“If you haven’t heard Tuvan throat singing — although you probably have if you’re here — you’re in for a treat,” she said.
The Republic of Tuva, located between Mongolia and Siberia and a member of the Russian Federation, is home to a distinct musical tradition with a style of singing that allows the singer to produce between two and four tones simultaneously, to moving effect. All three members of Alash — Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, and Ayan Shirizhik — are master throat singers. Alash formed in 1999 when the trio were college students, and they set about merging their traditional music with Western influences they loved. Alash’s first U.S. tour was in 2006, and since then the band has collaborated with several U.S. outfits, from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to the Sun Ra Arkestra.
On this tour, Alash was going alone from city to U.S. city, though not without help along the way.
Sam Moth started off the evening with a set of her original material, which married glitchy digital percussion to a startlingly serene harmonic soundscape to create music that both soothed and surprised. Armed with only a laptop of backing tracks, Moth held the audience with the inventiveness and emotionality of her material, the strength of her singing, and her commitment to the material.
She moved from song to song with no banter in between, and whatever conversations might have been happening in the back of the room when she began were soon quieted. The people in the room listened with attention, only breaking the silence to applaud.
Alash took the stage to even more raucous cheers from the near-capacity crowd. Shirizhik served as emcee during the band’s set, explaining with obvious humor that “we will sing to you songs about rivers, mountains, horses, and girls.”
For someone who had perhaps never heard Tuvan music before, the closest entrée might be the blues. The rhythms are in some sense familiar, as are the pentatonic scales the music often uses. But the texture of the instruments is different — all three turned out to be multi-instrumentalists across a range of Tuvan instruments as well as guitar — and very little can prepare Western ears for the sound of the singing itself. In Alash’s hands, the sound of Tuva was heavy, vast, deeply groovy, and hypnotic.
As the set continued, the band revealed the breadth of its musicianship. A solo piece by Sam held the audience rapt, as he first played only a jaw harp, exploring the wide range of that simple instrument, before proceeding to use it to accompany himself singing.
Along the way there were opportunities for cross-cultural connection and camaraderie, as when Shirizhik announced that the musicians in Alash were fans of Johnny Cash. To introduce another song — this one about a river — Shirizhik asked what the name of the biggest river in Connecticut is.
“Connecticut!” someone from the audience yelled out.
“Ohhh,” Shirizhik said, smiling and nodding his head, in an I-should-have-guessed sort of way. The audience laughed.
The music seemed to deepen as the set drew to a close; the audience got quieter and quieter with each song, and the applause afterward got louder and louder. At last Shirizhik announced that they would play one more. The crowd was having none of it.
“We close at 6 a.m. on Thursday,” called Fernando Pinto, the promoter who had organized Alash’s visit to Cafe Nine. The band smiled and played what could have been its final number. But a standing ovation brought the band back to the stage for an encore.
“One more song,” Shirizhik said with a grin, “about horses.”