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Homegrown Plus: Alash Ensemble Performs the Music of Tuva

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In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) We’re continuing the series with a concert and oral history with the Alash Ensemble

Three men in traditional Tuvan dress perform on a small stage. The first holds a stringed plucked instrument, the second a bowed instrument, and the third plays a drum.
The Alash Ensemble performing at the Library of Congress, March 21, 2019. Photo by Stephen Winick.

The Alash Ensemble are masters of techniques for singing multiple pitches at the same time that are traditional in their native Tuva (a republic in the Russian Federation). The members of Alash are deeply committed to traditional Tuvan music and culture. At the same time, they are fans of western music and are masters of traditional Tuvan instruments as well as singing. Believing that traditional music must constantly evolve, the musicians subtly infuse their songs with western elements, creating their own unique style that is fresh and new, yet true to their Tuvan musical heritage. All members of Alash were trained in traditional Tuvan music since childhood, first learning from their families, and later becoming students of master singers. In this concert Ayan-ool Sam performs vocals and plays doshpuluur (a three-stringed plucked instrument), and demir-xomus, or mouth harp. Bady-Dorzhu Ondar performs vocals and plays igil (a two-stringed instrument), and doshpuluur. Ayan Shirizhik performs vocals and plays kengirge (drum) and shyngyrash (bells). Sean Quirk is the interpreter and manager of the group. The ensemble is named for the Alash River, which runs through the northwestern region of Tuva. (The direct links to the concert and oral history can be found in the resources list at the bottom of this blog.)

Here is the concert for you to enjoy. More discussion of Tuvan music and song follows.

Although in English, we call the type of singing to achieve multiple tones at once “throat singing,” that phrase does not adequately describe the group of complex techniques involved and actually leads to confusion about this group of Tuvan singing styles. “Throat singers” sing with their vocal chords, while at the same time causing vibrations in the tissues of their throat, chest, mouth, and head. But all singing uses more than the vocal chords to produce sounds and each singer’s physiology is involved in creating their unique sound. Tuvan singing is different in the ways it takes control of these sound potentials. It emphasizes harmonics and explores a range of possible sounds in addition to those made by the vocal chords. Singers then employ these skills to perform singing styles unfamiliar in Western European singing. Different positions of the mouth and tongue are used to vary the sounds produced. In addition, singers use a circular breathing technique that allows them to maintain sounds for long periods of time. The various types of sounds that can be produced are usually learned at an early age through apprenticeships. Each individual discovers their own unique capabilities in the process.

 A man in Tuvan traditional dress plays a large drum.
Ayan Shirizhik plays percussion in the concert. Here he plays the kengirge (double headed drum). The braid on top holds bells that add to the sound of the drum. His duyuglar clappers made from horse hooves are beside the drum on the stage. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2019.

In the beginning of this concert each singer demonstrates a different Tuvan singing technique and this provides the listener with a better understanding of what is happening when the singers perform and meld these different ways of singing. The first technique demonstrated by Ayan-ool Sam, called xöömei (also spelled khöömei or höömei) in Tuvan, is perhaps the most familiar to Westerners with an interest in world music. The second technique, demonstrated by Ayan Shirizhik, is sygyt, is a style that includes the production of overtones that sound like the whistle of birds. The third, demonstrated by Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, is Kargyraa, a style with a melody line and high overtones above a deep bass. Other styles combine these basic techniques.

The singing techniques Alash demonstrate, by long tradition, are practiced by men in Tuva. Historically, some women sang xöömei, but this was discouraged until recent times. Today the long-standing practice of only training only boys to become performers of these singing styles is changing and girls may also be trained and raised to become performers.

The instruments played by members of Alash are among the most ancient string and percussion instruments that are still played today. They are handmade and consequently each one varies a bit from other instruments of the same type. So musicians have to learn their own unique instruments.

European plucked and bowed instruments originated in Asia, probably in the region where Tuva and Mongolia are today. These instruments changed as they spread from Asia to the Middle East and from there to Europe, becoming many different instruments along the way. Some of the early forms of these instruments are still played in Tuva.

A man plays a bowed instrument decorated with a horse's head.
Bady-Dorzhu Ondarl plays the igil, an ancient two-stringed instrument. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2019.

The doshpuluur, a plucked instrument played by Ayan-ool Sam in the beginning of the concert and Bady-Dorzhu Ondarl towards the end, is often called the Tuvan lute. It would be more correct to say that lutes, guitars, and many other plucked instruments are descendants of the doshpuluur and instruments like it. Ayan-ool Sam’s doshpuluur is a modern adaptation. The original instrument had two strings rather than three. The maker of this one used modern tuners to tighten the strings. But the rest of the construction of the instrument is true to its ancient origins.

Except for the addition of modern geared tuners, the igil, played by Bady-Dorzhu Ondarl, is made as it was in ancient times with two strings and no frets. It may be the most ancient of the bowed instruments still in existence today. In the concert webcast you will hear the legend of the creation of this instrument by a boy whose horse was killed and, in a dream, the horse told him to make an instrument using parts of its body. The igil typically has a horse head at the top of its neck, the ancient ancestor of the decorations found on the heads of instruments such as violins and cellos. Although many histories of bowed instruments credit the Mongolian morin khuur as being the historical source, the closely related igil is thought to be much older than the morin khuur — and both instruments share the same legend.

A man in Tuvan traditional dress plays a mouth harp.
Ayan-ool Sam plays the demir-xomus, that is, the Tuvan metal mouth harp. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2019.

The double-headed kengirge drum played by Ayan Shirizhik is, by Tuvan tradition, said to be based on a drum introduced to Tuva by Tibetan Buddhists in the 13th century and resembles ancient drums used in music and rituals in other parts of Asia. On top is a shyngyrash, made of bells woven together. These enhance the sound of the drum as it is struck. Shirizhik also plays the duyuglar, a pair of horse hooves used for percussion. It is especially needed for songs about the beloved Tuvan horses essential to their way of life.

Ayan-ool Sam demonstrates the demir-xomus, a single-reed metal mouth harp. This is an ancient instrument found in many parts of the world, probably originating in Asia. In Asia, bamboo versions of this instrument also exist, and so the Tuvan name for the instrument played in this concert specifies the version of the xomus made from metal.

In the oral history below, John Fenn, head of Research and Programs at the American Folklife Center, talks with members of Alash. Band manager Sean Quirk acts as interpreter. The band members each talk about their early history, musical education, and the development of the band and its music. They also talk about their singing, composing, collaboration with other musical groups, and about their instruments and how they are made. So here is the oral history video. I hope it may help provide deeper insights into the culture of Tuva and Tuvan traditional singing.


Alash Ensemble: Music from the Republic of Tuva, Library of Congress, March 27, 2019.  (also on Library of Congress YouTube)

Alash Ensemble Oral History, Library of Congress, March 27, 2019. The transcript can be opened just below the player at the link.  (also on Library of Congress YouTube)

Find more articles about Asian traditions and history in Folklife Today

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