By Laura Shane
The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica at 1310 11th St. will present a rare performance by Alash, a trio of master throat singers from Tuva, a tiny republic in the heart of Central Asia, on Friday, March 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Grounded in tradition while expanding its musical vocabulary with new ideas from the West, the ensemble and its individual members have consistently won top honors on the highest stages.
Tuvans boast a musical identity all their own, featuring a vocal tradition that has put them on the world-music map: throat singing. The Alash Ensemble honors that heritage with a modern twist. Its influences include all the modern throat singers, but also American innovators such as Jimi Hendrix and Sun Ra.
In an interview with NPR, Sean Quirk, Alash’s interpreter and manager explains, “Throat singing is technically the art of controlling overtones. The act of singing generates many partials — frequencies that are present, but not always readily heard. What [throat singers] are doing is essentially — they’re filtering out their voice[s]. They’re amplifying the overtones that they want, and de-amplifying the ones that they don’t want. And they’re doing that by making certain pressure at their vocal folds, and… at their ‘false’ vocal folds.”
Quirk continues, “Tuva is actually the center of a very ancient cultural sphere that people don’t know much about, because [Tuvans] were nomadic. They didn’t build any palaces or leave behind any written language. But it’s an amazing, very unique culture. And so it touches people a lot, because it’s so ancient.”
Trained in traditional Tuvan music since childhood, the Alash musicians studied at Kyzyl Arts College just as Tuva was beginning to open up to the West. They formed a traditional ensemble and won multiple awards for traditional throat singing in international mei competitions, both as an ensemble and as individuals. They have borrowed new ideas that mesh well with the sound and feel of traditional Tuvan music, but they have never sacrificed the integrity of their own heritage in an effort to make their music more hip.
Alash first toured the U.S. under the sponsorship of the Open World Leadership program of the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts. They appear as guest artists on Béla Fleck & the Flecktones’ holiday CD Jingle All the Way (2008), which won a Grammy.
The Denver Post remarked, “As electrifying as the Flecktones’ performance was, the band were nearly upstaged by Alash Ensemble.” Since Alash’s first partnership with the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra, they have collaborated with musicians across the spectrum, from country to classical to jazz to beatboxing. Most recently, the jazz CD The Viridian Trio (2017) features Alash in a musical remembrance of the late Kongar-ool Ondar.
Beyond performing, Alash has a passion for teaching and promoting understanding between cultures. Their tours often include workshops where they introduce Tuvan music to students from primary, middle and high schools, colleges, universities, and music conservatories. Children as young as 8 and 9 have learned to throat-sing.
The groups has 3 members, and while all of them are Alash’s throat singing sound, they each play different instruments to further supplement their craft. Bady-Dorzhu Ondar plays the igil, a Tuvan bowed string instrument, Ayan-ool Sam also plays the igil, but also uses the doshpuluur, a long necked Tuvan instrument representing a lute. Finally, Ayan Shirizhik mobilizes a variety of instruments, from the kengirge, a large drum instrument, to the xomus, which is best described as a “mouth harp.”