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Mesmerized and Transported by Alash - Tuvan Throat Singers!

Venue: One Longfellow Square, Portland, ME ~ Feb 27, 2010

Apr 21, 2010
Kimmy Sophia Brown

I just want to start out by saying how grateful I am to TomRota at One Longfellow Square, for bringing so many incredible musicians to Portland, Maine. We are so lucky to live in this modern age when we can not only watch a documentary on television in order to experience foreign culture, but sometimes we can experience it right in our own backyard – or at our favorite local folk venue, as it were!

Such an act is Alash, the foursome of throat singers fromTuva. Tuva is near Mongolia, Siberia and China. Their population lives in yurts and primarily herds various animals such as yaks, sheep and camels and even reindeer. They love horses and many of their songs are about herding, horses and beautiful women.

They came out on stage in a very dignified way, wearingtheir loose black hair long and tied back or in a long braid. They wore gold trimmed robes of blue, brown or black, and very thick, ornate leather boots. A lot of Asian music I have heard in the past, such as Chinese opera, is very discordant to me and not pleasant to listen to, but these songs, even with the unusual throat sounds were truly melodic. I found myself crying from the first song, I was deeply moved immediately.

AlashTo quote a comment about them from Newsweekmagazine, March 17, 2006; “Imagine a human bagpipe – a person who couldsing a sustained low note while humming an eerie, whistle-like melody. For good measure toss in a thrumming rhythm similar to that of a jaw harp, but produced vocally – by the same person, at the same time.”

That pretty much says it. They have the ability to pullwesterners out of their concept of musical sound. I could feel their cultural DNA pouring through them, the result of ancestors who figured out this unique form of singing, coupled with the truly enchanting accompaniment on their various stringed instruments that sound something like cellos and violins. Besides that, they used a type of jaw harp, a classical guitar, wooden horns or flutes, various types of rattles and bells, (including a pair that looked like horse hoofs), and a very large drum that boomed into my soul with every beat.

I kept thinking about how the music must be performed intheir homeland. I imagined gatherings around bonfires, passing around gourds of yak milk while their music uplifts the hearts of the community after a hard day facing the desolate elements. The music has rocking rhythms that, I imagine, have lulled to sleep all the babies of Tuva. It was hard to believe that only four men could make such complex and rich sounds. I couldn’t stop moving my body as I listened, swaying or tapping my feet. Without understanding a word of what they were saying, I was hypnotized.

At the end of each song, the drummer leaned into themicrophone and said, “Thank you very much,” with a really warm smile. He also said, in English, with a very charming heart, “How are you?” So cute! Their faces were sweet and kind. The house was full and the reaction was wonderful. They received two standing ovations and uproarious cheers from the audience, and their CDs seemed to be selling like Mongolian hotcakes. It must be so satisfying for them to have their music so well received by people from such a different culture. Music really is the language of peace and understanding.

A young American man named Sean Quirk served as their MCduring the performance, introducing them and the songs with a bit of translation. Here’s a link from NPR that explains more about how Sean gotinvolved with Alash. 

I’ve attended a few Native American powwows in Virginia overthe years and was always very moved by the drumming and chanting. I think it would be great if Alash had the chance to attend some Native American powwows during their tour. (Maybe they did.) I think they might cry over a reunion with those who might be their long lost cousins.

As an aside, check out the 1999 movie, Genghis Blues,the story of a blind blues singer, Paul Pena, and how he learned throat singing and went to Tuva, at

You can check out Alash’s website at or do a search on to hear a song sample.But I have to tell you that nothing will take the place of hearing them live.

For music lovers visiting Portland, Maine, I highly recommend
One Longfellow Square ~ "Portland's Premier Arts Venue"
Check them out at

Photograph by: Julie Collins

Kimmy Sophia Brown has loved humor and music and freedom for as long as she can remember.She is especially passionate about the environment and caring for animals.

She writes the column "From the Back Porch" as well as reviews of music in her column "MusicViews". Her goal in her music reviews is to introduce music she loves to people who may not have heard that particular artist or CD. For information about how to submit a CD for review, click here.

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