The three musicians who performed to a standing room only crowd in Whitefish Bay Friday night from the ancient Oriental land of the Mongols could just as well have been the three biblical wise men:
Regally dressed in robes and fancy headdress, they appeared as three kings of the Orient. Gifts of beautiful music they bore and certainly they traversed afar. Even in the western sky there were not one, but two “yonder stars” to follow…to the Richards Elementary School cafeteria
East met west and ancient music was introduced to a future generation Friday in the form of xöömei, the Tuvan art of singing multiple pitches simultaneously - also known as throat singing. This unusual convergence of sound and audience occurred at this most unlikely suburban locale.
Alash is an ensemble of some of the most talented practitioners of Tuvan throat singing. They had traveled many thousands of miles from one of the world’s most desolate outposts in southern Siberia to perform at a school a block away from my home. I figured if they could make their way from the Tuva Republic, a place with no railroads, only one airport which offered intermittent service and three roads in (one paved, two often shut down by snow fall and avalanches), then the least I could do was hoof it one block and plop myself in a chair to listen.
The aural art they produced was phenomenal. Alash has evolved from their ancestral inspirations by combining modern influences such as Sun Ra into Tuva’s traditional music. Their vocal stylings are complex and are true musical instruments. Their musical instruments on the other hand are simple, yet create complex sounds. Together the voices and the instruments evoke imagery that clearly bring the past to the present and Tuvan culture, history and tales to a student cafeteria in suburban Milwaukee.
The vocals, which are most unusual to western ears, garner most of the attention. Bady-Dorzhu Ondar’s low, rumbling style of throat singing called Kargyraa was the highlight of the performance. The former child prodigy captured the hearts of the packed audience much as he did almost 20 years ago as a nine year old on the short lived Chevy Chase Show. Bady also played the igil, a traditional Tuvan stringed instrument, and a western guitar with the skill of his hero, Jimi Hendrix. Bady, a multi-instrumentalist, even strapped on a Russian byan (an accordion) for one song.
Ayan Shirizhik drove the rhythm of the ensemble’s folk songs on the kengirge, a large goat-skinned drum of Tibetan Buddhist origin, and shynggyrash – a jingle bell made of horse tackle. Ayan’s talent on the murgu, a no-holed flute made from the stalk of the angelica plant was remarkable. The percussion specialist showed his talent on this endblown overtone instrument by creating a variety of tones without the aid of holes normally associated with flutes.
The ensemble’s third member on hand for the performance, Ayan-ool Sam, also provided vocals and played the doshpuluur, a three stringed plucked instrument, much like a banjo.
As wonderful as the music was, the highlight was the amazing melding of old and new and strange and familiar. The musicians performed on a low stage in the cafeteria, while dressed in traditional Tuvan garb. Literally at the musicians’ feet, sitting on the steps to the stage, were dozens of young Whitefish Bay children, some enraptured, some bemused, with the sound and appearance of these virtuosos who had travelled from afar.
The audience was starkly homogenous as Whitefolks Bay lived up to its derisive stereotyping moniker with young, white professional dads and well coiffed moms who had their kids in tow. The exception in the crowd was Sveta, the Tuvan wife of the ensemble’s manager, , who gave the crowd a dose of diversity along with their children. Quirk, who is responsible for bringing this world treasure to Whitefish Bay took the stage to introduce the musicians, when his two-year old son Shomaadyr made a run for the stage. Sveta intercepted the stage invasion, which accentuated the show’s intimacy and seemed to connect the appreciative crowd with the performers early on.
Unfamiliar with the songs, at times the audience wasn’t sure when to applaud. It reminded me of the beginning of Ravi Shankar’s famous 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. Norah Jones’ father and Ali Akbar Khan opened by tuning their instruments for 90 seconds. The audience, believing they had just heard the opening number burst into applause leading to Shankar’s famous opening remarks: "Thank you, if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more." Shankar and Khan then played a 17-minute rāga.
Alash performed both original and traditional songs whose subject matter ranged from Tuvan history, to reindeer herding to lost love. All the music was well received, but perhaps none as well as the classic humorous song Dynggyldai off the group’s self titled CD. Quirk introduced the song about a relationship gone bad and translated the signature line of the lyrics which has the woman saying exasperatedly
“whatever am I going to do with him? He can’t be traded or exchanged. Now if he were a knife and flint, there might be some dealing to be done.”
The deal that Quirk has done to bring Alash to America, and Whitefish Bay in particular, is one that has certainly been a good one for the locals. Alash is now off on a tour of the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states. Their US popularity has been spurred in recent years by their appearance with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on their Grammy Award winning CD “Jingle All the Way”.
I strongly recommend that you pick up one of their CDs online and if you’re not able to make the journey to Tuva, make sure that next time they’re in Whitefish Bay, you make to see these remarkable musicians and carriers of culture.