Alash: a band and a river

Hmmm…how to spend a rainy night during mud season, in Bennington,VT? Let’s see…maybe we should start with an exotic concert of exciting Mongolian music, and then move on to an after-hours toga party with the whole town getting in on the gladiator fun. Throw in a pomegranate margarita, an enthusiastic audience and a lot of inspiring visual art, and I’d call it just right!

I came to Bennington to see the night’s headliners at the Basement Music series, the program sponsored and hosted by the Vermont Arts Exchange. (Now, trying to leave yesterday – that was a whole different story. Stay tuned.)

2009-mar28-alashinbennington013On Saturday night the VAE welcomed Alash, a popular quartet of musicians from Tuva. The concert marked their return to the venue (many times over) with evocative-sounding instruments like the byzaanchy, the igil (or ‘horse head fiddle’), and the banjo-like doshpuluur.

But with this kind of music the real draw for the audience is always the singing. In the native Tuvan language the style is described as xöömej (“hoo-MAY”), or in English, throat singing. If you’ve never heard this kind of singing the only way to describe it is to think of the low, multi-toned sound of a digeridoo – or cicadas in the trees on a warm summer evening. Now conjure up the fragrance of a handful of fresh garden dirt, and add to that the earthy texture and taste of red beets.

Throat singing sounds like the combined effect of all of those deeply visceral sensory experiences.

It feels like it too. As a listener throat singing can physically resonate in your own body, with the overtones it produces allowing you to “hear” sounds that aren’t even actively being created.

In the 1990s when San Francisco musician Paul Pena heard throat singing for the first time, he taught himself how to do it. Pena wove the singing into his blues, and the seamless result gives new dimension to the description “roots music”. Pena’s whole remarkable journey, both as a musician and as a traveler, is documented in Genghis Blues. It’s largely thanks to that film that people around the world came to know about Tuvan throat singing.

Fortunately throat singing is no longer only heard by the nomadic people who live in the windswept Tuvan wedge of land between Mongolia and Siberia.

I liked learning that “Alash” means ‘river’. There is a fluidity to throat singing that is boundless: in time, in style, and in its inspirational capacity to move the spirit.

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