What do you get if you roll together Howlin’ Wolf, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits with ancient nomadic culture and alien-sounding flute-like harmonics run through quirky boutique resonance effects boxes?
Last night at the packed Lawrence Arts Center I experienced for the second time in about a year the Alash Ensemble from Tuva , a tiny nation by Mongolia that has belonged to many empires over the centuries. They are billed as Tuvan throat singers, but that doesn’t really do justice to the wide range of instruments and sonic contours this unique group weaves together during their intimate concert presentations. As a musician myself with a long-time interest in ethnic music from around the world, I’ve heard many of the elements before, but nothing quite prepares me for the amazing range of sensations I experience as Alash takes us on journey back to an era before human speech was fully developed and then all the way up through the ages, sometimes incorporating subtle references to modern musical idioms and a powerful group synthesis that transcends the solo-based tradition (recall their nomadic history).
In that hour or so of altered musical consciousness, I’ve felt a connection to something so ancient it gives me the delicious creeps, impulsively laughed nearly out loud with a knowing humor at sentiments I can’t even understand the verbal language of, enjoyed a soporific drift through a flowing dream of shifting textures both soothing and barbed, rolled along beside a mighty river feeling the gigantic uneven saunter of a water buffalo beneath me, and fought to restrain myself from headbanging in my chair to a wall of implied rhythm and vocal breakdowns that rocked hard without explicitly rocking at all.
The instruments are made of wood, horse hair, animal skin, and hooves and when blown through, bowed, picked, strummed and beaten the resulting effect conjures fantastic mental imagery and unexpected emotions in those disposed to such experiences with music. These guys are truly masters of harmonics and overtones, in so many ways.
By far the most distinctive element, though, is the large variety of throat singing that appears during this journey. This is where my whimsical amalgamation in the opening paragraph is useful, as there really is no way to describe what it’s like to receive this sound directly, sitting there in close physical proximity to it. The first time I saw them at Spooner Hall and the first piece had commenced, I had just happily latched onto a mesmerizing Howlin’ Wolf vocal timbre when this beautiful, disembodied high-pitched oscillating harmonic drifted in far above, rhythmically modulating in pitch and sound-shape. I had to fight the urge to look around the flat, open room to see where it was coming from but I could see with my eyes that the same singer was producing both sounds and doing so with a fair amount of effort judging by the intense concentration, reddening face and a trickle of sweat forming on his brow.
This time around in the much better space of the Lawrence Arts Center theater, it was every bit as exotic and spellbinding and I began to hear more nuance in the various forms of throat singing these gifted and acclaimed artists bring us as gifts from the far side of the planet and the from the reaches of millennia. It should grab attention that the likes of Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten have come so strongly under Alash’s spell, and there was an easy connection to the performers with their sincere and humble demeanor radiating through the language barrier with the help of witty and informative appearances by their American-become-Tuvan manager now and then. But I’ll end by saying that for me it evokes sensations that are wonderfully beyond direct description – you will just have to make it a mission to experience this transporting experience for yourself some day.