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"It's really this idea of preserving the music that's important to me," says Kaigal-ool Khovalyg of Huun-Huur Tu, a quartet that's sometimes billed as the Throat Singers of Tuva. "Of doing something that will enable this music to survive and to be passed on to the next generation."
Khovalyg and associates Anatoli Kuular, Sayan Bapa and Alexei Sarytlar have gone a long way toward achieving this goal in a very short period of time, especially considering the isolation of Tuva, an autonomous republic located between Mongolia and Siberia that seldom appears on consumer maps. Outsiders were barred from the region until the late Eighties, and it took even longer for people like Ted Levin, a professor of ethnomusicology at Dartmouth University who also serves as Huun-Huur Tu's part-time manager, spokesman and translator for Khovalyg during interviews like this one, to successfully introduce this unique sound abroad. But one of the men just as responsible for opening up the land of the throat singers--soloists who can sing harmonies with themselves--was the late Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist better known for developing quantum electrodynamics than for breaking musical ground.
Feynman was fascinated by Tuva even though his only pictures of its nomadic hunters, horsemen, yaks and Bactrian camels were on rare postage stamps. He attempted for years to gain permission from representatives of the Soviet Union, which ruled Tuva then, to enter the area, but to no avail. Levin, meanwhile, was part of a group called the Harmonic Choir, which, he says, "was the first group in the United States that was really doing overtone singing in a systematic way." He and Feynman first became aware of each other during the Seventies, after the release of the Harmonic Choir's first album. "One day we got a cassette tape in the mail," Levin remembers. "And we opened it up, and there was a note from Richard Feynman saying, 'Dear Harmonic Choir: I heard this recording and thought you might like it.' And it was a cassette of melodia music from Tuva that he had somehow gotten access to--one that had been made in the 1960s by a Russian folklorist. And I listened to that record, and when I heard that music, I knew that I needed to go to that place."
The physicist never got the opportunity: The authorization to visit Tuva that he'd sought for so long (and which is now routinely granted to anyone with a Russian visa) arrived in his mailbox after his death. But Levin carried on Feynman's playful quest, and his persistence was finally rewarded in 1987. "It took about seven years from the time that I heard that tape until I was able to get permission to go," he notes.
Because Levin was the first American allowed into Tuva, he was given the royal treatment. "We were taken around by our hosts from the Ministry of Culture, and formal concerts were arranged for us," he says. "In fact, I felt a little bit like Catherine the Great in the famous Potemkin village. Villages were literally repainted for us, and musicians were let out of work for a week to rehearse for our visit. Of course, this was exactly the opposite of what we wanted." Fortunately, the situation improved during Levin's second trip to Tuva, in the summer of 1988. "Already we were beginning to get out into the yurts [animal-skin tents] and into the places where we could really hear this music in a more or less authentic way."
The four members of Huun-Huur Tu came together several years later. "One of them I met during my first trip to Tuva in 1987," Levin recalls. "The others I met in 1993 when Ralph Leighton--who lives in California and was a friend of Richard Feynman's and is at least partially responsible for this sort-of Tuva craze in the United States--had the idea to bring some throat singers to ride horses in the Rose Bowl parade and do throat singing. And he asked me whether I'd be willing to have the musicians come out to the East Coast and do a couple of concerts and come to my college, and I arranged that. So when they came, they did the Rose Bowl parade, and we started to realize we had a kind of hit on our hands. A lot of people were getting in touch and saying they wanted to work with these musicians, and suddenly there was an agent and there was a record company, and there were people like Frank Zappa and Mickey Hart calling to try to do some sort of collaborations."
It's easier to understand the appeal of Tuvan music than it is to describe it. There are several different styles of throat singing (sygyt, hoomey and kargyraa among them), but typically a solo singer emits a low drone reminiscent of the voice of Froggy from the Little Rascals, then simultaneously incorporates a whistling melody on top. This is accomplished by contorting the vocal chords and tongue in such a way that the harmonic overtones (present in everyone's voice but normally inaudible) become dominant. By altering these contortions, the singer can vary the pitch of the whistling harmonic to create a melody over the static drone. The small metal resonator known as a Jew's harp produces similar tones, but those made by throat singers are much more apt to make your hair stand on end.