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October 20, 2007

Central Asian throat singers find similarities in Wyoming

Billings Gazette (WY):

A quartet of singing horsemen might seem like a predictable band to perform in a town that has seen more than a century of ranching, riding and roping. But no one could have predicted the huge crowd Tuesday night in the school gymnasium, or the rousing standing ovation for four men who performed traditional central-Asian songs dating to 13th-century warlord Genghis Khan.

Performing in period formal, Huun-Huur-Tu have played more than 1,000 shows in Europe and America, said Vladimir Oboronko, the group's manager. But their trip to Meeteetse this week was like a homecoming of sorts, said Sayan Bapa, a co-founder of the group. "We came from the plane in Cody and looked around and thought it was autumn in Tuva," Bapa said, referring to his homeland, an autonomous Russian republic of 305,000 in southern Siberia, bordering Mongolia.

"It was the same kind of landscape: lots of grass, not many trees, mountains in the distance with snow. We felt like we were back home. This is a good, huge territory, with a lot of grass and not many people," Bapa said. The similarities of place, and the Tuvans' reputation as master horsemen who traverse the steppes tending cattle and sheep, made for some obvious cultural parallels with Meeteetse, said Steve Schrepferman.

Band members gave a workshop Monday on the art of throat singing, also called overtone singing, a rare and difficult vocal technique that is a hallmark of their musical style. Throat singers can produce two, and sometimes three, distinct tones at one time. They sing a lower, growling tone, called the fundamental, mirroring it with a higher harmonic tone. Imagine the low drone of a bagpipe accompanied by a flute.

Huun-Huur-Tu is Tuvan for "sun propeller," the kind of refracted light seen shining through clouds at sunrise or sunset, and a visual representation of the throat-singing technique. Performers must exercise precise and intense control of their throats, and band members often closed their eyes and appeared to grimace as if in pain during Tuesday's performance.

"The tension is strong from your chest, up into your mouth, and your tongue, lips and head," Bapa said after the show Tuesday, dressed in blue jeans and smoking a cigarette in the cool night air outside the Meeteetse school. "But it doesn't hurt," he said. "It looks difficult, but for us it's not so hard."

"If you grew up riding a horse with your grandpa holding you against his chest while he did it, then it might not be so hard," said Elijah Cobb, a Cody photographer who attended the workshop.

Cobb said none of the 15 students who tried could pick up the technique, but he praised Robert Rumbolz for coming close. It turns out Rumbolz, an ethnomusicologist who teaches at Northwest College in Powell, had an unfair advantage. He had met Huun-Huur-Tu member Alexei Saryglar a decade ago, while Rumbolz was in graduate school. "I was feeling pretty sure about my abilities," said Rumbolz, who has worked occasionally to pick up the technique since meeting Saryglar. "Then I went into the workshop and they told me, 'No, you don't have it,' " he said with a laugh.

Some of the band's songs are about love, or evoke the sounds of birds in the forest. Many are filled with a sense of plaintive and soulful longing that recalls difficult days of solitude in wide-open spaces.

The horse is a common theme in the music of Huun-Huur-Tu. So it was an unexpected treat for the band members Tuesday when a group of local cowboys took them on a trail ride in the hills around Meeteetse. One cowboy said the musicians were adept riders, who first asked politely if they could "exercise" their horses before taking off at a mad gallop.

Bapa said all the band members have ridden since an early age, and that Tuvans typically learn riding from grandparents, who expect the grandchildren to help with herding livestock. Some of the band members have formal musical training in other genres, including jazz, and their songs include moments that swing with layered syncopation. "It's syncopated, yes, but like a horse galloping," Bapa said. "Swing gets around the world, you know. It didn't just come from Africa."

Posted by acapnews at October 20, 2007 12:23 AM

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