Concert Reviews

Over the weekend: Huun Huur Tu at Swallow Hill

Huun Huur Tu Friday, February 19th, 2010 Swallow Hill, Denver

Physicist Richard Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton spent a great deal of time trying to visit Tuva, a remote land that inspired some unusual postage stamps and gave us a unique style of vocal performance called xöömei. Unfortunately, Feynman died shortly before his visas to visit Tuva arrived. Fortunately for us, a troupe of internationally renowned musicians from Tuva performed in Denver on Friday at Swallow Hill.

Tuvan throat singing is probably about as familiar to most people as the folk music of Tuva. But from the enthusiastic reception the four members of Huun Huur Tu received, you'd never know it. Main Doshpuluur player Sayan Bapa served as the spokesman, announcing names of songs and explaining what each was about. Bapa's grace and dignity was undeniable, matched only by that of the group's founder Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, as well as by that of percussionist Alexey Saryglar and Byzaanchi player Radik Tyulyush.

Hearing xöömei in action is to be transported outside the framework of Western music entirely. The tones that Khovalyg and Tyulyush achieved were startlingly unlike anything you're going to hear in almost any kind of music you could name. Often starting with streaming guttural low tones, both men also created a simultaneous over tone that did not sound like it could have been produced by a human being -- maybe a synthesizer with some pitch shifting and sound modulation, but not a human. At another point in the set, hearing Khovalyg switch seamlessly between that vocal technique and impassioned singing in a regular human voice seemed superhuman.

The group performed songs stretching back to the 11th century, and the songs eloquently expressed sentiments incorporating the imagery of Tuva: Horses, mountains, wooded glades, traditional home life in the yurt. There was a song sense of motion, of travel, in the music and Saryglar used genuine horse hooves to simulate the sound of the animal at a gallop and a bag, which the band's manager later told us was a bull scrotum, filled with resonant stones as a shaker to sound like the metal parts of the horse's harness that would be heard on a ride across the steppes.

After two sets, Huun Huur Tu received a wildly enthusiastic, standing ovation that ultimately brought the foursome back to stage to play "a very special horse song." It had speedy pace that suggested great momentum, and when it came to a halt, the crowd once again cheered and stood to honor the band's riveting performance. Tripp Wallin later said the group had played its "hits," but even someone unfamiliar with the material entirely couldn't help but be moved by the elegance and understated emotional power of Huun Huur Tu's music.

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Random Detail: I saw David Eugene Edwards hanging out before the performance. By the Way: Huun Huur Tu released a great album with Carmen Rizzo last year called Eternal.