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Members of the Alash Ensemble — Ayan Shirzhik, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam — in Tuva, the Central Asian country whose traditional music provides the basis for the group’s repertoire. The ensemble performs Friday, Aug. 17 in Brattleboro.

The Arts

Full throated

Alash Ensemble blends sounds old and new in Tuvan throat singers' return to BMAC

Tickets for Alash are $20 in advance, $25 at the door ($5 discount for BMAC members), and are available at www.brattleboromuseum.org or by calling 802-257-0124, ext. 101. BMAC is located in Union Station in downtown Brattleboro at the intersection of Main Street and Routes 119 and 142. For more information, call 802-257-0124.

BRATTLEBORO—The award-winning Alash Ensemble is bringing their remarkable musical traditional back to Brattleboro.

Alash is a throat singing band from Tuva that performs traditional Tuvan music (albeit with some nontraditional influences). The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center will present this captivating music on Friday, Aug. 17, at 8 p.m., when this trio will give a concert in the museum’s Wolf Kahn & Emily Mason Gallery.

Tuva is a tiny Central Asian republic in southern Siberia. “It’s about the size of Wisconsin, my home state,” says Alash’s manager and interpreter, Sean Quirk, an American scholar and musician.

According to its 2010 census, Tuva has a population of around 300,000. A majority of the population are ethnic Tuvans who speak Tuvan as their native tongue.

“Tuva has produced a unique and fantastic kind of vocal music,” Quirk says.

As BMAC’s news release explains, “Tuva is home to one of the world’s most remarkable indigenous musical traditions. Historically, nomadic herdsmen engage in a style of throat singing whereby individual singers produce two or more notes simultaneously, often a low drone and a high-pitched melody or other-worldly vocal effects not found in Western music.”

“Tuvan vocal music is most striking for its use of the voice, which is different from anything most Americans are likely to have heard,” Quirk explains. “It may remind you of the sound of the flute.

“Historically, it’s very ancient. This is very old folk music. This music goes back super long, no one knows exactly how much, perhaps thousands of years. Remember that before language, man had sound and music to communicate.”

Instantly approachable

Quirk contends that while this music may sound foreign, it is instantly approachable.

“I like to call it cowboy music from the Wild East.” Quirk says with a laugh. “These traditional songs are a mixed grab bag. Some are upbeat tunes about horses and stuff, or the love of beautiful women. Others are deep and meditative.”

The musicians of Alash — Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, and Ayan Shirizhik — are masters of Tuvan throat singing. All were trained in traditional Tuvan music since childhood, first learning from their families and later becoming students of master throat singers.

The three studied at Kyzyl Arts College just as Tuva was beginning to open up to the West. When still in their teens, they formed a traditional ensemble and won multiple awards for traditional throat singing in international competitions, both as an ensemble and as individuals.

Quirk, who himself has lived in Tuva for the past 15 years and has managed Alash for 12, says, “All three musicians are still in their 30s, even though they have been playing together for almost two decades. Unlike earlier Tuvan singers (except for a very few exceptions), the members of Alash are both traditionally trained and classically trained.

“The few earlier Tuvan singers who had classical training ended up singing Western classical music, while Alash uses all its training to support the traditional folk music of Tuva.”

Alash also writes new compositions, but even these are based on the traditional folk repertoire.

According to BMAC’s news release, “what distinguishes this gifted trio from earlier generations of Tuvan throat singers is the subtle infusion of modern influences into their traditional music. One can find complex harmonies, western instruments, and contemporary song forms in Alash’s music, but it’s their overall sound and spirit that is decidedly Tuvan.

“At the same time, they paid close attention to new trends coming out of the West. They have borrowed new ideas that mesh well with the sound and feel of traditional Tuvan music, but they have never sacrificed the integrity of their own heritage in an effort to make their music more hip.”

Musical partnerships

Alash has released four CDs of their own: Alash Live at the Enchanted Garden in 2006, Alash in 2007, Buura in 2011, and Achai in 2015. They have also collaborated on numerous recordings with prominent artists.

Alash enjoys working with musicians of all stripes. For instance, they appear as guest artists on Béla Fleck & the Flecktones’ holiday CD Jingle All the Way (2008), which won a Grammy.

The Denver Post remarked, “As electrifying as the Flecktones’ performance was, the band was nearly upstaged by Alash Ensemble.”

Alash also enjoys a longstanding musical partnership with the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra, and they have collaborated with musicians across the spectrum, from country to classical to beatboxing.

“Alash tours a lot, doing maybe 30 shows a year,” Quirk says.

They first toured the U.S. under the sponsorship of the Open World Leadership program of the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since then they have returned many times, to the delight of American audiences.

Now, Alash tours the U.S. every year, playing at a variety of venues and receiving much press attention for their unique musical talents. They also conduct workshops at schools and colleges to share their music and culture with American young people.

After just completing a series of concerts in Russia, the group is now on a tour in the U.S. for seven weeks, and then will go to Canada, and after that Lithuania.

“When all this is finished, we may get a chance to chill out, unless something comes up in China,” Quirk says. “Performing this often is a lot of work, but we’ve got to do it. We’re a self-funded enterprise, any day we don’t work is one we don’t get paid.”

Alash and Quirk are happy to be returning to BMAC, where they were well taken care of by the staff of the museum the last time they performed there, especially Danny Lichtenfeld.

“Danny and I have a lot in common, such as our love of baseball, and we have become good friends,” Quirk says.

Quirk wants to exhort everyone to make an effort to see Alash perform at BMAC.

“All will have a great time,” he says. “You’ll kick yourself for missing this one.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #472 (Wednesday, August 15, 2018). This story appeared on page B3.

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