Sunday, July 12, 2009

July 12: Huun-Huur-Tu, "The Orphan's Lament"

Artist: Huun-Huur-Tu
Album: The Orphan's Lament
Year: 1994
Label: Shanachie

It is almost impossible to even remotely begin to cover the wide range of sounds and music that are produced throughout the world. In most cases, the unique music of an area of the world is created as a result of the environment and culture. However, now and again, a similar aesthetic can be found developed in different ways throughout the world. Though containing a myriad of subtle differences, the practice of "throat singing" is found in countries literally all over the world. From Native American tribes of North America to tribes in Africa, throat singing is alive and well after centuries of being performed. Yet, nearly all of the styles found throughout the world can be traced back to roots in the southeast and south-central regions of Asia; primarily the countries of Tuva, Mongolia, and Tibet. It can be argued that the sounds' prominence in the region is due to the breathtaking acoustics created by the high mountains and rivers that cut through them. Though there are countless artists who dutifully perform these ancient styles of singing, few are more stunning and enjoyable than the Tuvian quartet known as Huun-Huur-Tu. Releasing a handful of records throughout the 1990's, their 1994 release, The Orphan's Lament, is an extraordinary musical masterpiece that formally introduced the world to this unique musical style.

Huun-Huur-Tu, a name that roughly translates into "sun propeller," bring a harmonious mixture of amazing musical textures that is truly like nothing else ever heard in music. To fully appreciate what exactly it "is" that Huun-Huur-Tu does, one needs a small background into what exactly it means to "throat sing." Also called "overtone singing" or more specifically, the "xöömi" style of throat singing, the style itself originated within the farmers and herders of Tuva. It is thought they used the technique because, due to the landscape of the country, sound travels a very great distance. The method itself involves a singer manipulating the resonances of his voice so that it produces multiple, simultaneous pitches. Breaking it down to musical theory, the singer is actually singing the primary note, as well as the notes' overtone(s), the later often sounding almost like a flute; but it is, in fact, a human voice. What sets Huun-Huur-Tu apart from other artists who perform the style is primarily the fact that there are four members in the group, performing together at the same time. Nearly all throat singers perform solo, and unlike Huun-Huur-Tu, they rarely have any musical accompaniment.

Presenting a number of different instruments along with their singing, The Orphan's Lament, becomes far more accessible than nearly every other performer in the genre. Blending Central-Asian folk music and instruments into their singing, the songs almost sound "more" authentic than if the instrumentation were absent. From the acoustic guitar of "Agitator" to the Jew's Harp found on a number of the songs, each track sounds as if the group could be sitting on a mountain pass performing solely for the listener. Along with the traditional guitar, Hunn-Huur-Tu plays a number of native string instruments like the igil, doshpuluur, and khomus. Also present on a few tracks, and extremely rarely heard on any other throat singing recordings, is a goat-skin drum, called a tungur, which is more commonly found in traditional religious rituals in the region. Along with the tungur, they also use a pouch rattle to keep a smooth, steady rhythm, and the combination of the music and the singing becomes very accessible to those who have never heard anything beyond those genres based in blues. It is this organic, authentic mood that makes The Orphan's Lament so fantastic, and though most have never heard anything even remotely close to the sound, it is instantly a warm, enjoyable musical experience.

Even though the musical undertones are wonderful, the core of what makes Huun-Huur-Tu so phenomenal is the way in which the quartet manipulates their voices throughout The Orphan's Lament. From the albums' opening track, "Prayer," the sounds produced by the singers draws you in and keeps you captivated for the entire album. While each song has its own personality, which keeps the album from getting mundane, a majority of the time, the singers stick to creating just two or three notes at once, letting each sound fully resonate. Whether a single member is being featured on vocals, or they are all singing with one another, the sound produced is as eerie as it is magical, and it is truly mesmerizing. Though many of the songs have titles that simply reflect the main refrain within the singing, one can easily understand whether it is a song of joy, reflection, or sadness. From deep, earthly chanting to more upbeat songs, the varied moods and meanings of the singing is perfectly conveyed, regardless of a language barrier for most listeners. Huun-Huur-Tu also combines "normal" singing with their throat singing, like on the song "Eerbek-Aksy," and the results are just as amazing. Overall, The Orphan's Lament presents a wide range of incorporations of throat singing, from simple, unaccompanied solos, to far more involved orchestrations, and the results are true musical bliss each and every time.

When people think of the term, "world music," a majority of the time, it is only referring to African or South American, polyrhythmic sounds. Obviously though, such a term must encapsulate the sounds of every culture, as nearly every part of the world has their own, traditional style of music. Though different incarnations of the style are found all over the world, throat singing takes its roots from the farmers of southeast and south-central Asia, who still regularly practice the method to this day. Taking the traditional method of throat singing, and combining it with light instrumentation, Tuvan throat singers, Hunn-Huur-Tu, present an amazing, and entirely unique spin on the ancient practice. The group itself has had a few personnel changes over the years, and they have only released a handful of albums. Yet, their stunning presentation of the music of their ancestors has enlightened the world to the amazing talents and deep spirituality found within their singing. Even if one does not speak their language, the emotion and beauty within the music found on Hunn-Huur-Tu's 1994 release, The Orphan's Lament, is not in the least bit lost, and it is truly a phenomenal album that is a joy to experience time and time again.

Standout tracks: "Prayer," "Eerbek-Aksy," and "Irik Chuduk."

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