It is cold tonight — but not a touch on the sub-zero Siberian winters that Huun-Huur-Tu have weathered in their homelands of Tuva, a remote region of Russia near the outer Mongolian border.
Proof that group huddles around a fire for warmth result in sing-a-longs, especially those that take place in a yurt.
Sayan Bapa founding member of the veteran throat singing ensemble shared his stories with Kiwese and friends around a slow-burning brazier in the leafy outskirts of Chengdu, after the group’s hypnotizing show on Saturday night.
“Close your eyes and listen.”
Sayan Bapa sits wide-legged and at ease with a cup of mulled wine. They have just performed to a tightly packed crowd from ages 3 to 83, of all cultural backgrounds and music tastes, where their synchronised voices rang out in harmonies across a sea of perked ears and raised cellphones, side-by-side before a backdrop of wispy blue horses, shattering and dissolving into the misty atmosphere.
The group of us sit around, warming our hands over the fire. Sayan’s deep hum of a voice and thickly punctuated accent resonates through the air, even in conversation.
In song, Huun-Huur-Tu’s voices make your body quiver, reaching a frequency that brings goats to a standstill in the grassy steppes where they hail from.
WATCH: Huun-Huur-Tu live at Zaoshanghao, Chengdu, on the ‘From Tuva to Beijing’ Tour, 13 December 2014,
Visuals by Cha Fei 叉飞:
This masterful ability to achieve long, multi-pitched notes through the diaphragm, lungs, muscles and throat are unaffected by the singer’s penchant for the somwhat less salubrious aspects of life – and we all burst out laughing as Sayan is handed an additional cup of mulled wine.
“If you are singing you can just get everything out,” he says, sipping his initial wine. “Kaigal and I are smokers. And we also drink.” Having just downed a beer with eager Chengdu fans in Zaoshanghao’s tree clad outdoor garden venue, he remarks upon the secluded and intimate venue as “a lovely place.”
Sayan and his long-time musical bro Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, whom he started playing traditional Tuvan music with when he was 17, were part of the original quartet of musicians from the region that formed Huun-Huur-Tu during a trip to New York, a journey which came into fruition through an incredible cross-country, cross-cultural tale involving a cassette tape, an ethnomusicologist and a Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist in the early 1990s.
Huun-Huur-Tu are legends of the inimitable khoomei sound; an art “which requires a lot of control and power,” but can be learned by listening, observing and trying, according to Sayan. I first heard the word ‘Tuvan’ when fine dining at KC with Jonny Marks of the All Seeing Hand, who mentioned the Tuvan style is often hailed as the archetype of throat singing success in the ‘World’ music world.
The members of the group are build, perform and repair their own instruments. According to one source, the group first visited the United States with a rattle made from sheep knee bones enclosed in an inflated and hardened bull scrotum.
As the fire crackles away, Sayan lights a cigarette. The allegories between humans and nature are everywhere, he says. A stringed aficionado, he discusses the natural materials of their home-made instruments, including his doshpuluur, a three-stringed box shaped banjo made of mountain goat skin on both sides and wood from a native pine for the neck.
“In our culture it is very important to be a multi-instrumentalist,” he explains. “In Tuva, we have many different instruments and a kind of Chinese guqin 古琴, but I use also a classical guitar with lots of different tunings to imitate these ancient sounds.”
“We met with one of the best musicians in the United States, his name was Frank Zappa.”
From shepherd life, to life on the road, Sayan and Kaigal have travelled the world by sharing their unique voice and collaborating with other musicians in improvised and often unexpected ways, including an epic jam session with the legendary Frank Zappa, to electronic producers such as Carmen Rizzo and even a Bulgarian women’s choir, naturally.
WATCH: Original members of Huun-Huur-Tu collaborate in a jam with the Chieftans, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and friends at Frank Zappa’s house in 1993, shortly before he passed of cancer.
Despite the thirty years of touring and occasional rest periods at home in Kyzyl, Sayan is still overwhelmed by the mountainous urban terrain of skyscrapers and highways.
“Every time I see how huge this city is, how many people are here… wow,” he says of Chengdu’s vertical and horizontal sprawl. “We live in nature back home, surrounded by mountains, rivers and lakes. You still have families who live in yurts, who are still herders; nomads.”
Sandwiched between the Siberian to the north and Mongolia to the south, the remote grasslands of Tuva have endured many “hard times” throughout their long and turbulent history, the ‘Tuvan Autonomous Oblast’ and ‘Tuva ASSR’ among some of the less catchy titles bestowed during the Soviet era. Today it is known as Tuva Republic, a semi-autonomous region of Russia.
“We have a harsh story in our country,” he reflects, “it was kind of like the Cultural Revolution in China,” he adds. “The Government killed its musicians, destroyed its instruments, destroyed religion, all these good things in music were lost.” Sayan laments of the lost music during the enforced reduction of Tibetan Buddhist and shaman culture in Tuvan society during these times: “there used to be a Tuvan harp, but we don’t have it now.”
Revitalisation and protection of traditional Tuvan music and instruments is a core part of Huun-Huur-Tu’s reason for touring. “We are among the last people who know the real traditional music,” he gestures widely, their unique homegrown drone zone culminating with Turkic, Siberian and Mongolian influences, “we want to try and reproduce the soul and emotion of our homeland in our music,” he says.
According to Sayan, despite cultural and linguistic differences, there are far more commonalities than people might think in the creation and appreciation of music. “Like in jazz, if you know scales or chords or songs, you start to improvise around them. It is the same in our culture.”
“In our tradition, we don’t have real teachers, the young generation just sit with me and improvise – just play with me, look at what I do, and how I make instruments.”
“We used to have a taboo that khoomei was not for women – it was believed to be bad for their health, for having babies…” he trails off, responding to Ming Ming’s question about the traditionally masculine activity of throat singing, “there is a lot of tension, you know,” he gestures towards his wide chest with a cigarette in hand.
There are now a growing number of women who are performing the art, and doing it well, he says.
Sayan touches on a “sad, deep song” the band did not perform tonight, called Orphan’s Lament. “Sometimes when we play this song, it makes us cry. It is about loss and life.”
More upbeat, weep-free version, here.
Time is almost up. The band’s manager interjects in Chinese that the group need to rest ahead of tomorrow’s journey.
Lydia poses a question about the local music scene in Tuva, a topic which Sayan is positive about. “We have Tuvan Culture Centre in the capital city, we have a lot of concerts, a national orchestra, and lots of young groups playing different instruments. It is getting better and better.”
For those wanting to travel to Tuva? “You can first fly to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, then take another plane or taxi to Tuva,” he concludes, saying it is much easier to travel there than it used to be.
And as the embers burn away, Sayan is separated from his family Tuva by hundreds of kilometres and the Sayan Mountains, from which he takes his name, but there is no homesickness in his heart.
“Yes, we are far from our home, but if we close our eyes, we are there,” he says with a content grin, “and it doesn’t feel so far away.”
Special thanks to Ming Ming (The Hormones) for inviting me to join in this rare and candid interview experience, as well as Lydia, Mat and Xiao Mei (Zaomengshe) for sussing tickets and supplementary questions. Thanks Tan Zhong and Louise Marques Pedro for video footage and photographs.
Extra shout out to the crew at Zaoshanghao 早上好 Morning Bar for post-birthday tequila shots. “不是明天。。。”