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Alash - Achai (Smithsonian Folkways)

Newcomers to Tuvan throat singing might at first feel slightly alienated by its harsh guttural tones - think Tom Waits after swallowing a pneumatic drill with the on switch pressed - but once you imagine those vocal affectations as musical instrumentation, it all becomes infinitely more palatable. I first became aware of this style of singing through a Frank Zappa documentary, whose televised soiree, filmed just prior to the legendary musician's death, saw purveyors of this particular style jamming with Frank, members of the Chieftains and Johnny Guitar Watson amongst others (that must've been a good night) and the sound of those voices seems to have stuck with me. 

The three Tuvan musicians known as Alash, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik, treat this tradition with respect, dedicating this album to Kongar-ool Ondar, the father of a generation of throat singers, with the title ACHAI, which is Tuvan for 'father'.  Despite the highly idiosyncratic singing style being an integral part of this record, there are some fine moments of standard singing, together with some beautifully delicate instrumentation courtesy of the two-stringed Igil or 'horsehead fiddle', the Doshpuluur (Tuvan lute), the Xomus (mouth harp), as well as accordion and flute, together with some surprising beatboxing courtesy of special guest Shodekeh, the Baltimore-based beatboxer. If at first you don't succeed with Tuvan throat singing, then try again, it can be most rewarding.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky