I know you’ve been asking yourself: Just what do those crazy folks in Western Massachusetts do for fun during those long, cold winters? We build gers, of course, and the occasional outdoor hot tub. But mostly we wait for exciting cultural events that force us out of our warm homes into the teeth of the cold wind. And what gets Western Mass people to hop in their pickup trucks and Priuses and drive all the way to the Pioneer Valley?
Khöömei, of course! Tuvan throat singinging!
And not just any Tuvan throat singers – the Tuvan supergroup, Huun-Huur-Tu! Not just Kaigal-ool Khovalyg – featured in the documentary Ghengis Blues – but also Sayan Bapa, Andrey Mongush and Alexei Saryglar!
I really thought I was the only Khöömei fan in the 413 area code. I couldn’t have been more wrong – the concert sold out weeks in advance, filling the three-hundred seat Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls, MA. For the dozens of folks who showed up without tickets, Hill Town Folk sold standing room only tickets, filling the aisles and balcony stairs with Khöömei devotees.
(I talked my father-in-law, a Texan, into attending by telling him that the Tuvans sang cowboy music. Which is, in fact, true. Most Tuvan music was composed to be sung on horseback, and Saryglar accompanies most songs with a hoofbeat rhythm… played on a pair of actual horse hooves. These Tuvans are all about keeping it real…)
I wore my best Mongolian camelhair vest, figuring I’d show off my central Asian street cred. Standing by the table where the band was selling CDs, a tall dude asked me, “Where’d you get the vest?” Figuring I’d impress him, I said, “Ulaanbaatar. The capital of Mongolia.” Unfased, he said, “Yeah, I know that. I meant, what store did you buy it in? I saw a couple guys in UB wearing them and thought I’d pick one up the next time I was in town.” Turns out he’s lived in eastern Mongolia for the past seven years as a wildlife biologist and will be heading back when the weather warms up a bit…
The entire town was filled with throat singing enthusiasts. Eating dinner before the show, the table next to ours started singing Sygyt, the high “flute” style of overtone singing. It’s one of those rare moments in life when I’ve felt bad about myself because I can sing only one note at the same time…
Just in case you’re not from Western Mass, a couple of questions and answers about Khöömei:
Q: What’s Khöömei?
A: It’s a gorgeous style of singing where the singer creates a drone tone and shapes his or her mouth to emphasize overtones, sounding a second or third note. Some styles, like Sygyt, create a high tone above the drone. Others, like Kagyraa, create a deep bass tone. Khöömei can be performed acapella, or with drums and horsehead fiddles.
Q: Where’s Tuva?
A: Just to the northwest of Mongolia, slightly south of Siberia. Tannu Tuva was an independent republic for about twenty years, then joined the Soviet Union. It’s currently part of Russia.
Q: Why do so many people know about Tuva?
A: Richard Feynman. The brilliant – and batshit crazy – physicist helped found an organization called Friends of Tuva, which is dedicated to the appreciation of this lovely land. Friends of Tuva helped send blind bluesman Paul Pena to Tuva to compete in a Khöömei competition – this was documented in the documentary Genghis Blues.
Q: Just how long does winter last out there in Western MA?
A: A long, long time. Last year, it snowed on June 1st. Lots of time to learn how to sing khöömei. Or write bizarre, off-topic blog posts.