The Alash Ensemble's members first met while in performing-arts school, and were mentored by master throat singer Kongar-ool Ondar.
For years, the territory that makes up Tuva spent hundreds of years changing hands. The semi-autonomous republic is now technically part of Russia.
But 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.
Alash recently visited WNYC's Soundcheck for an in-studio performance. Between songs, Sean Quirk, the group's manager and translator, fielded questions from host John Schaefer.
Quirk first discovered Tuvan throat singing as an undergraduate student, and became fascinated by it. While working as a bicycle messenger in Chicago, he taught himself throat-singing techniques.
His interest led to a year-long Fulbright scholarship to Tuva, where he played bass in the Tuvan National Orchestra, a large folk-music ensemble. Working with the orchestra introduced Quirk to the members of Alash. And in 2006, the group started touring the U.S.
Quirk explained that what is commonly called throat singing is technically the art of controlling overtones. He says that 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]," Quirk says. "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, who has become fluent in the Tuvan language, demonstrates various basic throat-singing techniques, adding, "There's about 10 minutes of explanation you can do, and a long, long time of practice that it takes."
A Curious Collaboration
Alash has taken its act on the road to many unexpected settings, performing separate concerts with the out-jazz Sun Ra Arkestra and classical musicians based at New York's Lincoln Center. Recently, Alash also recorded with a banjo player known for his love of crossing genres: Bela Fleck.
Fleck had worked with Tuvan musicians in the past, so Quirk sent Fleck's saxophonist Jeff Coffin an email.
"And that turned into Bela getting back to me and saying, 'Actually, we're going to be recording a Christmas album,' " Quirk says. "'And if you guys are going to be anywhere near Nashville this summer, why don't you come down?' And so we did — spent a couple days in Bela's basement."
The results appear on Fleck's latest holiday album, Jingle All the Way.
Along with other Tuvan acts to achieve global recognition of late (Huun-Huur-Tu, Albert Kuvezin and Yat-Kha), the success of Alash provides another indication that Tuvan throat singing has hit on the world stage. Quirk says that has to do in part with Tuvan culture.
"Tuva is actually the center of a very ancient cultural sphere that people don't know much about, because [Tuvans] were nomadic," Quirk says. "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."