Global Voices-International House to host Tuvan Throat Singing Ensemble

Global Voices Metcalf Fellow

On Tuesday, May 1, International House at the University of Chicago (U of C) will host the Alash Ensemble, a throat-singing ensemble hailing from the Tuva Republic in southern Siberia. This performance will showcase the vocal and instrumental talents of band members Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, and Ayan Shirizhik, while introducing audience members to the unique complexities of the Tuvan throat-singing tradition. In order to better understand the details of xöömei, the throat-singing technique, and the unique repertoire of Alash, the Global Voices Journalism Team spoke with Dr. Kağan Arık, the Ayash Lecturer in Modern Turkish and Turkic languages as well as in Uzbek and Central Asian Studies, and a friend of the ensemble. He has helped bring the ensemble to the U of C community since 2006, where they have performed in a variety of venues including International House, Bond Chapel and Fulton Hall.

This concert will serve as an unparalleled introduction to the practice of throat-singing, in which a vocalist creates, “a fundamental note and then creates secondary notes which can be modulated–experts can do at least three,” Arik explains, “it requires an incredible amount of control”. While this fundamental note is droning, the modulated note creates a melody–when the two are produced simultaneously a multi-tonal song is generated. This unique practice originated with the nomadic herdsmen of Central Asia and became integrated into the Shamanistic rituals of the Turkic and Mongol people, ranging from Mongolia to Bashkiria in the Ural Mountains. “It’s a form of music that not only describes nature abstractly but it very concretely produces the sounds of nature itself. There are certain aspects of throat singing that sound like the wind or that sound like water, like a stream. It’s very natural–and because it’s very natural, it’s also very spiritual. In the Shamanic system, there is no such thing as ‘supernatural,’ everything is natural, the spirit world is natural–everything is animated by the same spirit.”

Though the Shamanistic element of throat-singing is perhaps no longer as predominant as it once was, the artistic value of the style remains immensely valuable for the Tuvan people. Arik remarks, “it’s emblematic of the vocal arts of Tuva” and is beautifully exemplified in the musical stylings of Alash. In addition to employing the traditional vocal throat-singing techniques of xöömei, the ensemble is skilled in a variety of classical Tuvan instruments including the igil and the doshpuluur, two instruments which resemble lutes, the kengirge, a large drum, and the murgu, a flute-like device, among others. Together, these vocal and instrumental performances offer an authentic depiction of the Tuvan musical heritage. The classical skill of Alash has been recognized both in their own home of Tuva and internationally, with the ensemble winning first prize in Tuva’s International Xöömei Symposium competition in 2004 and band members Bady-Dorzhu Ondar and Ayan-ool Sam winning the prestigious “Golden Throat of Tuva” titles in 2007 and 2015, respectively.

Although the group remains faithful to the artistic heritage and musical practices of Tuva, they have also sought to incorporate contemporary elements that “mesh well with the sound and feel of traditional Tuvan music” without compromising the artistic integrity of their musical roots. Notably, they have incorporated both the guitar and accordion into their repertoire, blending them seamlessly with the staple instruments of the Tuvan classical tradition. Moreover, they have collaborated extensively with other artists to create unique fusions of musical styles. The ensemble has worked and toured with American beatbox artist Shodekeh. “Everywhere they go, they’ve connected with local musicians,” explains Arik.

Their upcoming concert at International House will allow both the U of C campus and the wider Hyde Park community to experience the authentic, yet refreshingly innovative group first hand. Arik anticipates that Alash will provide the audience with a sampling of four to five throat-singing techniques and demonstrations of the various instruments. Additionally, this performance will allow for an enhanced understanding of the importance of nature in Tuvan culture and how natural sounds influence its musical traditions.

The Alash Ensemble Concert will take place on Tuesday, May 1st at 7:00PM in the International House Assembly Hall. A reception with the musicians will precede the performance at 6:30PM, when doors open. This event is free and open to the public, however donations will be accepted at the door.

The Alash Ensemble Concert is presented by the International House Global Voices Performing Arts Series, the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies, the Central Asian Studies Society, WHPK 88.5 FM, the Committee on Central Eurasian Studies, EthNoise! and Genki Kai. For more information about other Global Voices events and co-sponsorship opportunities, or for persons with disabilities who may require assistance, please contact Mary Beth DeStefano at (773)753-2274 or