Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Winter in Western Massachusetts

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?

Huun-Huur-Tu

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: What does it sound like?
A: NPR has done a couple of pieces on Khöömei and Huun-Huur-Tu recently – A Musical Trip to the Mongolian Steppes, and The Art of Tuvan Throat Singing. Check them out.

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: How do I learn to sing khöömei?
A:Steve Sklar has a bunch of lessons available online for purchase. Dan Bennet offers his advice on a FAQ on the Friends of Tuva site.

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.

5 Responses to “Winter in Western Massachusetts”

  1. andy carvin says:

    I wanted to see them a few days ago in Somerville, but learned about the concert too late. What a bummer. I saw HHT the first time almost 15 years ago in Chicago; an ethnomusicologist stuck around after the show to teach people the basics. Even today, whenever I want to irritate my wife, I break out into a loud, hoarse drone and try to hit a few harmonics (usually I fail, though). Putting your tongue in the position to make an exaggerated “L” sound often helps. Fun with oral acoustics!

  2. Kate says:

    Many things to love bout Western MA… and the chance to hear such music, an the 400 people who came to hear it, are right up there! Are horsehead fiddles made of bone? I wonder how the resonance changes.

  3. Danny Yee says:

    Hey, someone on my blogroll has visited Mongolia! I was there last summer – http://danny.oz.au/travel/mongolia/

  4. Sean Williford says:

    Despite the lack of long, cold winters in the Bay Area, HHT have a huge following out here as well. Unfortunately, they are not playing the Great American Music Hall this time through. There’s nothing like listening to resonant cowboy music in an

    Some might ascribe this enthusiasm for throat singing to a general NorCal affinity for ethnic novelty, along the lines of ‘if it’s weird, and it’s ethnic, it’s gotta be good’. Personally, I used to like to practice overtone singing while commuting on 101. I got some great resonance off of the windshield…

  5. gm says:

    Very interesting. I can’t say that it sounds like fun though. Other than work you couldn’t get me out of the house.

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