Wednesday, August 19, 2009


If the essence of any art, including music, is creative combination, then that’s reason enough to follow world music. I think of it like a genome project, recombining the DNA of culture, in this case music. On their new album ‘ETERNAL’ Tuva throat singers Huun Huur Tu and Californian musician/producer Carmen Rizzo have pushed the envelope about as far as it can go in terms of creative combination. What could be more different than a band of traditional musicians from the Siberian steppes and a hot Grammy-nominated LA producer who specializes in electronic and Middle Eastern music? But wait a minute… maybe they aren’t as different as they seem at first.

For one thing, all music- all sound even- is essentially a form of percussion, whether it’s air striking vocal cords or reeds or drum heads. Hold that and you’ve got a frequency, a note, capable of being modulated and amplified. Do that in a pattern and you’ve got a song, all from the simple act of timing your blows and re-arranging them, like gene-splicing. Of course when musical traditions are separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles, it’s interesting to see how differently they’ve evolved and whether they can still get it on together and create offspring.

As with any true art and artists, what Huun Huur Tu and Carmen Rizzo have most in common is the element of abstraction attained. They each go so far in opposite directions, Huun Huur Tu meta-earthy and Rizzo meta-lectronic, that they come very close to meeting… in the ether. We all have some notion about how electronic music works, but how do Tuvan throat singers accomplish those bizarre poly-tonal chantings? “(False vocal cords)… have minimal role in normal phonation, but are often used in musical screaming and the death grunt singing style. They are also used in Tuvan throat singing.” (mahalo, wiki-Wiki) Aha! You knew they were doing something different, right? They’re using body parts not normally even used for intonation, an extra set of folds above the ‘true vocal cords.’ It’s usually known as ‘overtone singing,’ producing two tones at the same time, and can even be heard in some forms of yodeling. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.

The rest is history. I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘the race for Tuvala’ or anything like that yet, but ever since ‘Genghis Blues’, the movie about Paul Pena’s journey to Tuva land to participate in the annual throat-singing competition, interest in the art and its artists has been growing. Ondar started it all, taking a five-year-old throat singer on talk shows, doing Letterman himself, and now rapping with the late physicist Richard Feynman (presumably not talking about quantum electrodynamics, though maybe ‘sums over histories’) in the background. As an interesting aside, Feynman’s interest derived from stamp collecting, the briefly independent country of Tuvala providing the most obscure ones he ever had and becoming a lifelong obsession to visit. Permission finally came from Tuvala’s new owner Russia, but after Feynman died.

Another well-known Tuva band, Yat-kha does Western pop covers and punk/metal like Tom Waits on Valium dépêche mode vocals. And then there’s Chirgilchin maintaining the traditional style. Huun Huur Tu splits the difference really nicely, adapting and evolving the art while avoiding any grandstanding or outrageous showyness. Meanwhile Bela Fleck and Laurie Anderson and others all have big plans for throat-singing collaborations and Tanya Tagaq takes a more playful Inuit throat-singing tradition and does Bjorkish things with it that might get a whale excited.

If much of Tuvan throat-singing is at least something of a… an… acquired taste, well rest assured that this collaboration goes down like honey. Traditional Tuvan throat singing may never be the same. The album can pretty much be divided up into three parts- the ones that include sweeping Chinese-inspired vocals like ‘Ancestors’ Call’ or ‘Mother Taiga,’ the ones that are more purely soundscapes like ‘Saryglarlar’ or ‘Dogee Mountain’ (Interlude), and the more typical deep throaty textures like ‘In Search of a Lost Past’ or ‘Orphaned Child’ or ‘Tuvan Prayer’. All in all the whole thing could be titled ‘Theme from an Imaginary Chinese Movie’ or even be the soundtrack TO that movie and fit right in. Imagine Zhang Ziyi being carried over steppe and dune on the backs of Mongolian porters. Imagine Mongol horsemen gathering on the hillside. Imagine a shaman beating a drum and dancing and chanting inside a rug-adorned yurt. Let your imagination run wild. This album will help, ‘ETERNAL’ by Huun Huur Tu and Carmen Rizzo. Check it out.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Crossroads Music Festival Rocks Zambia

It's not like I traveled across the planet just to come to this small regional festival, but it's not like I didn't either. Opportunities for true 'cultural travel' are few and far between, and generally more staged than spontaneous (otherwise it might not happen, right?). X-Roads is still in that category, shifting dates and flakey info, never sure if it'll happen, much less WHEN. Festival du Desert has long ago become just another world music festival, albeit in Timbuktu, but don't expect to hang out with Tinariwen these days. X-Roads doesn't have names like these, of course, and it's not even fully professional even, more like tomorrow's stars paying today's dues. But it's good, and fun. It revolves around the five countries of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania, almost everything, that is, except Francophone Africa. Surprisingly enough, France is chief sponsor of this event. Merci beaucoup.
Unfortunately I was fighting flu-like symptoms at the time and couldn't participate fully, but the music was a welcome tonic, and the vibe was cool... and lively. I'm better now. The pictures don't really do it justice. Check out their MySpace site.

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