ALASH – Achai (Smithsonian Folkways SWF 40578)

AchaiFor the geographically challenged – and I include myself – the Tuvan Republic is an independent area of Siberia bordering Mongolian and Kazakhstan. It’s traditional music is based around throat singing with stringed or blown instruments and percussion and Alash are a trio of musicians: Ayan Shirizhik, and Bady-Dorzhu Ondar and Ayan-ool Sam. Achai is dedicated to Kongar-ool Ondar, regarded as the father of Tuvan music in the modern era and is the group’s third album but their first studio recording.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: he’s finally lost it, but wait. Firstly, Achai is very entertaining and secondly, the music doesn’t exist in isolation. Alash have travelled widely and absorbed much. You could replace the words of the opener, ‘Oglumba’, with American lyrics and a have a perfectly serviceable blues. Later, they are joined by a beatboxer from Baltimore who manages to capture something of the feeling of throat singing blending with Shirizhik’s flute and Ondar’s accordion.

Tuvan throat-singing is a complex subject. It consists of five styles but they are difficult to pick out as some present as drones while ezengileer sounds like soft percussion and the styles can be combined. Easier to identify is xöömei, a deep, resonant sound that is Ondar’s forte. He can sound a bit like Tom Waits at his most incomprehensible but with a much cleaner, crisper sound. Actually, that really doesn’t do him justice but it’s as close as I can get. Sam’s solo ‘Igil/Xöömei’ is an extraordinary mixture of techniques and the trio mix it up further on ‘My Throat, The Cuckoo’.

The vocals contrast with the delicate flutes made from natural materials easily found in the forests and the plains and the rolling string drones reminiscent of some African guitarists – Ali Farka Touré springs to mind. Words are inadequate to describe Alash’s sound – you really have to hear it for yourself.

Dai Jeffries

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