Groovin With Tuvans

Did you ever see that superfine old PBS program Connections, wherein James Burke would show the haphazard sequence of events that led to a modern invention? He might start with inquisitive 15th century monks giving electric shocks to naked boys and how the line of inquiry begun there resulted in the atom bomb or somesuch.

There's a similarly removed causal link to the Tuvan throat singers Huun-Huur-Tu, appearing at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Saturday. The fact that you're able to groove to Tuvans is directly related to a young kid decades ago in Far Rockaway, New York, being fascinated with a triangular postage stamp, which came from the remote Central Asian republic of Tuva, which had become all the more remote when it was absorbed by the Soviet Union.

The thread then weaves through Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the kid with the stamp wound up working on the Manhattan Project because he was the young physics genius Richard Feynman. The same concentration that Nobel Prize winner Feynman applied to visualizing the most abstract physics problems, he applied to various other pursuits, such as lock-picking, picking up women and conga drumming.

One day, late in life, when talking with his drum partner and co-autobiographer Ralph Leighton, they decided to try visiting someplace obscure, and Feynman thought of the Tuva of his triangular stamp. They read what little they could find on the place—learned about the inhabitants' living in yurts, their skill on horseback and, most beguiling, their throat singing—and it became Feynman's passion to visit there before cancer did him in. He and Leighton tried official channels; they tried subterfuge but couldn't make headway with the insular Soviets, who scarcely allowed visitors into their showcase cities much less their remotest regions. By the time approval finally came through in 1988, Feynman had been dead for several weeks.

Leighton made the trip, though, and he and ethnomusicologist Ted Levin brought the throat-singing outfit Huun-Huur-Tu to the States in 1993, where they toured; collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, Ry Cooder, the late Frank Zappa and others; and even rode their horses in the Rose Parade.

Which would all merely be a cute tale were it not also noted that Feynman's whimsical obsession resulted in us getting to hear some of the strangest and most obscure, beautiful and hauntingly human music on the planet.

The ancient style of Tuvan throat singing is such a novel use of the human physiognomy that an article in Scientific American was devoted to it. Unlike most other singers on the planet, Tuvan throat singers—they call the style khoomei—can produce two or more notes simultaneously, along with manipulating the eerie interactions between those notes. The range of sounds coming out of their mouths can range from a low, gritty Popeye-like voice similar to a South African "graoner," up the scale to flute or violin-like harmonics, to some positively Martian-sounding stuff.

To them, though, it's the sound of nature. Like the aboriginal singing discussed in Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, the semi-nomadic Tuvans' songs are a musical form of topography, setting landscapes to music, with it all passing by at a horse-clop rhythm. As exotic as it is, it is also immediately thrilling to hear. If you miss this performance (and you shouldn't), you should at least watch Genghis Blues sometime, the documentary about a blind Bay Area street singer who learned the khoomei style and traveled to Tuva.

The last time Huun-Huur-Tu (which means "Sun Propeller," and why not?) performed in Orange County, it was with the Bulgarian Women's Choir, and it was only partially wonderful. Each outfit had only a few brief numbers to strut their own stuff and was otherwise engaged fleshing out the musical visions of some best-forgotten Russian jazz composer. He was probably a well-meaning guy, but the result sounded like the worst sort of musical imperialism.

This time out, it's just Huun-Huur-Tu, direct from their yurts to you, and it should be marvelous.



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