(This was written many years ago, as pre-show publicity, and then my concert notes say, “Huun Huur Tu means Sun Propeller, the way the rays shoot out from a cloud – the visual effect that a friend once pointed to and said “Look, there’s God.” The harmonics are not what I expected. I’d been thinking in terms of the violin, where you touch the string lightly in a certain place and it makes a sound an octave higher – but for the throat singer, the lower voice is a drone, while upper voice moves around.”)
The brilliant physicist Richard Feynman was the youngest member of the team that invented the atomic bomb. He conceptualized the field of nanotechnology as far back as the 1950s, and many years later it was he who figured out and explained to Congress that the Challenger space shuttle exploded because of defective O-rings.
One of the most interesting things about Feynman was his burning ambition to visit Tannu Tuva. As a child, he had collected the country’s wonderful triangular and diamond-shaped stamps depicting feats of horsemanship, wrestling, archery, and hunting, along with foxes, sables, and many other animals. The bureaucratic red tape took years, and Feynman died before he could get to Tuva. He never even got to hear the unique music except on tape, but we have the opportunity to hear and see Huun-Huur-Tu, the Throat Singers of Tuva. They will be at the Boulder Theatre on February 6. A slide show begins at 7 pm and the concert itself at 8.
Tuva consists of a group of high valleys located in the basin of the Upper Yenisei, between Siberia, the Altai Mountains and the Gobi Desert. The forested zones support a reindeer herding and hunting economy; the high forest and meadow zones an economy based on cattle and horses. Dry upland steppes in the south and east pasture several different kinds of herds – sheep, goats, camels, cattle, horses, yaks and reindeer. A 1931 census revealed that 82% of the population were nomadic herders who followed set migratory routes, moving an average of four times a year.
The people of Tuva also engaged in farming, smithery, jewelry making, and stone and wood carving. Chonardash, or carvable stone, is the rare mineral pyrophillite, which is found only on the summit of one mountain, and has to be dug from a depth of several meters. When first excavated it is pliable, but soon afterward becomes hard as iron.
The people of Tuva are from an ethnic group called the Uriankhai, and historically lived in yurts, round felt-covered huts. Their language has thirteen different words to describe horses of various ages, appearance, function and behavior. Traditionally, the heads of small children of both sexes were shaved except for one lock of hair at the front. The most treasured delicacy of the cuisine is fat of lamb’s tail. Several thousand Tuvans live in Mongolia. The actor Maxim Munzuk, who starred in the cult movie Dersu Uzala, is a Tuvan.
The title Ulag Kham means Great Shaman. The shamans or traditional spiritual leaders would attire themselves in complicated, many-layered costumes, ornamented with iron, that weighed over fifty pounds. Inhaling the smoke of a local narcotic grass, they would play the drums until they entered a trance state.
Tuva is rich in such archeological finds as spectacular Scythian bronze and gold sculptures from between 800 BC to 200 BC, including jewelry for horses. In the Hunnic period, the first 500 years of the Christian era, the Tuvans made arrows with oddly shaped tips which caused them to whistle in flight. One of the wonders of Tuva is an eighth-century fortified palace which nearly covers an entire island in the middle of a lake, and no one knows to this day how the stone was transported there
An eccentric Englishman who made it his life’s work to reach the midpoint of each continent and erect monuments there, deemed Saldam, in Tuva, to be smack dab in the middle of Asia, and put up his monument to it in the late 19th century.
As late as 1943, Tannu Tuva was shown in atlases, but after that it disappeared, because in 1944 the nation allegedly asked to join the USSR. This had little to do with the desires of Tuva itself, and a lot to do with the discovery there of massive amounts of uranium, the first such deposits found in the Soviet sphere of influence. Kyzyl, the capital the newly-christened Tuvinskaya, became the Soviet Union’s “Atom City.”
Throat singing, or khoomei, is described as a “marvel of applied physics” in which the singer produces two or even three notes at once. The ancient style of vocalization has its dangers, and may cause a chronic inflammation of the throat that can lead to cancer. According to legend, khoomei began when a monk heard overtones in a waterfall in an acoustically unique canyon in Western Mongolia. A manual on folk arts said of a khoomei singer, “With his lower voice he sings the melody and accompanies it at the same time with a surprisingly pure and tender sound similar to that of the flute.” Other harmonic techniques produce the sounds of birds, flowing water, and the jingling stirrups of a galloping horse.
Richard Leighton wrote, “At first the higher ‘voice’ sounded like a flute, several octaves higher than the fundamental tone. Then came even stranger styles of khoomei, the most bizarre of which was the ‘rattling’ style, which sounded like a long-winded frog.” One explorer reported hearing a native sing in front of his yurt – “He sang in what seemed to be two voices at once, one reminiscent of the homus, a Tuvinian stringed instrument, and the other the mating call of the woodgrouse at dawn in spring.”
The singers of Huun-Huur-Tu accompany themselves with traditional instruments. Their stringed instruments, embellished with carved horse heads, include a vertical fiddle called the igil, a banjolike lute called the doshpulur, and a cello-like bowed instrument called the byzaanchi. They also employ the shaman’s drum and a rattle made from a bull’s scrotum.
For those who get hooked on the lore of this ancient land, more information is available from an organization founded by Richard Feynman.
Friends of Tuva
Pasadena CA 91117