To me, until a few weeks ago, Tuvan throat singing was a passing reference in an American sitcom. But since then, I have had the opportunity to read about Central Asia as part of an internship that I am doing and also Coursera’s third lecture on World Music.
As I learnt more about this obscure land to the South of Siberia, as Richard Feynman referred to it in a BBC documentary, I found it more and more fascinating. One of the striking things I learnt during this week’s lecture is that there are different ways to listen to music. I have unconsciously referred to this while slowly moving away from the film music that’s ubiquitous in India to western rock and pop during my school years. There, the difference I found was in the excessive importance that is paid in India to the actual singing than the music that accompanies. In the western world on the other hand, critically acclaimed musicians like Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash are acknowledged for their insightful lyrics and music composition rather than their singing.
The language is seldom a barrier when there is feeling in the music. One band that I have adored over the years is the Israeli band, Orphaned Land that judiciously combines Jewish folk music with elements of progressive death metal. There are plenty of Latin American musicians that receive world-wide attention, even in non-Spanish speaking nations because of the ‘groove’ that is inherent in their music that all people can relate to. That is why world music as a genre is successful. It uses the marketability of western music and combines it with the uniqueness of ethnic elements.
One key aspect of the Tuvan tradition of music was highlighted in the documentary ‘Genghis Blues’. It was said that Tuvans appreciate the polyharmonic tones in their music rather than the normal melody. It is even audible in their musical instruments especially the byzaanchy that uses a bow to draw across the upper and lower strings of the instrument at the same time. For musical traditions like these, live shows can be difficult as the audience may fail to grasp the concept. In such cases, mediation is necessary. The Huun-Huur Tu concert at CalTech in 2008 is a perfect example of such a concert. Alash Ensemble has also done a very good job in imparting information on the Tuvan tradition on their website.
The CalTech concert reminded me of a series of concerts conducted by SPIC MACAY to raise awareness about the two major schools of classical music in India. I have been lucky enough to attend a few of these concerts and I certainly had a greater appreciation for Carnatic and Hindustani traditions of classical music since then. So, I would advocate a similar process in order for ethnic music to be more appreciated in the world.
Collaborations with popular musicians are the best way to raise awareness about ethnic elements but there is always the possibility of dilution in the emotion and the quality of the ethnic composition of the music in order to make the albums more saleable. A perfect example is that of the Kongar-ol Ondar album, ‘Back Tuva Future’. The songs did not feature the traditional fundamental monotone along with overtones, instead, it was chord progression as in a western melody and some Tuvan elements thrown in to fit the genre of ‘world music’.