazing at what they do. We’re talking about three guys who have played together intensely for 19 years. They’re like telepathic up there. Because of that, the sound of the concerts from beginning to end is just really full and rich and varied.

Your live performances have gained a lot of attention worldwide. What can audiences expect from your show at The Cedar?

You don’t know what to expect going in. The first five seconds, you’re a little bit confused and then from about second seven on, you begin to feel elevated and then fascinated. You get sucked into this sound world that they create. They don’t look like a whole lot on stage, it’s just three dudes. But they create these amazing really powerful landscapes of sound. It’s totally foreign in one way and then completely familiar and approachable in another way. I like to sometimes say, “Alash is playing country music, it’s just from another country.”

We actually got together with a Spanish sax player and a Chinese guzheng player and did a concert in Nashville and called it “Country Music from Other Countries.”

What’s inspiring you lately?

We’re doing a lot of projects. For one we have a beatboxer that we collaborate a lot with. We’re going to go to Louisiana this year to perform at a festival with him. His name’s Shodekeh. He’s on our most recent album. That’s also a thing we’re really excited about. That was released by Smithsonian Folkways. That’s kind of a feather in your cap I guess in terms of where you’re at musically. We’re working on a collaboration with some bluegrass musicians called Tuvagrass. We’re also looking to make a fourth album as well. We just won a MacArthur grant for a collaboration we’re doing with these classical musicians called Fifth House Ensemble. We’re looking forward to premiering that material next year.

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Alash demonstrate throat singing for Smithsonian Folkways