Russian Band Brings Original 'Throat Singing' To the West

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE band's lead vocalist places a visitor's hand onto his stomach, then his chest, and finally his throat. Each part of his body gently rumbles as he sings, producing a vocal music few have ever heard in the West.

Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, a resident of Tuva, a Russian republic bordering Mongolia, can sing two and even three notes simultaneously in an eerie technique called throat singing.

''Throat singing has different sound sources,'' he explains before a concert here. ''Some sounds come from the stomach, others from the chest, and others vibrate across the throat.''

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The result produces a canvas of sound that defies Western notation. For example, a style called khoomei mixes a deep wandering drone tone with pulsating chirping sounds many octaves above that sometimes resemble a fife. Other sounds attempt to emulate birds, horses, and other wildlife encountered in daily Tuvan life on the Siberian steppe.

''These guys are great,'' Howie Luckman says after swaying enthusiastically throughout a performance at the avant-garde Knitting Factory. ''I felt like I was going back-and-forth in time.''

Mr. Luckman, a doctor, says he dreams of producing these exotic tones. ''I'm planning to go to that part of the world for a while,'' he says, mentioning next summer as his target date. ''I'd like to play my bongos with these guys.''

He is not alone in his aspiration to learn Tuvan music. Andrew Seidenfeld, a music publicist, has provided professional services to Khovalyg's band, Huun-Huur-Tu, free of charge in recent weeks, asking only for private singing lessons in return.

''If I get lessons from them, it is much more meaningful for me than however many hundreds of dollars I would have gotten,'' says Mr. Seidenfeld, who is not shy about demonstrating his still developing technique. ''My throat singing has progressed nicely.''

Sensing this growing interest during their third American tour in the past three years, Huun-Huur-Tu plans to offer traveling seminars on its music. The group may also open a school in New York to give month-long courses.

''We already know a mass of people who want to learn,'' Sasha Bapa, the band's drummer, says in Russian. ''Perhaps Americans are tired of their [own] music, they just haven't heard anything new. This is new for them.''

If anyone is in a position to capitalize on a nascent popularity of throat singing in the West, it is Huun-Huur-Tu. The group has recently released its second album, the Orphan's Lament, and has even made an appearance on MTV.

''In Russia nobody knows us,'' Mr. Bapa says, blaming the current popularity of dance and pop tunes there. ''People know us better in America, where they love different music.''

A two-month tour that ended recently was well received across the United States, and a how-to seminar in a New York studio brought together an enthusiastic group.

About 40 people showed up and practiced throat singing with the masters; a few of the newcomers even showed signs of promise.

''There's no special secret to throat singing,'' Bapa says. ''Every person has the same physical characteristics, so it is possible.''

Still, the members of Huun-Huur-Tu say that true mastery of throat singing will probably remain largely limited to Tuvans, Tibetans, and a few other peoples who have long practiced it. ''Just as American blacks are best at singing soul,'' Bapa says, ''to really learn throat singing you have to live in Tuva for 40 years.''

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