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20 October 2010

Huun Huur Tu Gallop Back to Tuva's Traditions With a Saddlebag of New Tricks

Huun Huur Tu Gallop Back to Tuva's Traditions With a Saddlebag of New Tricks The ancient Tuvan song 'Chyraa-Khoor,' explains Radik Tyulyush of the Tuvan band Huun Huur Tu, tells the story of a man riding his horse – a yellow trotter, as the title translates.

"It's a very good horse for traveling, and he took it from the west of Tuva to the east of Tuva, traveling around and giving the names of everything – names of the mountains, names of the forests," he says over the phone from his home in Kyzyl, the capital of the Russian Federation republic that sits just north of Mongolia.

Even if you don't know the words, the music paints a stirring picture.

"That is a very old melody," says Tyulyush, the newest and, at 35, the youngest member of the group, who plays traditional flute and joins his bandmates in the signature Tuvan throat singing. "Very, very old – 13 or 14 centuries. Very old music."

And running through it is a classic bit of musical mimicry:

"We play the rhythm of the horse," he says, adding onomatopoeically: "Chk-chk-chk."

The song, in the version taken by Huun Huur Tu, was given to group leader Kaigal-ool Khovalyg by a folk scholar years ago, with instructions to take it around the world, and it became a core part of the group's repertoire throughout its two-decade career. But HHT kept riding that musical horse well beyond the Tuvan borders, taking the sounds and culture of the group's home all over the globe.

But the musicians also brought a lot back with them. And the new album, 'Ancestors Call,' showcases the many things the band absorbed along the way. The ongoing journey has seen the group collaborate with the Bulgarian woman's choir Angelite and, on a recent album, ' Eternal,' team with Los Angeles electronica artist Carmen Rizzo. It has worked with classical chamber groups and avant-garde jazz ensembles such as the Moscow Art Trio. It has shared stages and studios with groups playing music from cultures far and wide, including an electrifying double bill in L.A. early this year with Tuareg nomad trance blues troupe Tinariwen. And the album was recorded in the famed Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif., with Japanese open-eared producer Kojiro Umezaki and HHT's adventurous Russian co-manager/co-producer Vladimir Oboronko directing the project.

All that comes into play on 'Ancestors Call' but not in obvious ways and never really explicitly. Rather, it's been incorporated into the already-strong fabric of the music, still made entirely with just the group's traditional acoustic instruments and always head-turning throat singing, hauntingly combining guttural growls with simultaneous overtones.

Making the point clearly is a new version of 'Chyraa-Khoor,' revisited and reworked, along with other HHT favorites on the album, with all the things that have come to the group in its journeys.

In this setting, it's almost chamber music, though without losing the rustic edge that fueled the band's first recording of the song, which (with the alternate spelling, "Chiraa-Khoor") can be heard on the 1994 album 'The Orphan's Lament.'

It's still the same song, Tyulyush stresses. "But there are more things from the outside," he says. "I don't know how to say it. In traveling around the world, working in many festivals, concerts with Indian musicians, Irish musicians, many, many bands, we hear many rhythms from around the world. I think we are feeling more rhythms."

And yet, he says, it's very much the work of the four individuals who mesh as Huun Huur Tu, string-instrument player Sayan Bapa and percussionist Alexey Saryglar rounding our the group. As the new guy, joining in 2006, Tyulyush brought in deep exposure to Tuvan traditions, having been raised in a small village near the Mongolian border in a family of throat singers and musicians. But he also arrived with the accumulated sensibilities from conservatory training and stints in rock and jazz bands. It's in Huun Huur Tu, though, that he's learned to integrate it all into a sound that is truly Tuvan.

"These guys stay very strong with the music," he says. "I learned many things, how to play the instruments, how to play melody. I know how to play, but I listen to the other guts, Kaigal-ool and how his voice is, Alexey and Sayan, for me these guys are teachers. They help me understand Tuvan traditions, how to play old music and play classical music. To travel around the world there's more open air for me."

The classical and avant-garde experience can be heard strongly in the swooping glissandi and elongated melodic lines of the new version of 'The Orphan's Lament,' another longtime staple:

That matches nicely with their work with Russian composer Vladimir Martynov on the ambitious concurrent audio-visual project 'Children of the Otter,' for which HHT was placed with a chamber orchestra, each to some extent adapting the playing styles of the other.

And listen to several other songs on 'Ancestors Call,' and it's hard not to hear the kind of twitchy rhythms or spacey ambiance of the electronica collaborating with Rizzo. Again, all this on the new album is done with the group's traditional acoustic tools.

Arguably, it's a reverse process of the more familiar path. For centuries, classical composers have incorporated folk styles and melodies into their more formal contexts. And in recent times, electronica artists have sampled traditional music to give their sounds "exotic" edges. With 'Ancestors Call,' traditional musicians have woven elements of classical and electronica into their approach.

And again, it's not a calculated move but an organic one, says Oboronko.

"My strong impression is this has just evolved over the years," he says. "I don't think any musician or anyone involved in the production had this idea of 'Let us show you guys what we can do with the influences of electronica and chamber music and jazz.' I was sort of thinking of that, but it was for them to perform and not for me to guide them. And they did it. I think it's an accumulated result of collaborations and thinking about music over the years."

Not that he wasn't above tweaking things to bring all this out. Once more, 'Chyraa-Khoor' provides the example.

"Two or three years ago, I'm listening again and again to their performances on tour and blown away how that song sounds," he says. "God, Philip Glass, the most famous minimalist composer, would kill to have this arrangement and music. I told them after that this is amazing."

And he also told Umezaki, a noted shakuhachi player and composer who has performed with Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, when they were working on the album.

"So we did 12 mixes, improving the sound every step," he says. "I said I really want 'Chyraa-Khoor' to sound like a modern piece, and I think it worked out. But we didn't force Huun Huur Tu's music into anything. Just highlighted the most interesting aspects of the music as we were understanding it."

Now they just need the horseman from 'Chyraa-Khoor' to give this music a name.

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