Tuva is a tiny, culturally distinct Central Asian region, and a member of the Russian Federation. But centuries ago, before Tuva was colonized not only by Russia but also by China and Mongolia, it was part of a vast Turkic empire that stretched throughout Central Asia. The Turks developed a writing system and extensive literature, yet in Tuva, which sits to the west of Khakassia and to the north of Mongolia, oral traditions took precedent. Shamans told stories of people turning to stone, which perhaps helped explain ancient stone figures erected much earlier. In the 19th and 20th centuries, when colonizers began to till Tuvan soil for the first time, this was considered taboo, as the earth was sacred. However, one of the most important ways a person could not only connect with nature but also simply survive in an often harsh landscape was through music. To this day, traditional Tuvan music leaves open space so that nature might be able to come in and add its own elements to the conversation.
Overtone or "throat" singing, with its low, suspended grumbles and high-pitched near-whistles, is unique to Mongolia and Tuva. It also dates back centuries, and serves as a prize example of how people, surrounded by powerful natural reminders of their own insignificance, used the skill of diaphonicsemitting two or more overtones simultaneouslyto invoke spirits or imitate sounds found in nature. The igil is a wooden two-stringed fiddle that dates back at least 1,000 years. Because of its swooping lower register and the often swaying, suspended way in which it is played, it has been a perfect accompaniment to overtone singing. Also used are the three-stringed, plucked chanzy, a mouth harp known as the khomus and a shaman's flat drum, the dungur. The khomus, typically called the Jew's harp, makes a springy sound that no doubt helped Tuvans to imitate the splash of water onto rocks.
Until recent years, the music of the Tuvans was indisputably a solo effort, emphasizing timbre and harmonics over rhythm. It served several functions. Shamans used music to call upon spirits, conjure ancestors, discover birthplaces and connect with natural surroundings. Historically, shamans played a flute, known as the shoor, to attract spirits for hunters. Shepherds also used music to herd animals and imitate the galloping of horses. They sang certain songs while riding and played other music while working or relaxing. In this way, the largely nomadic people of earlier Tuva created sounds not to be analyzed in Western terms; it was designed for specific ways of being.
Though Tuva didn't formerly become part of the Soviet Union, at the instigation of Tuvan communists, until the mid-1940s, it had been a Russian Satellite since 1917. With this increasing Soviet influence, traditional music suffered horribly. As early as the '30s, instruments were burned and singing was banned. When music was finally allowed again, with Tuva's induction into the Soviet Union, it was highly controlled. State-sponsored ensembles played a pseudofolk music, borrowing sounds and dances from the traditional cultures and mixing them with that of the controlling regime. (Three-fourths of the Tuvan traditional quartet, Huun-Huur-Tu, came from backgrounds in these Soviet ensembles.) This then became the only way a Tuvan could legally make music until 1992, when the communist bloc collapsed, though Tuva has remained a part of the Russian federation.
Yet Tuvan traditional music never really died. An area this remote, isolated and often treacherous, with steep mountains and temperatures sometimes reaching 60 below, couldn't be fully restrained. However, the growth of cities because of communism certainly brought irreparable changes to Tuvan music. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Yat-Kha, a band led by Albert Kuzevin, which blends xoomei-style throat singing with electric instrumentation and an increasing emphasis on Western rock 'n' roll, something the band's album of rock covers, Re-Covers, makes apparent. Also, Huun-Huur-Tu, though relying largely on ancient Tuvan folk music, plays as a quartet instead of solo. Over the years its albums have shown a constant sonic updating as well, as songs became more contemporary and the instrumentation came to include synthesizer to go along with the igil and dungur. Meanwhile, the eerie, metallic rock 'n' roll rumblings of Haranga and Hurd became popular in Tuva and Mongolia in the late '80s and early '90s.
But perhaps the best example of what has happened to the region's music as a result of not only Soviet control but also of Western influence is Alash, a group of Tuvans who learned Western notation on stringed instruments that were hybridized versions of traditional ones. Influenced as much by Sun Ra and Jimi Hendrix as the music of their homeland, Alash has incorporated overtone singing, which the musicians learned from master vocalist Kongar-ool Ondar, into a more naturally schizophrenic fusion, subsequently pushing Tuvan music into the future. These stylistic shifts are inevitable, but no doubt Tuva's high plateaus and yurt-dwelling herders will guarantee the survival of what started out as music, not for audiences, but for the sake of communion. Bruce Miller